Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Thinking about film

The Redcoats advance in Barry Lyndon
A scene that launched a thousand 18th century wargames

I watch historical films rather differantly than I do other films. They must scratch different itches to please me. The first criteria is whether the film itself is any good or not, whether it works as a piece of storytelling or entertainment. I have enjoyed books or films that are light on story*, but they are damned few and far between.

The second criteria is that subtle that almost indefinable sense of time and place. I recall listening to Peter Weir talk about the casting of "Master & Commander" when he described hiring extras from Eastern Europe, because he felt that they had 19th century faces. Would it have made a difference if he had cast Americans in those roles. I don't know, but if that's what Peter Weir needs to do, then so be it. There is the candle lit world of "Barry Lyndon". These are films that evoke in me a genuine feeling of time travel, of having looked back into a past that is at once alien and familiar. Certainly the art direction has a great deal to do with it as does the choice of music, casting also plays a part, but I can't say exactly why some films have "it" and other films do not.

It is not necessary that a film must score highly in both criteria to be good, I thoroughly enjoyed "The Brothers Grimm" and "The 13th Warrior", both of which are hokum, but remain entertaining pieces of storytelling. However, I've found that my favourite films tend to be those with offer an immersion in a time not my own, rarely a pretty one, but compelling nonetheless; an antidote to this lousy modern world.

Then of course, there is there is the wargaming itch to scratch. I love films with battles, ideally big ones and yet one of the finest films ever made, "The Duellists", contains only a few skirmishes. I can usually count on Sergei Bondarchuck to leave me thinking, "Oh, so that's what it must have looked like." But he is dead now and others must feed that appetite. Some day someone will make a film depicting a black powder battle from an infantryman's perspective - it will be full of gun smoke and the protagonist will be ridden over by every bloody fool with a horse.

So, the perfect film must have enormous battles, be wonderfully cast, well acted, beautifully written and rigorously historically accurate (ideally down to the actors snaggly teeth); does such a paragon exist?

We shall see.

What films scratch your wargaming itch? And no unnecessary rudeness in the comments about the "The Patriot" please.

*The Plague, Ulysses and possibly some of Beckett are the only things leaping to mind at present. I'm a man of the "great storytellers", the 19th century English popular authors.


  1. The first film that comes to my mind is "Zulu" . . . but there are a number of 19th century "colonial" films that do as well. "The Wind and the Lion" is great fun for example.

    -- Jeff

  2. Hi CK,

    'The Duellists' and Sergei Bondarchuck - a winning combination for sure. 'Waterloo' is one of my all time favourite films and has ingrained the 1815 campaign on my heart. It means I am not a 'proper' Napoleonic fan though....;-)

    A very valid and thought provoking post and one that strikes a resonant chord with me.

    All the best,


  3. Cracking post, Mr Kinch. Got me scratching the old bonce this morning. I am a big fan of the Bondarchuk epics, though there is an awful lot of pantomime acting to get through between battles in War and Peace.

    I think I'm most comfortably engaged by periods I know relatively little about, since I don't feel obliged to spoil things for myself by finding fault with details. I think there are probably a great many convincing WW2 and Vietnam movies, but I have to watch a lot of that from behind the sofa, because the "exploding man" violence is maybe too recent and immediate.

    I think Gettysburg is terrific, though I understand it is not rated highly.

    I remember the hairs on my neck standing up at the sight of the knights in Alexander Nevsky, but that was in less sophisticated days. Odd things work - I thought the battle scenes at the start of Gladiator, for example, are very good. My favourite wargame-nerd film is something of an oddity - Peter Watkins' "Culloden", which was made for TV in 1964. That is filmed in the style of TV reporting, with characters interviewed, speaking to camera and so on. Great bit of Sir George Murray complaining about lack of orders, wrong ammunition etc. If you haven't seen it and are interested, Herr Kinchmeister, email me.

    And Bonnie Prince Charlie, by the way, was a tit.


  4. Thanks for this interesting discourse. I agree about "The Duellists" but what makes it so special for me is the absolutely meticulous period detail and atmosphere, not the fighting....and everyone loves a hussar, especially a nasty one!
    For battle realism I think it's hard to beat the opening 20 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan"....you wonder how anyone managed to survive on Omaha Beach at all, especially after you have visited the battlefield itself.

  5. Hi Conrad,

    Great post! (And that Drummer's looking pretty good too!)

    I thought "Band Of Brothers" captured the feel of "being there" as far as films go.

    I have always believed that Delderfelt's "Seven Men From Gascony" would have made a great film as well, but alas, no one has taken up the challenge.


  6. CK

    'The Man Who Would be King" Kipling and Connery, does it get any better?

    "Dr Zhivago" - the TRAIN

    I liked both "The Brothers Grimm" and the "13th Warrior" they made good date nights for my wife and I. In fact 13th warrior was perfect - it had vikings and Antonio Banderas.


  7. Some of the other posters have already listed a few of my favorites. Several films do come to mind though. Casablanca is not only true to the period but shot in the period. John Ford's Fort Apache resonates as it perpetuates many of the myths of US westward expansion. Daniel Day Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans cuts an appropriately gritty figure as The Deerslayer. And I dearly love the fencing scene between mel ferrer and Stewart Granger in Scaramouche.
    Jerry Lannigan

  8. ...I loved "The Patriot" - seriously - who the hell pays attention to "Hollywood History" anyway??? It's all to do with spectacle, and feeding the imagination - after that I go to the books and read real history... so "Patriot", "Last of the Mohicans", another vote for "Waterloo" (saw it three times in one week as a spotty teenager), Lord of the Rings (you never said "no fantasy"), another vote for Band of Brothers, the inestimable "Saving Private Ryan", "Crowmwell" (superb!), "Four Feathers" (I even liked the latest version..), "Blue Max" (you never said "no planes") - I could go on and on.... and in fact have done...

  9. I find there are very few war movies of any period that trigger the wargaming itch in me. That's not to say I don't like the genre, I'm a big fan, just that I rarely link movies with wargaming.

    Probably the only exception I've found is Black Hawk Down, which I associate more and more with Ambush Alley, but the historical stuff I just don't make the link. Master and Commander I love as a movie and as an adaptation, but it didn't make much impact on my trying out naval wargaming of the period.

    Of course, I barely even consider "The Duellists" to be a war movie. It's superb, but it's not about the war really, that's just a backdrop. In fact, relatively few of the movies that come immediately to mind are really focussed on the big battles as such, they're typically telling a personal tale within that setting. Saving Private Ryan, for example, has that awesome opening scene and then I lose interest a bit. It's probably the reason why I don't link those movies to wargaming - they're not so much about the battle as the people in the battle. Similarly, it's probably why I do link Black Hawk Down (and We Were Soldiers for that matter) with wargames - they're movies about the battle more than the people in the battle.

    Kinch, we shall have to pick this topic up over a pint at some stage, I think it's got legs. I also need to ransack your DVDs to further educate myself on the historical war films (particularly the American Civil War stuff, of which I'm largely ignorant).

  10. Very well-written and thought-provoking post, Conrad. I am learning about several movies I need to see. Most of my favs have been listed, but one I would add is "When Trumpets Fade", set in the slaughter in the Huertgen Forest right before the Battle of the Bulge. Very gripping.

    As an aside, the most horrific war movie I have seen is "Behind the Lines" (originally called "Regeneration" in the UK), an account of the treatment of shell-shocked soldiers in WWI Britain.

    Good gaming.

  11. "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (the 60s one not the old B&W one). I find it very atmospheric although it got poor reviews at the time. Also "Cromwell" and "Patton" - both films I often have playing while I'm painting, and of course "The Sands of Iwo Jima" (hence my own Stryker persona!)...


  12. Set in the Far East, several Chinese movies are Eisenstein fashion epics the West does no longer do. Not worrying much about their possible historical (in)accuracy, I confess.

    Eastern Europe also produces some old-fashioned epics: 'Peter the Great' and 'The Deluge' come to mind, but I spotted several other on wargaming / military history blogs.

    As for the 18th C. -since you illustrated your post with 'Barry Lyndon'- my two favorites and by far lead more to 'adventure' or skirmish games than to major battles and their historical value is null: 'The Scarlet Empress' and 'Brotherhood of the Wolf' :)

  13. Dear Joy,
    I cannot imagine you do not enjoy "Waterloo!"
    I find the Huston/Murphy "Red Badge of Courage," to be almost perfect Civil War combat. Noise,smoke, the enemy at least 100 yards away and then on you in a flash.
    "Birth of a Nation," shows Petersburg assaults on trenches in a realistic manner with huge panoramas ( for the time).
    In "Gods and Generals," the minnie balls zip and whiz by during the battle of Fredericksburg with authentic ferocity.
    "The Crossing,and "Revolution," show warfare of the American War of Independence in a realistic military and un-Hollywood fashion. "Spartacus," (Kirk Douglas), showed Roman tactics quite well. Most films have actual military advisors; even films fom the 1930's.
    We all have our favorites and there are plnety to choose from.

  14. For me:
    Gunga Din, Lives of a Bengal Lancer, and even Wee Willie Winkie and Bonnie Scotland
    Beau Geste, almost any incarnation, and Beau Hunks, The Four Feathers (Korda's version being my favorite, with the Beau Bridges one a not too distant 2nd)
    also Zulu, The Man Who Would be King, and LOTR
    And even though I don't game in the periods, many WWII movies and Westerns (Battle of the Bulge, The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, The Magnificent Seven. etc.)
    Those can still provide inspiration for scenarios in the periods and genres I am interested in gaming

  15. oh, and how could I forget the likes of Errol Flynn's Robin Hood and Captain Blood, The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers (Lester's version) and other swashbucklers
    And then there are the adventure/pulp type movies, jungle exploration, lost worlds, etc., which provide inspiration for skirmish level gaming

  16. Russian '1612' and (recent) 'Tarass Bulba' Polish 'Fire and Sword';
    Kurosawa's 'Kagemusha' and 'Ran'...