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.