Saturday, May 16, 2015

Muskets at the Movies: Black powder battle on film - Part One

The ornery wargamer confronts the perplexed cinephile. 

Wargamers are an odd bunch.  Tribal, querulous and deeply opinionated, but I think one thing we all agree on is that we love films.  While a lot of us have rather high opinion of ourselves as "historians", we often demonstrate as a tribe a deep love of battles on film, no matter how inaccurate or wonky. Zulu, for all its faults, launched a thousand wargamers. I still get chills whenever I hear men of Harlech...or the coming thunder that "sounds like a train in the distance". 

Films must be films.   They are required to make a crust for those who make and them and entertain those who care not a fig for the the correct facing colours on the Chassuers in the second scene. That said, having seen Hollywood horribly mangle police work (something I actually know something about), I think there's an argument to be made that they often get quite a lot right. 

With that in mind, I offer to you, my own list of top ten movies with black powder battles.  It is highly subjective, intensely personal and was not, I hasten to add, picked on artistic merit.  What I have picked is films that I think demonstrate some aspects of blackpowder warfare. 

10. The Patriot

This film has gotten a lot of flak over the years and deservedly so.  However, appreciated as an American propaganda piece, it does its job. But, more importantly for our purposes, it does get a lot of things right.

The troops fight in line and discharge musketry at cruelly close range.
The guns fire solid ball and it's results are shown with awful effect.
Musketry produces smoke and lots of it.

For those points alone, it would be worthy of inclusion, but to be fair, ignoring the antics of SS Penal Battalion Child Catcher Von Tarleton - there are some nice moments in this film.  I like Mel Gibson films, he's made more good ones than bad, and I think some of the comic acting with his children is done with a wonderfully light touch. The scene with the rocking chair is very nicely done and worthy of inclusion in a better film.

More of that please, Mr. Gibson.

9. Ran

This is pure hallucinatory genius. The toll of the musketry is shocking - the presentation of the battle almost as an abstract painting is one of the most extraordinary things I've ever seen.  I have no idea if Early Modern Samurai Battle looked anything like this, but it is worth seeing.  Kurosawa also managed to tell the story of a battle well, I understood what was going on, and to a greater or lesser extent it made sense.

That is a hard thing to do and to be commended. As to it's realism? Of those things of which we cannot speak, let us me silent.

8. Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)

This made a very profound impression on me as a small boy. It's total hokum of course, but it is glorious, a curious mashup of the Mutiny (or maybe the first Afghan war?) and the Crimean War. It's based on the Tennyson poem anyway rather than any -ahem- deep reading of history. Something of a guilty pleasure - I love the final scenes, but now know how many horses were killed to create them.

There will never be a more exhilarating charge on screen.

Part Two to come. 


  1. Barry Lyndon? Last of the Mohicans extended cut?

    1. Anon good monkey anon.

      Abide your soul in patience until part two.

    2. Patience? Yeah, yeah, yeah, how long with that take? ;)

  2. Conrad Kinch,

    What a coincidence! The 1936 version of 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' was broadcast on TV this morning in the UK ... and I managed to watch most of it over an extended breakfast.

    All the best,


    1. There's a scenario there Bob. I've been resisting writing it for years though.

  3. Agree it's classic but as both a wargamer and a horse rider I shudder at the thought of the mindless cruelty in the making of this movie. Different days, different standards!

    1. There is that, but my word what a spectacle.

  4. Barry Lyndon indeed & The duellists- an underated masterpiece I feel!

  5. Hear hear on The Patriot - usual Mel Gisbon anti-English 'bolleux' (ie. Tarleton, sadistic sergeant etcetcetc) but WHAT a spectacle... as an AWI gamer it was balm to the soul to see the big battle representations....

  6. The death of Surat Khan is a cinematic pleasure. .

  7. That scene from Ran is brilliant. The fact that the musketeers never reload and the neon of the discharges makes it quite surreal.