Storylines In Review


This site looks at popular storylines, covered in our various feature pages linked to the blog posts below.  
2016 Blog Posts

About This Site
An explanation of our approach and coverage.

About The Term 'Storyline' - The term ‘storyline’ is a standard one, used on the IMDB site. However, the IMDB, being user-generated content, tends to apply it as if it were a synonym for 'plot'. We're using it here to fill a gap in critical vocabulary, for what comes between genre or theme and plot, this last being a blow-by-blow account of events (as in the image at left, from the German film The Lives Of Others.). The storyline properly speaking is the story format or formula, such as 'boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl'. (Think of it as "story outline", which is how it is used in the film-tv industry, where they have 'storyliners' who contribute these outlines, with plot details added in by others.) This is the story format or formula which here we call the storyline.

Storylines are the structural basis of most popular literature and drama. They may begin as just story premises or setups, strong and distinctive enough to stand on their own, with no settled development pattern yet. However they usually come to include an overall story arc implied by the premise. The second half of our term implies such a narrative development line. The storyline is the fundamental identity of a narrative work, offering its structure and development against a set of genre expectations on the part of the reader or viewer, which have to be met, successfully varied, or challenged. What becomes known as a genre convention usually appears initially as a part of a particular storyline, migrating to other storylines as it becomes successful, even across genres. Thus an awareness of this and other possibilities is necessary for the genre to keep evolving creatively.

Storylines apply right across genres, and can take elements from another genre as part of their setup, development, or resolution. For example, the 'War Is Hell' storyline often takes for its main development act the 'Ten Little Soldiers' structure, a term which was popularised in a crime genre classic, Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians [etc] aka And Then There Were None. The setup was too contrived to be the basis of many crime stories, but the dramatic potential of an inexorable sequence of deaths proved useful outside a country-house setting, when applied to the more realist context of wartime front-line activity. Here, a similar-sized group such as an infantry patrol behind enemy lines get whittled down one by one, each in a different way, until all or nearly all are dead.
In the pair of illustrations at left [hover mouse to see 2nd rollover image], guests arrive at 'Soldier Island' in the 2015 BBC1 version of Christie's And Then There Were None, while the opening shot of They Were Expendable (1945) shows the protagonists' military unit, a US Navy squadron of 6 PT boats, on the eve of Pearl Harbour. This is the only time we see the unit intact; soon there are only 5 boats, then 4, then 3, then 2, then 1, then none, each meeting a different fate (one simply vanishes, lost at sea).

Features’ - Our use of 'features' has several applications in terms of our coverage here. We have feature pages (covering the ‘featured storyline’) in several formats, with the main examples being from so-called feature films [i.e. full-length, not short]. In terms of using individual works as examples, we're using film-tv rather than literary examples as the former medium is the dominant one of our age, and pictorial illustrations are readily available, in the form of screen captures or publicity stills. (Any film stills are used under fair-use doctrine. This is a not-for-profit site, created for study purposes only.) Of course, the same storylines are also used in popular literature, where they usually developed, and often the film or tv drama is based on a novel. Hence the source novel, play is also discussed - but not unfilmed novels, plays etc as the scope of this would be impossible to cover. For identification purposes, the names of the credited scriptwriters (there are usually others involved) are given, rather than the director. (So if you’re one of those film student types who thinks every director is an auteur and the only creative person on the project worth mentioning, this is not the site for you.)
Our main site home page has links to the annual blog page, with topical blog items which are lead-ins to the various feature pages being assembled. As the labels used to identify storylines are new, there is also some discussion of the merits of particular labels, as well as the one-sentence synopses which define them in narrative terms. These blog entries may include some back-story personal commentary (e.g. as to how I came to write about the subject), which I avoid in the main feature pages. Though sometimes topical, the blog entries may be content-additions to the feature pages being built up. This saves users having to check these feature pages simply for such updates. In these cases, the entries end with a link to the relevant feature page, so the item can be read in context if desired.
In terms of our own feature-page formats, each storyline gets an introductory feature page outlining its nature, history, etc. If other pages are subsequently added, these are linked from this page. Additional coverage would be in one of the following formats:
An 'inter-title' historical review page of the storyline's development to date. (Note that 'review' is used here in the retrospective sense - as in 'review of the year' - rather than just a personal opinion.)
A 'standard-scenes' gallery page providing a breakdown of the storyline's standard scenes and other distinctive supporting motifs.
‘setting the scene’ page on a particular setting [geographical location or time setting] closely associated with the storyline.
A 'case study' gallery page with examples of key scenes.
A titles A-Z page: a listing of up to 100 titles, in alphabetical order, with basic details appended - year, alternate title, an identifying credit (usually who wrote it), a synopsis and a personal comment if the film was available for viewing, plus illustrations. (I publish the list when I have at least 50 examples, and cap it at 100 titles as compiling comprehensive lists is impractical, and unnecessary in the context.)
A 'Ten Titles For Further Study' page: 10 leading examples of the storyline suitable for further study are given, in historical order of development. These are usually influential works, or at least leading examples of their class. ('Top Ten' however would be an over-simplification.) 

Standard scenes are the building blocks of a storyline, but scene placement can never be taken for granted. Left is part of author Joseph Heller's original plan for Catch-22, pencilling-in which scene should go where, on a very large sheet of paper - the novel is presented as a nonlinear narrative.

Each storyline has its own start page, listed on our main home page. From there, you can access all existing coverage of that storyline.
The Subject Of Subs
On the reason for our choice of first storyline covered onsite.

There are dozens of storylines in existence (I already have notes on 50) but I decided to do the The ‘Submarine Mission’ storyline first up. Now you might think this is because I have some special interest in the subject of subs... but that's not it.
Despite its inherent limitations, there’s obviously a certain popular fascination here, which accounts for the subject and storyline’s longevity, with works spanning nearly a century and a half. The ageing billionaire aviation designer and movie exec Howard Hughes late in life reportedly spent every evening watching a submarine drama.
The odd thing is, it was the same film every night: he watched it obsessively (he was like that). There are various anecdotes about his fixation on this film, one being he had a 16mm print of the film run every evening in his hotel suite, or that he bought the local tv station and made them play it nightly. This was Las Vegas’s KLAS, which he bought in 1968. The story I've read, on a film forum site, is that if he fell asleep during the broadcast of a film, he phoned KLAS up and had them repeat it as a sort of video-on-demand Late Show. However this would not be just the one film, so he must have got hold of an actual print of his favourite. The studio that made it would not allow any private prints of its films - even the film’s star, who normally was contractually entitled to a print of each of his films for his home projection setup, was refused one.
But Hughes was rich enough to get his way and apparently had a home projection setup on the top floor of whatever hotel he bought. Being deaf, he played the film so loud the floor underneath had to be left vacant. The speakers and amp were so big that Hughes narrowly escaped being crushed when a quake toppled the amp. An aide's account says he ran the film over 150 times, until his staff knew the dialogue off by heart.
You may be wondering by now what film could prompt such fixation. The 1977 TV biopic The Amazing Howard Hughes, scripted by John Gay from a memoir by Hughes's business manager Noah Dietrich, ends with this. We see the tycoon, played by Tommy Lee Jones, unkempt and bed-bound, and approaching death, watching some sub drama on a 16mm projector [screenshot left]. There's a similar scene [see still above] in the later film The Aviator, written by John Logan, with diCaprio as Hughes. The sub film we see Hughes obsessively watching is not identified, but in fact it was the 1968 Ice Station Zebra … which does have its points of interest (on our shortlist of 10 films worth further study).
… But the storyline's popular fascination despite its inherent limitations is not the reason it’s the first storyline up online here. No, the reason I led with this storyline is simple, and practical: it’s limited in scope, i.e. there are not that many examples compared to other storylines. And it’s usually easy to tell if the film is eligible for coverage as it will have an image of a sub on its ad art; the title is also usually a clue. In other words, it was the relative ease of research coverage that decided me to do it first. I wanted a limited-usage storyline to try out the various planned page formats. So here we are, up first:
The 'Submarine Mission' Storyline: Introductory page
Storyline tag: #subm

Cold War On Ice 
-On Ice Station Zebra as the epitome of the ‘submarine mission’ genre
As mentioned, the ‘sub mission’ storyline has a strange fascination despite its inherent limitations, and the 1968 Ice Station Zebra seems to represent the epitome of this.
How I myself came to the film was by a different more roundabout route. I'd never seen it in the cinema, only later on a small b&w TV set, which scarcely does a Super Panavision 70 Cinerama production justice. I had always regarded it as a cardboard Alastair Maclean adventure, due to its publicity stills showing artificial-looking sets featuring polystyrene ice blocks. But then I read about Howard Hughes's fascination with it. I knew he had been involved with 1970s Cold War sub intrigues (the Glomar Explorer sub-recovery episode), but I felt there must be more to it than that. Hughes was himself once a film magnate and studio head [of RKO], and no doubt could recognize a filmic story when he saw one.
Then one of the film’s scriptwriters, by then retired, happened to be visiting the town where I was living. Harry Julian Fink was the Have Gun Will Travel TV-series writer who got into films with Sam Peckinpah’s 1965 Major Dundee, which had around 40 minutes cut out of it by its producer. (They’re character-study dialogue scenes – I found them in the film tie-in paperback novelisation.) Through a mutual acquaintance, I spoke to him on the phone about his past work. Re Ice Station Zebra, he said that he didn’t regard it as major work - as important as say, Dirty Harry, a character he originally created with his wife and scriptwriting partner Rita. But he did say he had to rewrite the story, to make the story filmic. I read the Alistair MacLean novel later, and I came to feel he was right. This was when, a few years ago, I was given the DVD by a film-club colleague with the comment “weird film”, and decided to have a close look at it, and get hold of the novel for comparison. Viewing the film in widescreen and stereo on DVD on my home-cinema setup, I began to see something of the strange fascination of these submarine screen dramas.
The submarine’s voyage north, making up the first 80 minutes of the film’s 148, culminating in their surfacing through the icecap at the intermission, is the more interesting part. Once you leave the sub for all that unconvincing polystyrene ice and snow, the film loses its grip. It isn't clear on which side several characters are, what exactly the gizmo is they’re looking for, with a head-scratching switcheroo finale. So why the fascination?
First, it’s based on real Cold War intrigues that were going on, in this case the use of the drift ice weather stations by NATO to monitor northern USSR airspace. Though this was top secret, the theory is MacLean picked up info about it from a contact (he had been in the wartime Navy). Forty years ago, it was a peak Cold War period, with regular headlines about submarines and trawlers being used for remote electronic eavesdropping, colliding, or simply going missing for reasons unknown. There had also been a 1959 incident where the Soviets retrieved a US photo-reconnaissance satellite capsule when it went off course and came down on Svalbard.
Secondly, the submarine scenes are relatively authentic, with the appeal of a “procedural” where we get an inside glimpse of how military operations work. To counter the loss of face caused by Sputnik, the US had publicised the 1958 Polar-transit voyage by the first of the new nuclear attack submarines, USS Nautilus. I remember reading the captain’s own account, Nautilus 90 North, in paperback, of how the sub negotiated its way under the icecap – just like in the film. (Some of the underwater scenes shown are real.) This was the first of the techno-thrillers of the Tom Clancy type, and it the sub’s steady northern progress suits John Sturges’s typically slow-paced direction.
Thirdly, is the unusual storytelling approach: the mission’s raison d’etre is withheld, kept secret until nearly the end. And when revealed by the Patrick McGoohan character, the actual plot device is breathtakingly cynical to the point of satire (it’s to do with the new spy-satellite technologies going wrong).
These plot points revolve around the story’s final strength, Patrick McGoohan. He plays a terse, mercurial British agent with the cover name David Jones, and the sub’s mission is to get him to Zebra for reasons known only to him. Some commentators I’ve read obviously don’t get the morbid joke behind his cover name – it’s a reference to Davy Jones’s Locker, the old mariners’ term for a deep-sea grave – which is where the USS Tigerfish nearly ends up just before the Intermission. (The original plan was to have David Niven play Jones, this being based on the idea this was a followup to The Guns Of Navarone, and would co-star Gregory Peck as the captain. Charlton Heston backed out of the captain role on the grounds the script was weak. This may have been correct as far as the captain's role went - he may have realised the Jones character was much more dynamic. (The choice of Niven seems ludicrous in context.)
There is additional interest here in terms of McGoohan’s character, as an 'Expy' or Exported Character, defined as 'a character based on a character in another series.' The film came between his two TV series, Danger Man, and its spinoff The Prisoner, where he may, or may not, be playing the same character, NATO agent John Drake. (McGoohan insisted he wasn’t, though that may have been for legal reasons; the original scenarist, George Markstein, said he was the same man. The photo seen being dropped into the filing cabinet in the titles of The Prisoner is the same photo of John Drake used over and over in Danger Man.) In fact, it’s been suggested that the reason the agent (Drake or not) resigns at the start of The Prisoner is because he blundered on the Ice Station Zebra mission! (Not to spoil it, he misreads a situation and goes for the wrong man.) On the face of it, the role is just one of those odd coincidences. Notice he carries a gun here, which his John Drake character always refused to, at McGoohan's insistence. Here, he sleeps with his gun under his pillow, and nearly uses it on the cabin-mate who wakes him. Despite his character's error of judgement, the top-billed American hero, Rock Hudson as the sub captain, saves the day. (Hudson said it was his own favourite among his films.)
It's evident the studio did not understand the quiet appeal of the storyline, which did not depend on any melodrama - you can tell this from the hyped-up official trailer, with its hilariously pointless ad-line ("Ice Station Zebra—Remember the name—Your life may depend on it!"). This was the era of Cold War paranoia that followed the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when nuclear war was narrowly averted by diplomacy. McGoohan had said going to Hollywood was “selling out,” a sentiment probably prompted by Danger Man’s backers in America, who had reworked it with new opening credits, a wailing ‘Secret Agent Man’ title song, and were pressing Lew Grade to make him more an 007-clone gun-toting playboy. (He had earlier turned down chances to audition for 007 as well as TV’s The Saint, as in his Ulster-Protestant worldview he thought the characters immoral. He had insisted to the original British producers at ITC that John Drake would not carry a gun, nor dally with the femme fatales he met on assignment.) McGoohan urgently needed money to complete The Prisoner, which he was also co-writing and producing via his own production company Everyman Films, and took the ISZ role on for cash to pay his crew.
Putting his Ice Station Zebra fee into The Prisoner allowed a total of 17 episodes to be completed (though not the promised 26 – the writers ran out of variations-on-a-theme plots). The series of course has become a cult perennial, though he himself had to flee his London home to avoid irate viewers who couldn’t understand why there was no tidy solution, only a symbolic breakout from confining authority (whoever they might be). In the end, Britain’s highest-paid TV star of 1967 went back to live in the US (he was born in NY of Irish parents), and his Everyman Films went bankrupt. He did continue to work, but stuck to his guns at least metaphorically, avoiding action-man roles and only taking quirky character roles that appealed to him. Usually these were heavies (which fit Hollywood’s penchant for using Brit actors to play the villain). Thus he basically put his prospective Hollywood star career on ice.
A friend once showed me a mid-70s snapshot of him, towering red-eyed over a family he was visiting in Montana while looking to buy a ranch as a getaway. He still had that sardonic, mercurial smile. He acknowledged he would never escape being Number Six, the agent who resigned while refusing to say why, insisting he was not a number, but a free man. “Why did you resign – from TV stardom?” a fan might ask. But there was no answer, for fans would not understand that stardom was also like The Village, what other celebrities call the Golden Cage. Be seeing you, they might say in the manner of The Village greeting, but in vain, for he had escaped his own version of The Village.
Ice Station Zebra
would be his last hurrah as an action film star, seemingly tailor-made for his established screen persona. If you don’t know what I mean, here’s a typically sardonic dialogue exchange:
Colleague: You have a distrustful character.
Jones: I have no character. I assume one.
His cynical secret-agent character in fact is ruthlessly pragmatic, and he quickly recovers from his mistake to help outwit their Soviet adversaries while avoiding a bloodbath on the icecap. The tickertape-style news feed which appears over the final shot, representing the gloss the two governments put on the situation, is a final cynical capper. Despite the misleading hype of its official trailer, Ice Station Zebra would remain the major dramatisation of the Cold War then being fought in the new frontier of the no-man's-land of the Arctic, and the part that huclear subs played in it.
"Dive Dive Dive"
-Delving Into The Depths Of The ‘Submarine Mission’ Film

As an immediate followup to our introductory page on the submarine-mission storyline, I've added a Ten Titles For Further Study page. As mentioned, I chose this storyline to go first as it seemed to have the smallest number of film-tv titles to cover. In fact, when I began, I couldn't even name ten titles of interest offhand. Nor are there a large number of examples which are, shall we say, creatively distinguished. A while back, I was given a DVD set of Season 1 of the 60s tv series Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, probably (at 110 hour-long episodes) the largest single set of sub-dramas, about which there is a certain nostalgic cult. I dutifully put the first disc in my DVD player; but I must confess a sense of relief when it wouldn’t play as it was a US import. But here are ten titles of interest for further study, as a starting point.
I also chose 'Sub mission' as first-up as it is simple and self-descriptive enough to be instantly recognisable as a storyline label. There’s an amusing anecdote about the Punk musician Johnny Rotten being asked by Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren to write a song called 'Submission' to promote McLaren’s sex-toys shop, and turning in a set of lyrics referencing a submarine mission. (If you're sceptical about this as just another apocryphal showbiz anecdote, here's the quote from his Dictionary Of National Biography entry: "Rotten did indeed prove to be ideal for the Sex Pistols, though never in the malleable way McLaren intended. For instance, when Rotten was asked to write a song called 'Submission', instead of riffing on sexual bondage as was clearly required, he strung together a raft of tongue-in-cheek aquatic metaphors around the leitmotiv of a submarine mission.")
‘Sub mission’ is certainly the best shorthand form for our storyline - says it all, really. Originally I had the 'undersea secret mission' story, then ‘submarine secret mission’ before realising that ‘secret’ is fairly superfluous given the nature of submarines. (An occupational hazard is that a navy will lose track of its own subs at sea.) As to the full-sentence definition, I’ve been veering between ‘A submarine undertakes a long-distance special mission’, ‘A submarine undertakes a hazardous special mission’ and the more detailed ‘A submarine undertakes a vital, covert, long-distance undersea mission into unfriendly waters.’ (Still working on it, if it matters.) 
Count Not The Dead: The Popular Image Of The German Submarine - Michael L. HadleyYet there seem to be no guidebooks to the sub genre, beyond a textbook on the popular image of the U-boat [pictured], and the one historical documentary I’ve come across just skims the surface, so to speak.
This is a 2010 hour-long BBC4 documentary called Dive Dive Dive. As the programme seems not to be available on BBC iPlayer, being last shown in 2013, it’s worth covering here re its historical-review take on the nature of the sub genre’s fascination and creative development. It focuses on film examples rather than tv shows, and the SF and war novels which are the source works for many of these films are ignored.
The opening goes over some of the familiar tropes - pinging sonar, tense periscope action, head-banging depth-charge explosions etc. Besides presenter Robert Llewellyn (he was Kryten in the Red Dwarf SF series), who does the location visits, we get film historian Ian Christie, Prof. Christopher Frayling, Hunt For Red October director John McTiernan and several others commenting onscreen on the clips. Like most of these cultural-review programmes nowadays which assume the attention span of a goldfish, the historical coverage jumps around in time.
The initial focus is on the Cold War (which indeed was the heyday of the submarine long-distance mission). The programme explains how the USN's Office of Information tries to ensure filmmakers get details right, without of course giving away anything secret, and how the USN puts recruiters in US cinema lobbies. The Hunt For Red October from 1990 is the first example. (Nothing is said about how author Tom Clancy had alarmed the Navy with his detailed descriptions of new technologies - how the book launched the modern techno-thriller.) A USN rep explains why the 1995 Crimson Tide was refused cooperation as it shows a mutiny aboard. (The shots of the sub on surface were unauthorised, taken from a helicopter following the real USS Alabama off Hawaii.) He also explains they try to get the actors not to behave so gung-ho onscreen as the atmosphere on a real sub is more like that of a monastery.
Then we see clips of a couple of very early films - a Melies stage fantasy and a 1916 feature of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. When it comes to the British contribution, we get repeated sarcastic remarks about plucky John Mills, who appears in several of the films. For US efforts, we get clips of Operation Pacific 1951, with a sub commanded by John Wayne machine-gunning and ramming an armed merchant Q-ship, and the satiric rom-com Operation Petticoat 1959 which a commenter says is typical of 1950s America, i.e. breast-fixated. There are clips from the 1958 Run Silent Run Deep, which Frayling says is really a parable about the appropriate style of leadership for Eisenhower's America confronting the Communist menace. It also covers Disney's first CinemaScope venture, the 1954 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, as a Cold War vision (it's implied Nemo's power source is 'atomic'), made the same year that the US launched its own Nautilus as the first nuclear sub. A clip of the 1959 On The Beach is also shown, this post-nuclear apocalypse drama having a central ‘mission’ sequence where the sub sails back to the radiation-poisoned northern hemisphere after they pick up a mysterious morse signal.
Then the genre goes into colourful sf fantasy with Fantastic Voyage (1966) and the James Bond films, specifically The Spy Who Loved Me, and into the CGI era with The Abyss, where a present-day search for a lost sub uncovers an alien presence - a high-tech modern version of 60s TV scenarios involving undersea aliens. (Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea is not mentioned, though it was a theatrical feature film before it became a hit tv series.) Finally, we visit La Rochelle sub pens to introduce the 1981 Das Boot, which is referred to as a 5-hour film (actually a TV drama serial cut down for cinema release) and acclaimed by Frayling and others as the best of genre.
The docu has one major blind spot: it doesn’t recognise the difference between one storyline and another. As with the labels western or war film, setting is all. In this case, the film obviously just has to be set aboard a sub, and the storyline is irrelevant. There are many submarine dramas where the focus is not on a mission but a disaster, a wreck, which has to be reached to rescue survivors or precious cargo. In The Abyss for example, the plot Mcguffin is a set of nuclear warheads. We can call this the ‘sub-sunk’ storyline; it's a rescue or salvage story with a stationary setting, and there may not even be a mission at all. This is another reason for covering this storyline, its lack of recognition.
As to compiling a listing of titles of interest, selecting a list of 10 titles for further study is always difficult as so many seem to be much of a muchness. In Dive Dive Dive, the 12 titles that come up for various reasons are [in chronological order] Morning Departure, Operation Pacific, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Above Us The Waves, Run Silent Run Deep, Operation Petticoat, On The Beach, Fantastic Voyage, Das Boot, The Abyss, The Hunt For Red October, Crimson Tide. The title acclaimed by guest commentator Prof. Christopher Frayling and others as the best of genre is Das Boot.
in our current list of 10 Titles For Further Study just put online, we have only 5 of these 12, plus 5 others not listed above. A 2012 listing, ‘The Best Navy Movies of All Time’, (on has 4 sub movies interspersed: Destination Tokyo (1943), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), Das Boot (1981), and The Hunt For Red October (1990). The first choice, Destination Tokyo, is interesting as it is not covered in the BBC docu yet was probably the first epic [2 hrs-plus] US sub drama, and in a bizarre meta-moment, it's shown onboard [see image left] to the crew in Operation Pacific 1951. In mid-mission the crew watch a 16mm print of Destination Tokyo, and a crewman criticizes the things those Hollywood guys do with submarines. In the final action, when they find themselves having to surface to send a radio message in the midst of the vast Japanese Leyte-gulf armada, the crewman says he will never criticize another movie. This has not stopped viewers who are obviously Navy men from criticizing, on the IMDB site, many inauthentic aspects of Operation Pacific.
However it may have begun a trend to include a film-reference scene. For example, in the 1959 The Atomic Submarine, a crewman hearing a knock on the door tells the woman he is kissing that this is probably the 'leave cancelled' scene you see in sub movies ... and he's right. Crimson Tide starts with the crew quizzing each other about sub dramas like Run Silent Run Deep and The Enemy Below. Reportedly, Quentin Tarantino worked uncredited on the script – presumably it was he who added the humorous exchange where a new sailor is challenged, as an initiation test, to name a German actor in The Enemy Below. In the 2000 version of On The Beach, the crew watch a scene from Run Silent Run Deep, which the captain says is the best sub movie ever made, though the crew already know the dialogue off by heart and chant a key line.
... More feature pages on this storyline to follow soon, again not because of any personal interest, but to do a complete set of page formats from the one storyline, to try out the various page templates.
Update #1: The feature page with a breakdown of the storyline's standard scenes is now also online:
The 'Submarine Mission' Storyline | Standard Scenes
Update #2: The storyline's Titles A-Z Page is now online, listing just under 100 examples, with writer credits, description and an illustration, from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea to Yellow Submarine:
The Submarine Mission Storyline: Titles A-Z Page.
 Autumn Break
Time for something seasonal - the 'Midwinter Crisis' storyline
I'm all submarined out at present. After researching 3 feature pages, as well as the storyline's own homepage, together with 3 linked blog posts - see above - I need to escape from submarines. The 3 other feature pages I was doing (on the storyline's most popular setting, the history-review feature-page and the case-study page) will all have to wait. As they used to say on Monty Python, time now for something completely different.... something seasonal, as winter approaches. 

I actually spent most of this past year abroad, in the Mediterranean sun. I left on Easter weekend the last week of March, and returned at the end of the season on the eve of the autumn half-term break just before Hallowe'en, after which many airline routes stop operating for the year. I'm not sure if Americans have an autumn half-term break, their autumn calendar being complicated by the all-important family-getogether of Thanksgiving. In Britain, this not officially commemorated, its inspiration the once-important Harvest Festival mentioned in Thomas Hardy novels occurring much earlier. Going by my recollection of the one time I worked on a farm and helped get the harvest in, it was late August. The timing is to get all the hay in before the first frost or the first autumn storms, like the one that wrecks the haystacks the very night of Harvest Festival in Hardy's Far From The Madding Crowd. (The 1967 version became a regular BBC Xmas film.)

That such seasonal events are still an important part of our lives is reflected in popular literature and drama, and I thought I'd cover the 'midwinter crisis' storyline next. This has a protagonist having to deal with a crisis brought on by seasonal occasions (such as a dreaded family getogether) or conditions (such as blizzards). The time-setting is usually Xmas week, but can run from Thanksgiving to Twelfth Night (and even, in one enterprising instance, the old early-February festival we now know as Groundhog Day).
Thus, 'midwinter' here should not be taken too literally. In popular literature and drama, these seasonal crises occur anytime snow and freezing temps and other symptoms of 'full-on' winter are likely. In North America, this means from Thanksgiving in late November onward, through to the first sunny days of early February, before winter retrenches, proverbially for another 6 weeks.

Around 6 weeks after the 21 Sep autumn equinox, hence nominally 6 weeks into winter, and the start of the penultimate month of November was when preparations for winter were traditionally made, such as slaughtering livestock at Martinmas [Nov 11]. While American novels, plays, films and tv dramas tend to characterise Thanksgiving in the 4th week November as the first main event of midwinter, older societies tend to mark the onset of winter midway between autumn equinox and the winter solstice, i.e. 5/6 November. (I used to teach an adult-ed course on the ancient calendar.) As this is not strictly midwinter, but more the start of it, it's not really a major setting for our storyline, but deserves some recognition here for its thematic precedents.
This relates to the clutch of holidays and festivals around early November. Calendrically, the midpoint of Nov 5th was a sacrificial bonfire festival long before it was politicised in Britain as Guy Fawkes night, as a warning against those who might blow up Parliament. ("Remember, remember the Fifth of November.") With November being the first month of winter freeze-ups, other festivals are keyed to the start of the calendar month. And as the Celts commemorated such events as the evening before the date, we get the legacy of Hallowe'en. Short for the evening of the All-Hallowstide festival of All Saints and All Souls on 1-2 November commemorating the spirits of the faithful Christian dead, Hallowe'en overlaid earlier pagan occasions like the Celtic Samhain, when the graves opened and the souls of the dead manifested as ghouls. Thus the occasion was to remember them and pray for their souls. This cult of the dead is said to go right back to the Stone Age, part of the ‘veneration of the ancestors’. In America, all this has been infantilised - commercialised for children - with grinning faces carved out of hollowed pumpkins, as in Charlie Brown cartoons [left].

But in countries like Mexico, it is still an adult religious festival, a macabre carnival-style event with Aztec origins, Día de Muertos, the Day Of The Dead, which runs 31 October - 2 November. It’s seen at the start of the 007 film Spectre, but author Malcolm Lowry (1909–1957) used it more substantively as the background to his 1947 cult novel Under The Volcano, covering a drunken English diplomat’s last days in Mexico on the eve of WWII, filmed in 1984 by John Huston from a script by Guy Gallo. The traditional German Totensonntag or 'Sunday Of The Dead' is even later - the last Sunday before Advent, i.e. between 27 Nov and 3 Dec.

The underlying idea of these festivals seems to be that the gods of winter darkness are now dominant, as the winter solstice is now closer than the autumn equinox. Symbolically, Death is now ascendant over Life. Thus, while the various festivals around 1st November do not fit 'midwinter' calendar-wise, they do introduce the theme of death as the start of this two-halves-of-the-year model. Remembering the dead is a theme that runs through the winter calendar, starting with Remembrance Day, which occurs next in most modern secular calendars.

The ancient 'day of the dead' festival figures survive in modern society as Hallowe'en ones like Jack O'Lantern. The bizarre 1993 animated feature The Nightmare Before Christmas featuring Jack was inspired, according to director Tim Burton, by the way Xmas merchandise is now appearing in stores even before Halloween. The next remembering-the-dead festival, Remembrance Day, which Americans call Veterans' Day, happens to be fixed to 11 November for historical reasons (the WWI Armistice), though in fact it occupies the same date as the traditional one of Martinmas, when people slaughtered the animals they couldn't afford to feed through the winter. But it remains as a general war-dead memorial occasion, uncommercialised apart from poppy sales - as can be seen from complaints over merchants trying to launch the Xmas shopping season on top of it. (When 'German' Xmas markets first appeared in Britain, the chalet-stalls were erected as soon as Hallowe’en was past, to kick off the Xmas shopping season as early as possible. However, WW2 veterans holding their Remembrance Day gatherings protested that the sight of Germans erecting wooden huts was an unwelcome association for ex-POWs.)

Left: [1] The Nightmare Before Christmas blended Hallowe'en and Xmas setups [2] The memorable finale of BBC's WWI-set Blackadder Goes Forth, where the image of the main characters going 'over the top' out the trenches into a hail of deadly fire dissolves into a still shot of a field of poppies, with only birds heard on the soundtrack.

“Remember” - Ep 26 of The World At War. A screenshot from the final montage, accompanied on the soundtrack by a Haydn choral mass, showing the gravestones of some of the over 600 villagers massacred (shot or burnt alive) by the Germans in the final days of the Occupation, who murdered the entire population as a reprisal for some presumed Resistance action.

The moving final episode of BBC's Blackadder Goes Forth [pictured above] notwithstanding, if I had to choose one work to commemorate Remembrance Day, it would be the final episode of the 1974 ITV series The World At War. Titled simply “Remember” (its refrain and final line), its theme is remembrance of WW2 dead, all 60 million of them, and shows Remembrance Day services. The final narrative episode, to which this episode is an epilogue, had ended with the concluding payoff line, “For 30 years now, there has been peace in Europe.” As this situation may not continue much beyond the 70 years we’ve now had, this may also soon have a grim topicality.

'Tis The Season To Be Thanksgiving
On the 'Midwinter Crisis' Storyline, #2:

Thanksgiving, being usually the 4th Thursday in November, i.e. only a month before Xmas, can be considered a mid-winter event. Thus it forms the basis for the first of our seasonal-events crisis story setups.
The Thanksgiving holiday is a largely American event, supposedly going back to the Pilgrim Fathers celebrating and giving thanks for a successful summer (harvest) and autumn (hunting season). The family would gather for a large turkey dinner, and give thanks to the Almighty for benign providence etc.
With situations where the adult children have moved away, it becomes an occasion of almost compulsory family reunion. For the dramatist, having characters expected to get together and give thanks, when they only do so reluctantly, is a gift. As with later Xmas family reunions, the dysfunctional family situation makes a mockery of the idea they should be gratefully counting their blessings.

Right: [1] An official US [OWI] photo of a family saying Thanksgiving grace, from 1942, and [2] The Beverly Hillbillies give thanks for the basics in life.

My own favourite among Thanksgiving-set films is the 1969 Alice's Restaurant, scripted by Venable Herndon and director Arthur Penn from Arlo Guthrie’s fact-based monologue. Here, the 1965 Thanksgiving feast of counterculture friends gathered in a converted Massachusetts church is happy enough. But when Arlo tried to dump the garbage there were life-changing consequences which were a gift to contemporary social satire. The 18-minute monologue ‘Alice's Restaurant Massacree’ has since become a Thanksgiving-weekend perennial on US radio.

Another favourite is Hallelujah The Hills!, a slightly surreal cult 1963 indie satire written by director Adolfas Mekas. Autumn is traditionally hunting season in North America, where red-blooded American men take to the woods to put fresh meat (deer or moose) on the table. In this satire, two young men vainly take to the Vermont woods as a show-off gesture to impress a young woman living nearby. It features a Thanksgiving dinner at her parents’ house that gets out of hand as the two protagonists’ rivalry breaks out into a fantasy fight [YouTube clip here].
The Coming Of The Snow
On the 'Midwinter Crisis' Storyline, #3

The one natural turning point here is the coming of the snow. The first snows often appear around late November: the tune Jingle Bells was originally written for Thanksgiving, in 1857. Its "one-horse open sleigh” would become a symbol of old-style winter activity. For example, there’s one early on in Orson Welles 1942 adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s 1918 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Magnificent Ambersons. This is set when horse-drawn conveyances are being replaced by early ‘horseless carriages’ [see left] as society is being industrialised, with old-fashioned families like the Ambersons left behind. (Mouse over photo to see 2nd image.) Like the ‘Rosebud’ snow-sled scenes in the same director’s previous film Citizen Kane, the snow scenes in the film represent the proverbial Good Old Days, and thus the loss of an older, slower way of life. The idea we have 'lost touch' with the past would become a recurring theme as modernity and commercialisation encroach on traditional holidays.

Left: The Magnificent Ambersons [1942], from Booth Tarkington’s 1918 Pulitzer Prize novel about changing American society. Notice the similarity of images showing the one-horse open sleigh in front of the house with the one below, from Meet Me In St Louis, below left.

A 'one horse open sleigh' features in the ad art [left] of the 1944 musical Meet Me In St. Louis. This covers a year in the life of an American suburban family c1904, with the climactic third act taking place in the last quarter of the year, the Halloween to Xmas period. Again, the sleigh is a token of a vanishing way of life, which even
the youngest child (age 7) wants to preserve. (She smashes up the snowmen she has built when she discovers the family plan to move to NYC after Xmas.) The Xmas classic song by Hugh Martin, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" came from the scene where Judy Garland comforts her distraught young sister.

The coming of the snow traditionally forms an annual working deadline for outdoor activities - the first snowfall means it is time to get back to civilisation before one is snowed in. In Man In The Wilderness (1971), written by Jack DeWitt, the fur trappers are trying to reach the main river with their mule-drawn riverboat before, as the phrase goes, "winter closes in." The story was inspired by the real feat of a trapper mauled by a grizzly and left behind in an open grave to die, who crawled his way back to the fur company post.
(In the recent dramatisation of the same 1820s incident, The Revenant, written by director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith from Michael Punke's 2002 novel, the winter-is-coming deadline is abandoned, the seasonal setting being already full-on winter - which makes the protagonist's trek back more arduous and gruelling, to the point of impossibility.)

On the dark side, there can be an unhealthy psychological pressure from the knowledge a remote locale will be ‘snowed in’, i.e. cut off by road until spring. Stephen King’s 1977 psychological horror novel The Shining (1980), adapted by director Stanley Kubrick with novelist Diane Johnson, is set at a closed summertime resort in the Colorado Rockies in October-November. The newly-arrived wintertime caretaker, a recovering alcoholic, becomes violently insane by the time the first snows cut the road connection. The explanation is not simply the usual ‘cabin fever’ which can drive some crazy over a winter, but that the hotel is also haunted by spirits trapped there.
(This example comes to mind as, on a personal note, my then-partner and I once stayed at a closed mountaintop resort in midwinter which was haunted by something which threw the chairs around an upstairs bedroom. I was told it was a former caretaker who died there alone, and whose angry ghost was trying to get attention. Can’t say I noticed any psychological effects, though fortunately we weren’t snowed in and weren’t there that long.)

For the 'Setting The Scene' feature for the Midwinter-Crisis storyline, I’ve now put online our ‘Setting The Scene In The Bleak Midwinter’ feature page on the physical setting of wintry landscape. This is a visual metaphor for the storyline, and in major examples becomes part of the story setup.

Xmas, That's A Wrap
On the 'Midwinter Crisis' Storyline, #4
Nowadays the run-up to Xmas is more the start of the Xmas shopping countdown (“Only XX shopping days to go till Xmas!”). In major US cities like NYC, there is also a Thanksgiving parade, with a Santa figure sponsored by the largest department store included to kickstart the Xmas shopping season.
Kids can then visit the store to sit on Santa’s knee and tell him what they want, a custom shown satirically in the 1983 A Christmas Story, from Jean Shepherd’s stories of growing up in Depression-era Indiana. His stories have long been a favourite of mine, as they bridge the gap between adult and childhood perceptions. That is, it shows event from a child's viewpoint, but with narration by the adult Ralphie, voiced by Shepherd. (He read a 40-minute version on his New York radio show on Xmas Eve 1974, the broadcast being another Xmas perennial).
Right: A Christmas Story [1983], written by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown, and director Bob Clark from 5 short stories by Jean Shepherd. The excitement of Xmas is shown from a kid’s viewpoint: here, the department-store Santa traumatises the tongue-tied Ralphie.


The Xmas shopping all done, the final pre-Xmas hurdle is the last-minute business of wrapping the presents, making sure the kids leave a letter out for Santa, and so on. Dressing up as Santa must be the most stressful. The still opposite reminds me that when I worked at a local cable-tv station, the last day was the most difficult as this was when we put on our annual children's show Live Phone-In To Santa. The station manager played Santa, but he found it an impossible role without a bottle of Scotch to hand, as it was not possible to screen the callers, and inevitably we would have a call like this:
Caller [slurring words]: Hello, Shanta, I'm afraid I've been bad, in fact I've been a very naughty girl all year, can I still get a preshent?
Santa: How old are you?
Caller: I'm 44, and still single. Can I get a fur coat?
Santa: I'm not sure about that.
Caller: Perhaps you should come round at midnight to my place, and give my bottom a good hard spanking.
Santa: Um, I think I can hear the reindeer getting restless, stamping their feet. They're parked on the studio roof, you know. We better take a break so I can see to them.
(Then we would roll the programme credits and close down transmission for the Xmas break. As they would say in films, That's a wrap.)
The hazards of playing Santa must have occurred to others, as there are various hit films about the trouble one can get into playing Santa - such as The Santa Clause [1994], written by Leo Benvenuti, Steve Rudnick, Karey Kirkpatrick, and its 3 sequels, or Bad Santa [2003], written by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, currently being sequelled.

Finally, it must come as a relief when the Xmas-shopping madness ends. You can drink, party, or perhaps go to church. The Christian church has its own ceremonial, marking the end of the 4-week Advent period, known as ‘Blue Christmas’ (not to be confused with Blue Monday in January), and there are often carol-singing services around this time.

The 'communal Xmas song' is a standard scene in the Midwinter-Crisis storyline, though it may simply involve neighbourhood carol singers coming to the protagonist's door, his reaction indicating his attitude to the 'true spirit of Christmas.'
There are plenty of examples of this, but my own choice is a 1973 TV movie, I Heard The Owl Call My Name, adapted by Gerald Di Pego from the best-selling 1967 novel by Margaret Craven and filmed in Canada, opens on a Xmas service, with the congregation of a Vancouver Anglican cathedral [pictured] singing "Comfort & Joy," and concludes with a Xmas service in the upcountry native community the protagonist was posted to as vicar.

... This moment of relative tranquility brings our 2016 blog posts to a close. Happy Winterfest anyway. On to 2017 !

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Storylines In Review 2016