Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Muskets at the Movies: Black powder battle on film - Part Three - The Final Countdown

Kinch has 'is popcorn and is ready to go

Unlike Bob or Foy, I am really terrible at maintaining blog posts that are series. Not for me Hoopdoodle #241 or "I have been to...", I tend to get distracted by something shiny and forget to do anything further. So in the interests of breaking that particular habit, here is the final post in the series "Muskets at the movies."

4.War & Peace 

To be honest, this is on the list for the sheer mass and scale of humanity that are present in the battle scenes. I haven't watched it since I read the book, but my overwhelming  memory of the film was spectacle. Particularly in these CGI days, it is worth noting that those are real men and real things happening on screen. 

The Russians certainly do things in a grand style. 

3. Glory 

I love this film and there is a lot to love about it. It has an intense evocation of time and place, a powerful ensemble cast, a brilliant score and great script.  I was surprised that Denzel Washington got the Oscar, not that his performance wasn't good, I just thought that Freeman and Broderick were better. But disregarding it's value as a very fine film, Glory does seem to me to be a convincing portrayal of black powder combat in American Civil War.  The general amateurishness of the armies, the long range fire fights, the sudden and brutal hand to hand combat are all captured perfectly on film. 
But the stand out moment for me in Glory is a scene in a hospital where the action isn't shown. It's all done in closeup and I really captures to my mind the horror of the pre-chloroform surgery.  The story is told entirely through Mathew Broderick's face and the dialogue. It would have been easy to have done this gratuitously, but everything about this particular piece of cinema is perfect.  I have not been able to find a better quality recording of the clip, but there is a clip below. Be warned, it is not for the faint of heart or the easily upset. 

2. Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon is a film like Glory - it's just a great show.  The acting, the music (I can't hear Sarabande without getting chills), the sets, the whole thing is just fantastic.  But in addition to being a great film which you should see regardless, it does get a lot of things right in it's portrayal of black powder battle. The stand out scene for this is the "nameless skirmish" where British and French infantry face off against each other during the Seven Years War.

There's a lot to like in this scene, but the fact that they have the appropriate number of men, performing (to my inexperienced eye) the appropriate evolutions at the appropriate pace and you get to see it up close and in long shot is worth the price of entry alone. The stately pace of 18th century battle along with its gruesome aftermath are enough to stir the blood of any wargamer.

1. Waterloo

The scene above is the most extraordinary depictions of black powder battle I have ever seen. War and Peace may have had similar scale, but the tidal wave of horseflesh washing around the infantry squares is simply breath taking. The battle scenes are excellent, the acting is top notch and the casting is second to none.

In as much as a film can, I also think that Waterloo also manages to give some sense of what occurs when a general is commanding, the decisions that he makes and the agony of making hard choices with limited information under time pressure. Steiger is a marvelous Napoleon, Dan O'Herlihy is superb as Ney and I will always have a soft spot for Christopher Plummer (Wellington) and Jack Hawkins (Picton).

The shots of the attack on Hougomont are particularly good.  The action fills the frame in the foreground, but you can still see the reserves moving up in the background.  To have accomplished such a thing in a time before CGI is an extraordinary achievement.

I can't say enough good things about this film to be honest.

So there you have it.  A short and very subjective whistle stop tour of black powder battle on screen.

Any glaring ommissions?


  1. Good choices, Kinch. I would also include the battle scenes from The Patriot (though the rest of the movie was rubbish). Likewise Gods and Generals; impressive battle scenes, but turgid dialogue.

    1. I agree Johnny, I actually included the Patriot (which I think was number 9?) in the earlier countdown.

      I found Gods and Generals a very poor watch to be honest, though I haven't looked at it in ten years or so. I remember getting very annoyed with it - mainly because I thought it could have been so much better.

  2. My apologies if it featured earlier, but I am particularly taken with the Daniel Day Lewis version of "Last of the Mohicans" - the bit where they are ambushed in the forest clearing is magnificent...

    1. It is rather excellent isn't it?

      Michael Mann does good work generally and the score is just fantastic.

  3. What about the 1967 version of "Charge of the light brigade"? Excellent!

    1. I must confess I've never seen it. Richardson annoys me, but I should really knuckle down and watch it.

      I do like John Osborne though. Really enjoyed "A Patriot for me".

  4. I've really enjoyed this rundown, Conrad. I'm not sure if I should be happy or embarrassed that I haven't seen any of these, but several are now on my short list. First in the queue is Barry Lyndon; do you think it would be okay to watch for eleven year old girls?
    Thank you again for the great posts!


    1. I'm glad you liked it Daryl.

      I would say that there is very little in Barry Lyndon that would upset today 11 year olds, hardened campaigners that they are these days. However, I suspect that they might find what is quite a slow film very boring.

  5. Some other films for consideration:
    The Buccaneer (Battle of New Orleans)
    The Alamo
    Potop, Colonel Wolodojski (The rest of the Sienkowicz trilogy)
    Peter the Great
    TV Series "By Sword Divided"
    Drums Along the Mohawk
    Santa Fe Trail
    TV Series "Sharpe and...."
    Hope this helps.

    "Faithful To His Unhappy Country"