Radical History Review 86 (2003) 201-204
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The Abusable Past
R. J. Lambrose
As the gospel of "homeland security" spreads across the country, let us not forget the Pentagon records released last May that revealed the U.S. Department of Defense had sprayed live nerve and biological agents on ships and sailors during the 1960s as part of an effort to test the navy's vulnerability to toxic warfare. Of the six tests conducted, according to the New York Times, three used Sarin, a nerve agent, or VX, a nerve gas; another test used Staphylococcal Enterotoxin B (SEB), while two others used stimulants, one of them poisonous. Project Shipboard Hazard and Defense (SHAD) exposed more than 4,000 military personnel to these agents as part of a planned sequence of 113 tests, bearing inane code names like "Fearless Johnny" and "Flower Drum Phase 1." Only the details of twelve of these tests—most of them in the South Pacific—have been released. Authorities were also vague about how many of the sailors were given protective gear or had even consented to the exposure. It's the kind of thing that puts Captain Bligh in perspective.
Hannibal and the Historians
"Pic Derby Stirs Rival Alp Hunters" headlined Variety in a summer report on the race among three movie studios to be the first to the big screen with an epic of the life of the Carthaginian general Hannibal. Sony-based Revolution Studios announced that it was talking with Vin Diesel (XXX, Saving Private Ryan) about a film based on Ross Leckie's novel Hannibal, which would be directed by Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Blade Runner). But Twentieth Century Fox had long been working [End Page 201] on their own biopic and let it be known that it had very serious interest from Denzel Washington (Remember the Titans, Malcolm X). And Sony's own Columbia Pictures told reporters that it had a Hannibal project in the works for at least five years.
Not surprisingly, the "trades" like Variety played on the competition among the big studios, stars, and directors. The latest wave that Hollywood has been trying to catch, it turns out, is history. Big stars are hoping that the past can jump-start their present careers as it did for Mel Gibson in Braveheart and Russell Crowe in Gladiator. "Thesps going the historical route," exclaimed Variety in another article, "range from Tom Cruise (the Ed Zwick-directed The Last Samurai) to the Rock (the Greg Poirier-scripted biopic of Hawaiian warrior King Kamehameha). And after Heath Ledger stepped aside, a swarm of young thesps including Minority Report star Colin Farrell are circling Oliver Stone's Alexander the Great epic." Of course, someone with a longer memory—a historian perhaps—might remind the studio execs that the race to the screen with a historical epic has not always turned out very well. Do you remember that a decade ago, Columbus: The Discovery went mano-a-mano against Ridley Scott's 1492: Conquest of Paradise? Well, we didn't either.
But the studios might run into some other troubles if they brought the historians in on their Hannibal plans. For example, Leckie's novel—the source for Scott's film—depicts a gruesome gang rape of Hannibal's wife. But as Adrian Goldsworthy, professor of archaeology at the University of Grenoble and author of The Punic Wars, notes, "We don't know anything about Hannibal's love life. We are not even sure if he had a wife." And then there is the highly contested matter of race raised by the casting of Denzel Washington. For Afrocentrists, Hannibal ranks as a great black hero. Playing to that audience, Anheuser-Busch has long promoted its specially commissioned portraits of "Great Kings and Queens of Africa," which depicts a very black Hannibal. According to the artist Charles Lilly, Hannibal looks more like Michael Clarke Duncan (Green Mile) than Denzel Washington. Meanwhile, even the racially ambiguous Vin Diesel might not satisfy Wellesley's Mary "Nothing-out-of-Africa" Lefkowitz, who told UPI's Steve Sailer that Hannibal was a Semite who...