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Archive for December, 2012

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The fine art of faking monsters in the movies

Posted in America, Cinema, Historical articles on Monday, 17 December 2012

This edited article about cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 799 published on 7th May 1977.

Film still with special effects, picture, image, illustration

The cavemen are actors, the dinosaur is a model, the volcano is fake in this scene from a Hollywood film by Gerry Wood

With incredible gentleness for so vast a creature, the monster plucked the girl from the sacrificial altar on which she had been placed by a band of frightened tribesmen, and held her in its great hands.

Shouting, screaming and pummelling were of no avail. In any case, the monster intended her no harm. Its eyes glared at her intently and its nostrils quivered.

What manner of maiden was this? Or, more to the point, what manner of monster was this?

Filmgoers who have seen the new version of “King Kong” have found out the answer to this. King Kong is a film in which the makers have created an enormous ape which terrifies all who see it.

In addition to the monster, trick photography was needed to lend realism to the scenes in which the monster appears with humans.

Making King Kong was a mammoth undertaking. For his skeleton, metal – mostly aluminium – was used. So that he would be able to walk, turn at the waist and move his arms into 16 different positions, tremendous lengths of hydraulic hose and electrical wires ran through his body like arteries and veins.

For his fur, the makers obtained thousands of horse tails from Argentina. The hair from these was woven by a hundred people into netting panels which were glued on to latex and then stuck to a plastic mould that covered the monster’s metal frame.

The finished product was a mighty, terrifying monster nearly as tall as seven men. Colossal scenery had to be built to accommodate the outsize “actor”. One example of this was a huge wall from which Kong snatched a girl who was placed there as a sacrifice to him.

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Odin, Valhalla and the ride of the Valkyries

Posted in Legend, Music, Myth, Religion on Monday, 17 December 2012

This edited article about Odin originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 799 published on 7th May 1977.

Wotan kills Siegmund, picture, image, illustration

In Teutonic mythology the Norse god Odin becomes Woden or Wotan, here killing Siegmund in a scene from Wagner’s Ring, as Brunnhilde looks on, by Ron Embleton

One of the fiercest gods of ancient times was Odin, who wore a shining breastplate and a golden helmet. To the Germanic people of the second century, he was known as Woden, the god of war. But in Norse mythology he was Odin, the greatest of the gods.

They visualised him as the god of night storms, riding through the skies on his huge magical horse, Sleipnir. This faithful steed had eight hooves and could gallop over land and water or glide through the air.

They imagined Odin leaping through the lightning-streaked sky, grasping his spear. Gungnir, which had been made by dwarfs.

In battle, the warriors sought his help; and the Angles and Saxons called upon him to be on their side before they invaded Britain in the 5th century.

Odin’s horse was the swiftest of all stallions. The story is told that one day Odin was riding in the land of the giants, when one of the inhabitants. Hrungnir, admired both horse and rider. Hrungnir claimed, “I myself have a stallion which is even stronger and swifter than yours.”

Odin challenged the giant to prove this and the two raced across the countryside.

However sharply Hrungnir prodded his horse with his spurs, he could not catch up with Odin. Each time he reached the crest of a hill, he saw Odin flying on Sleipnir ahead of him towards the next crest.

Hrungnir was not the only person to have reason to wonder at the magical qualities of Odin’s horse. Once a man called Hadding was being chased by merciless enemies. Odin picked him up, wrapped him in a large cloak and lay him on the saddle before him. While the horse was galloping home, the young man curiously glanced out through a hole in the cloak.

He was shocked by what he saw. They were travelling over the sea and Sleipnir’s hooves were pounding the ocean as though he were on a paved road.

Odin’s home was a large palace called Valhalla where he dwelt with his favourite heroes who had been killed in battle.

Gleaming gold covered the roof and on benches lay the heroes’ breastplates. The palace hall was enormous with 540 doors, each wide enough to admit 800 soldiers abreast. Each evening, Odin watched the heroes feasting and fighting; the flashing of their swords reflected the huge fires burning in the middle of the hall.

Two crows perched on Odin’s shoulders whispering in his ear. Every day, they flew all over the world, speaking to the living and the dead, and came back before breakfast to give Odin the news.

In Valhalla lived two supernatural women called Valkyries, who were both guardians and servants. Apart from waiting on the warriors, they had more war-like duties.

Whenever a battle was being fought, the Valkyries went among the fighters and decided who should die and which side should win.

They were invisible to all except the heroes chosen to die and go to Valhalla. To these chosen, they would suddenly appear and tell them of their fate.

Many tales are told about Odin. Not only was he a war-like god, but he could cure illness with magic; he could make the weapons of an enemy useless; he could break a prisoner’s chains, calm or enrage the sea and make the dead speak.

The Angles and Saxons looked upon him as the ancestor of their kings, and the fourth day of the week. Wednesday (Woden’s day), bears his name. The manner in which the cult began is very interesting.

In certain parts of Europe, people believed that, on stormy nights, they could hear the galloping of horses’ hooves through the sky. These were ridden, they said, by the ghosts of dead warriors led by a raging fighter. They called this leader Woden, from the German word for “rage”.

So the belief spread and the stories multiplied and grew more and more imaginative until Woden – or Odin – became a wonderful god whose exploits still make exciting reading today.

Arctic explorer Robert Peary reached the geographic North Pole

Posted in America, Exploration on Monday, 17 December 2012

This edited article about Robert Edwin Peary originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 799 published on 7th May 1977.

Robert Edward Peary, picture, image, illustration

Robert Edward Peary by James E McConnell

When Robert Edwin Peary who was born on 6th May 1856, joined the U.S. Navy in 1881, he already had a strong interest in Arctic exploration.

Ten years later, Peary was placed in charge of a polar expedition, which set out from McCormick Bay and reached the north-east coast of Greenland, thus proving that Greenland was an island.

It was then that Peary became determined to be the first man to reach the North Pole.

In 1902, with the African American explorer, Matt Henson, and an Eskimo, he advanced to 84 degrees 18′, the highest latitude so far reached in the Northern Hemisphere.

His next attempt was made easier by the construction of the Roosevelt, the first ship built in the United States for the sole purpose of Arctic exploration.

The Roosevelt sailed from New York on 16th July, 1905, and in the following February Peary and his party started out with sleds across the ice. On the 26th April, 1906, they reached 87 degrees 6′, but only by suffering severe hardships, and the return journey was made with great difficulty.

However, Peary was by no means deterred. In 1908, he set out again in the Roosevelt. After wintering in Grant Land, the explorer and a party of six started from Cape Columbia on the 1st March, 1909.

By the end of the month, they had reached 87 degrees 48′ N, at which point Captain Bartlett, the only white man left with Peary, turned back.

But Peary, Matt Henson and four Eskimos pushed on, finally reaching the North Pole on the 6th April, 1909.

Peary’s perseverance at last had been rewarded – a brave exploit which was marked by his promotion to Rear-Admiral in 1911. He died in Washington, D.C., in 1920.

Catherine the Great achieved great military conquests for Mother Russia

Posted in Historical articles, History, Royalty on Monday, 17 December 2012

This edited article about Catherine the Great originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 799 published on 7th May 1977.

Russian bear cartoon, picture,  image, illustration

Potemkin astride Catherine the Great, who is depicted as the Russian bear in a contemporary political cartoon dated 19 April, 1791.

Like all young girls of noble family, Sophia Augusta, born the daughter of the Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst on 2nd May 1729, was destined for a marriage of political convenience.

Sophia was taken from her home in Stettin, Prussia, when she was 17 years old, to be married to Peter of Holstein, heir to the Russian throne. Before her marriage, Sophia was received into the Russian Orthodox Church and took the name Catherine. It is as Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, that history remembers her.

Catherine was a woman of unusual determination and wisdom who sought a political future of her own. During the 17 years before her husband came to the throne, Catherine devoted her time to becoming as Russian as possible, and her future subjects loved her for it. They were flattered that she bothered to learn their language when most of the nobility preferred to speak French.

Although Catherine loved Russia, that love did not extend to her husband. He was ugly, his face was scarred by smallpox, and he had a cruel sense of humour. He often beat Catherine and played mean practical jokes on her. Yet she bore with him patiently for he was her means of power.

In 1762, Peter ascended the throne, but he was so unpopular, and he acquitted himself so badly, that he was “arrested” by his own guard. While thus detained, he died – in suspicious circumstances – and Catherine became Empress. She ruled as the “Little Mother of All the Russias” for the next 34 years.

During those years, she doubled Russia’s influence in international politics, drawing the country into important association with her homeland, Prussia. Her military conquests subdued the Turks, providing protection for Christians in Turkey and giving Russia an outlet to the Black Sea.

Catherine’s political ability was undoubted: she read widely, especially in Russian history, and fostered interest in culture at her court. Many of her brilliant and intelligent letters and writings have survived.

Catherine tackled domestic problems as well. She opened the first founding hospital in Russia and introduced vaccination and other medical reforms. Though she was severe, as were all Russian rulers of those days, and would not tolerate opposition, she had a genuine love for her adopted country and its people.

When she died at the age of 67 the “Little Mother of All the Russias” was sincerely mourned.

1913, not 2013

Posted in Absurd, Anniversary, History, Oddities, World War 1 on Saturday, 15 December 2012

skating, postcard, sent in 1913, poignant, anniversary, skaters, ice, cold, furs

Six months ago we thought it would be interesting to make a collection of postcards sent in 1913, the reasoning, of course, being that 1913 was the year before the world fell to pieces and so images from that year have a peculiar poignancy.

We looked through not less than 70,000 postcards, and bought 300.  These we have further refined down to 100 which we think best summarise, albeit idiosyncratically, the end of an era.

To see a picture show of these 100 postcards sent in 1913, click here.

The images are available for commercial licensing through the Bridgeman Art Library.

Happy Christmas

Posted in Absurd, Anniversary, Oddities on Saturday, 15 December 2012

angel and elf dressing robin, Christmas card, Xmas, snow

To wish visitors to the Look and Learn website a Very Happy Christmas we have created a slide show of Christmas cards, all rather different from what you may have received this year.  They come from the Valerie Jackson Harris collection.

To enjoy the slide show, click here.

The fiercely magnificent Peregrine Falcon

Posted in Animals, Birds, Nature, Sport, Wildlife on Saturday, 15 December 2012

This edited article about the Peregrine falcon originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 799 published on 7th May 1977.

Peregrine falcon, picture, image, illustration

The Peregrine Falcon

The Peregrine is the largest and most powerful of our native falcons. It was a royal bird in mediaeval times and remains the favourite of modern falconers. The dive, or “stoop”, of a hunting falcon is one of the most exciting sights in the world of nature, and at close quarters its dramatic power dive has a sound like a rocket.

The practice of a Peregrine looking for food is to soar to a great height, and then, when its quarry is sighted flying far below, the “stoop” begins. Almost closing its wings, it hurtles downward aided by gravity, until it reaches a speed of 200-250 mph at the moment of the strike.

Sometimes the blow is with clenched talons which break the victim’s back. Sometimes it uses one of its formidable hind claws as a scimitar. In either case the end is sudden. The unfortunate bird, not even knowing what has hit him, falls like a stone.

During the nesting season the male bird, or tiercel, will capture a small bird in the air and carry it to where the nest, or eyrie, is situated. As soon as the female bird sees him coming she will leave the nest and fly up to meet him. Then, after a few moments of aerobatics and loopings together, the tiercel drops his catch which is unerringly caught in mid-air by his mate and taken to the eyrie, where it is plucked and fed to the eyasses, as the chicks are called.

Birds from the size of a lark to that of a duck, or even a wild goose, are the prey of the peregrine, but its favourite victim is the partridge. It can only catch birds as they fly.

The Peregrine makes its nest among rocks or in high trees, but it will also nest on moors, and sometimes nests even in populous cities. Often it will use the abandoned nest of some other bird of prey, or that of a heron or raven. If it takes a particular fancy to an occupied nest, it will force its owners to leave.

In common with many other birds of prey, the Peregrines are becoming rare, and their numbers are now less than half of what they were 30 years ago. All hawks feed on birds and small animals, which themselves eat seeds that may have been exposed to insectide DDT. This becomes more concentrated as it progresses along the food chain of seed, small bird and large predator, with the result that the eggs of the latter acquire an accumulation of DDT, rendering them infertile. Fortunately a partial ban on the use of dangerous pesticides in recent years seems to have halted the steady decline in Peregrine numbers, and there is now hope that this prince of flyers may survive.

Christian missionaries unwittingly kindled the Boxer rebellion

Posted in Historical articles, History, Politics, Religion, War on Saturday, 15 December 2012

This edited article about China originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 799 published on 7th May 1977.

Missionaaries in China, picture, image, illustration

The missionaries in China were deeply resented and their preaching finally triggered a nightmare, by C L Doughty

In 1860 an Anglo-French army was threatening Peking – and His Illustrious Majesty the Chinese Emperor Hsien Feng was a frightened man. He remained within the purple walls of his fortress-palace just long enough to issue two proclamations, one to the effect that nothing and no-one would ever make him leave his capital, the other offering a large reward to anyone who would kill one of the “foreign devils” for him. Then he scurried out of the city as fast as he could, pretending he was going on a tour of inspection of his realm. It was important to save face.

Meanwhile the British and French envoys trying to conclude an armistice had been either murdered or mutilated by the Chinese. When news of this – and the most gruesome evidence – got back to their countrymen, the Allies’ rage knew no bounds.

The Allied army encamped near the emperor’s Summer Palace, which was a great deal more than that term suggests. The Summer Palace was an extensive complex of great marble palaces and temples embowered in flowers and surrounded by an exquisitely landscaped park.

It was upon this little world of beauty that the British and French soldiers vented their fury, burning, looting and laying waste everything they could. It was a wanton act of vandalism, but an understandable one, in the circumstances.

In due course an agreement was arrived at by the two sides. Like previous agreements, this favoured the westerners much more than the Chinese.

It extended their trading privileges, opening up still more Chinese ports to them.

It authorised them to carry on their business or vocation anywhere in China, including the interior.

It permitted them to practise and preach Christianity and to make converts.

As before, there were the seeds of a lot of trouble here. The great majority of the Chinese were far from enthusiastic about doing more business with the West, nor did they want them living in the heart of their country. Sorest point of all, they heartily disliked Christian missionaries and the faith they preached.

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Galba, the first of the Four Roman Emperors in AD 69

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, War on Saturday, 15 December 2012

This edited article about Galba Caesar Augustus originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 799 published on 7th May 1977.

Galba, picture, image, illustration

Galba Caesar Augustus

Two thousand years ago the average lifespan of a human being was much shorter than it is today. Generally the first really serious illness a man had was enough to kill him. Hence the average man in ancient Rome probably died in his mid-forties, and after that age, he could be counted as an old man lucky to be alive.

At 73 years of age, Servius Galba had certainly had his share of fortune. He was short, fat and bald, and by Roman standards a very old man indeed. It must have been astonishing to the Romans, therefore, when, in the autumn of A.D. 68. Galba rode into Rome and announced that he was now the Emperor.

The great gap in the succession was caused that year by the dagger that the tyrannical Emperor Nero had plunged into his throat. Until then, it had been the habit of the Emperors to keep the title in their family, but Nero had no children and no immediate relatives. And the nature of the succession had begun to change during his terrible four-year reign.

What had happened was that the army had become the most powerful single force in the Empire and it was now no longer possible for the Emperor or the Senate to rule without the consent of the generals. For a long time these military chiefs had been dissatisfied with their dissolute Emperors and now they decided it was time for one of them to rule Rome.

But which one? As soon as the news was out that Nero, fearing the armies were about to over-run him, had committed suicide, three generals began to dispute their right to be crowned.

Galba was military governor of the province of North-East Spain when he heard the news from Rome. He wasn’t much liked in Spain, where his rule had been a bit too harsh and laced with some unnecessary cruelty. When a money-lender was accused of fraud Galba sentenced him to have both his hands cut off and nailed to the counter. A murderer, sentenced to be crucified, begged for justice, claiming that he was a Roman citizen. Galba agreed to recognise his status by telling the executioners: “This citizen must hang higher than the rest – and have his cross whitewashed.”

This was the man who, with the force of a large Roman army to support him, was first to arrive in Rome to claim the Emperor’s throne. The Senate, bowing to the inevitable, proclaimed him Emperor.

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Compassion moved Henri Dunant to create the Red Cross

Posted in Historical articles, History, Institutions, Medicine, War on Saturday, 15 December 2012

This edited article about the Red Cross originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 798 published on 30th April 1977.

Red Cross in the Trenches, picture, image, illustration

The Red Cross faced enormous challenges in the trenches of WW1 by Andrew Howat

In the summer of 1859, a young Swiss businessman called Henri Dunant went to war. His mission was a peaceful one, but by the time he returned to his prosperous flour factory in Geneva, his whole outlook on life had changed. And he vowed that from then on he would devote his skill and energy to helping the victims of war.

Henri had followed the army of the Emperor Napoleon III to the village of Solferino, in Italy, where a great battle was shortly to be fought against the Austrian forces. He sought the Emperor’s permission to buy 1,200 acres of land in West Africa, and to plant corn and make flour there. He felt that if the Emperor was victorious, then he would be more likely to grant such a request.

The Battle of Solferino took place on 24th June, and to make sure he was not mistaken for a spy or a soldier, Henri wore a conspicuous white suit. The suit ensured his safety, but as he watched the French and Austrian armies attack and counter-attack, he almost wept because there was nothing he could do to lessen the bloodshed.

“It was a terrible sight,” he told his family later. “Practically the whole village was destroyed. The pretty white houses were either blown up or burnt to the ground. Everywhere soldiers were lying dead and dying. By evening, the casualties numbered more than forty thousand.”

But Henri was even more concerned by the fact that there was no one to look after the wounded. “Thousands of men were in dreadful pain,” he said sadly, “but there were not enough bandages and lint to dress more than a handful of them. As for doctors and nurses. I don’t think I saw one!”

Back home again in Geneva. Henri took less and less interest in his business affairs. He had obtained permission to buy land in what later became known as French Equatorial Africa, but was more concerned with writing his inspirational Souvenir of Solferino – a book which urged the formation of voluntary aid societies to succour the wounded and other sufferers in time of war.

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