A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Friday, 22 September 2017

Late Night Napoleon

Since domestic life is currently a bit unpredictable (as a result of the Contesse being engaged pretty much full-time getting her mother settled in a new home, in another town - a story for another time - in the pub, for preference), I've been watching DVDs late in the evenings for the last week or two.

A few days ago I watched Scott Ridley's super The Duellists for the umpteenth time - always a delight. Knowing the end of the story actually makes for a more relaxed experience. I haven't watched it quite as many times as Bondarchuk's Waterloo, I believe, but it must be getting close.

I've also taken the opportunity to revisit some other Napoleonic titles - some that I've promised myself I would get back to, and a couple that I may never have watched before - at least I didn't remember much of them. [Three upsides of failing memory are (1) no repeats on TV; (2) you make new friends every day; (3) no repeats on TV.]

A couple of nights ago I watched Sacha Guitry's rather quirky Napoleon from 1955. My viewing experience was a little hampered by my having the only edition I could afford - this has dubbed English dialogue, and it is (I think) a Korean-manufactured version which is so heavily compressed that the picture quality is nostalgically reminiscent of those pirated video tapes we used to watch in the last century - or somebody watched them - your grannie will tell you.

Sacha Guitry hosts The Talleyrand Show
The story is threaded together by the rather interesting idea of having the scenes from Napoleon's life narrated (at a social evening) by an elderly Talleyrand (played by Guitry himself). Once you've got used to the strangely detached dubbed speech, and - in my case - the fuzzy pictures, it goes along quite well. Good show at the Coronation - very snazzy. Battle scenes were hampered by lack of resources, but they were mostly cameo shots of a victorious flag, or similar. One major hiccup for me was that they use two different actors for Napoleon, Daniel Gélin as young NB, and Raymond Pellegrin as an older imposter later on. They do not look remotely similar. They even make a feature of the changeover - young, slim Napoleon sits down for a haircut, and after it everyone remarks that he looks completely different. Yes - he does. Never since the glorious Plan 9 from Outer Space has there been such a show-stopping continuity failure.

Before and after that haircut

One thing that I was struck by was the scene where the marshals confront Napoleon and ask him to abdicate - this looks, and plays, so like the similar scene at the start of Waterloo that I would guess Bondarchuk was very familiar with the earlier movie. Anyway, overall I rather enjoyed it - I wouldn't mind a better-restored copy, but I might well watch it again. I mean - Jean Gabin as Lannes - Yves Montand as Lefebvre - you have to watch it again, don't you?

Last night I watched Abel Gance's Austerlitz from 1960. No complaints about the picture quality here - superbly restored, and the original film was very heavy on the composition and photography - no expense spared, beautifully filmed, and the Coronation in this film blows Guitry's (which certainly wasn't bad) out of the water. The visual side of things is hardly impaired by the presence of Claudia Cardinale, Lesley Caron and numerous other delectable ladies in the roles of Napoleon's assorted sisters and mistresses - and we even get Anna Moffo singing, which was an unexpected treat. Yes - all that is splendid - sumptuous, in fact.

Claudia is Pauline - and she'll punch your nose quick as look at you
I have to admit at this point that one problem for me was the dialogue. I read French pretty well, but my understanding of spoken French is helped greatly if there is a teacher at the front, writing it down in chalk on the board. So I am a subtitles man. English subtitles, of course, if they have them (many French films do not), but I can manage well enough with French subtitles - you know, for the hard of hearing (pardon?). This DVD is advertised as having just French subtitles, but they only kick in when Kutuzov and his chums are speaking Russian, or when Pitt and Fox and those other rascals are speaking what I can only assume was supposed to be English. The rest of the time I was left to flounder on, picking up the gist of what was going on. In fact, it wasn't too bad - I sort of managed, though I might have some difficulty explaining exactly why Napoleon was so offended by what Pauline said at the soirée after about an hour.

The film lasts almost 3 hours, which is a little gruelling if you are struggling with the lingo, but it went well enough for me to list it for another viewing fairly soon. The role of Napoleon is played by Pierre Mondy, who is basically a comedy actor - he seems to have been chosen because he was short, and because he produces a number of fantastic, bravura tantrums; this is the most vase-throwing, screaming Napoleon I have seen - is this what he was like? Should we be glad that Gance never made a biopic about Hitler?

The military stuff. Hmm. One has to rise above the petty outrage of their using the wrong belt-buckles or sword knots (or whatever). They did a brave job of putting on the battles, though the instantaneous cuts between outdoors and very-obvious-sets-in-a-very-big-hall jar a bit at times. Given the inevitable difficulty of staging a massed battle with a limited number of extras (Bondarchuk, remember, did not have this problem with Waterloo), it's quite spectacular, but I really didn't understand much of what was going on. I must watch it again, if only for the actual Austerlitz bit at the end. The director was obviously very taken with shots of formless crowds of cavalry racing across the fields, usually with a marshal galloping about 200 yards in front, waving his sabre (this may be why there were so many openings for promotion). There is relatively little infantry action.

I confess that I am not completely clear on all this. At one point Lannes (I think) is leading some charging cavalry (which includes the Chasseurs à Cheval of the Guard), and he clashes with the enemy, and then Murat (with some more charging cavalry, also including the Guard Chasseurs) appears on his left, and things are going swimmingly. Meanwhile, Soult, who is itching to get involved, is sent by Napoleon, with very explicit instructions where to advance and so on. As far as I could see, Soult was then leading another cavalry charge. I'll suspend judgement on this until I've watched it again.

The French won, of course, but the biggest surprise for me came at the end. Having spent the day galloping around sunlit fields, the defeated enemy were suddenly retreating through a winter scene - snowfields - and (unwisely) opted to retreat over a frozen lake. You'll never credit this, but the French artillery put some cannonballs through the ice, and - yes, that's right - there was much spectacular footage of limber teams and foot soldiers falling through the ice. Good heavens, I hear you gasp. [Discuss] 

This all started because I had intended to re-run the French TV mini-series of Napoleon (that's right - the one with Dupardieu and all that lot), which has been sitting waiting for me for a couple of years - I'll get to it, but in the meantime I'm rather enjoying being distracted.

Albert up the Alps
One serious commitment, of course, is that I need to make a decent attempt at watching the re-issue of Gance's 1927 classic, Napoleon (great title), for which I now have the greatly enhanced 2016 edition, with fabby music score by Carl Davis, wonderful digital restoration, lots of extra material somebody found somewhere - what's not to love? Also the magnificently smouldering Albert Dieudonné as the ectomorphic (and apparently quite tall) young Napoleon - this is compulsive viewing, except...

Well, to be ignorant about it, I need drugs to get through it. It weighs in at 5-and-a-half hours and it was, of course, a silent film, so that the acting is a bit extreme throughout. In fact, you get the hang of that, and Davis' score helps greatly with the silent bit - quick example: at one point young Rouget de Lisle is stood up before the Revolutionary crowd, and the scene becomes a complete tour de force as the whole place joins in fervent singing of his new hit, La Marseillaise. Quite how this scene would have worked in the silent version is a point of interest, but of course the new musical score fills it out nicely.

The problem, for me, is that Gance was obviously obsessed with the possibility of making very long scenes, in this virtually unlimited-scope sortie in what was still a new and largely experimental medium. Some of these scenes almost seem to have been left to run, in the hope that they eventually become interesting, or maybe in hope that the relatively unsophisticated cinema audiences of the day might eventually get the idea of what was happening. I can, of course, accept all this for what it is, though 15 minutes into the snowfight at Napoleon's school I was definitely getting twitchy. No - I will make a proper effort at watching the whole thing - I need to check the diary for a consecutive run of evenings, and give it a go. If Napoleon could conquer most of Europe, I'm certain I can get through a damn movie.

A couple of trivia items - there is a cameo appearance by Beethoven in both Gance's 1927 film and Guitry's 1955 one; and Orson Welles, apart from playing Fat Louis XVIII in Waterloo, also appears as Hudson Lowe (boo, hiss) in the Guitry movie, and as Robert Fulton, the American inventor, who appears in Gance's 1960 effort, trying to interest Napoleon in his ideas on steam-powered warships - this all rather earlier than Trafalgar.

[You will gather that I am not an expert in this field. I know so little, in fact, that I even talk about "films", in the plural, rather than "film", in the approved singular.]

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Fighting Next Weekend

On Saturday 30th, I'll be hosting another get-together with those Perthshire Paladins, those Transpontine Terrors, Baron Stryker and Count Goya.

Our action on this occasion will be based on the "EPIC"-sized Commands & Colors scenario for Talavera de la Reina (1809). On my largest available table, this will be staged at about one-half scale, compared to the real battle. Given some more boards and a bigger hall, Talavera is one of the Peninsular War actions I'd like to try on a full, double-width C&CN - I believe we have enough soldiers. [I'd also like to stage a hefty version of Salamanca sometime, but we might have to recruit some more division commanders, and I have some figure painting to do.]

As things stand, Talavera at one-half scale will certainly do to be going on with. I'm very much aware that the worthy JJ recently did a fabulous 18mm version of Talavera - we won't be attempting to compete with the visual riches of that fine effort, but our game promises to be pretty good anyway.

It's a well known tradition, that all the battles of the British Army took place on a hillside, in the rain, at the junction of two maps. On the 30th we shall have another logistical impediment - this is to be one of a series of Saturdays when engineering work will cause the cancellation of all train services to stations in East Lothian, so my visiting generals will have to drive here. If you suspect this might give me a slight, unfair advantage, consider (if you will) how much it must have cost me to arrange this deal with the Scotrail management. My intelligence people have been surpassing themselves.

I'll publish some set-up pictures as we get towards the end of next week.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Steve St Clair and a quarter of a million friends

Someone sent me the link to this video; I hadn't seen it before, though I would guess it is very famous. If you have concerns about the size of your current project, or if you are running out of space for your collection, check this out.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Stripping & Grinding Dept - new kit

Well, it's here. With all due gratitude to everyone who provided advice and guidance, I ordered up a Proxxon rotary tool, and it has arrived, as have a couple of rather nifty little work-stand/clamp/things. I have the safety goggles, the bright lights and the Metallica teeshirt (all right, this last bit is a lie) - I am ready to set about those Bavarian plumes, as a kick-off project.

I'm a little nervous about the bulk and the weight of the tool itself - it's certainly more massive than a needle file or a scalpel. If I have difficulties I'll treat myself to the add-on flexible drive, which means you can leave the main tool on the desktop (or on your lap, as shown in a YouTube demo I was watching - that makes me a little nervous too, but OK). The flexible drive means that the thing you hold in your hand to work with is rather like a dentist's drill. I could carry out root-canal work on the Bavarian army.

Might make a start tomorrow, but it all certainly looks good, and the variable speed turns down v-e-r-y  s-l-o-w if you want - very quiet, no vibration. Now I need to work out the full details of my figure orders to 3 different suppliers, to make up my Stage 1 Bavarian OOB for 1809.

Busy-busy. Idle hands are the devil's playthings; an electric grinder in the hands of an idiot is kind of a dodgy proposition too, so I shall read the leaflets this evening. Onward and upward.

Hooptedoodle #277 - Lunch with Sir Henry

This is really about the tricky little matter of accents - or ahxents, or excents, or....

A long, long time ago, when the world still had a little hope left, I was busily engaged at work on a hefty project which was installing new system development methods and tools. As it happens, the firm which employed me was successful and highly respected, and the project - which was a joint effort between Our Lot and an American specialist software house - became a bit of a flagship in the industry for a while. As a consequence, around about 1991 I found myself presenting a series of lectures at conferences - something of a road show, explaining what we were doing, and why everyone else should spend all their money on doing the same things. I was the tame customer expert, a rare and highly prized life form, and the software company shipped me off, with my lecture slides, to London, Paris, Stockholm, Atlanta, Lisbon and - erm - Glasgow.

In the middle of this period, I was invited to have lunch with my company's chairman, Sir Henry. This was not in recognition of my fine work, you understand, nor did it indicate that Sir Henry might just possibly give a rat's about what we were doing. He had recently been criticised in the business press for being almost invisible - in fact, I think the word "almost" was absent from the criticism. Accordingly, a very expensive PR consultancy was now doing a job on him, and one of the Great Steps Forward was that he should host occasional lunches, attended by randomly selected groups of plebs from his firm, so that he could keep up to date on their skills and their efforts to make him even wealthier, and they could come to see what a warm, caring, avuncular old bugger he really was.

It was, of course, a complete charade, not to say an irritating waste of time and money, but he had to be seen to be trying, at least (and he was, I promise you, very trying), and this was really just a small drop in a vast ocean of waste, anyway.

I had hoped that I would be somewhere down at the shallow end of the table for lunch, where I could nod earnestly and make vague, sycophantic "rhubarb" noises as the brighter little sparklers jostled to catch the Knight's eye. Alas (lucky white heather), I was seated at Sir Henry's right hand, and as the soup arrived he was already asking me what I did, and what I was involved in at present.

Taking care to swallow my (deliberately very small) mouthful of crusty roll before I replied, I spoke slowly and clearly, with what I hoped was a well-judged balance between calm enthusiasm and boring technicality, and with absolutely no inappropriate nervous jokes or hints of self-deprecation. It all seemed to be going quite well until I caught sight of Sir Henry's facial expression, which really put me rather badly off my stride.

Sir Henry was peering at me, blinking, as a man might try to peer into a severe gale from the deckhouse of a fishing boat. His back was hunched, his mouth hung open in a grimace of very obvious pain. This remarkable pantomime was evidently something he had perfected in the past, and the very clear message was:

"I can hear that you are speaking, and I recognise some of the words you use, but I fear you have an accent which is unfamiliar to me, and this is something of a problem; it is necessary for me to make a show of putting up with this for a minute or two, but you appear to come from a background which is outside my comfort zone, so keep it brief, will you?"

You see, I am a little challenged in the accent department. I was born and schooled in Liverpool, though my father's own accent belonged more to rural Lancashire, his ancestors being farming people from the Warrington area. At the age of 18 I went to University in Edinburgh (which is in Scotland, by the way) and I have lived in Central and Southern Scotland ever since. Thus my normal speaking voice has evolved over the years - it was probably a bit of a hotch-potch to start with, and then the need to make myself understood (to get fed, for example) required me to modify my vowel sounds and the figures of speech I used over an extended period, so that I am now instantly recognisable, wherever I go, as Someone from Somewhere Else. The Universal Foreigner.

My former schoolmates and my (very few) remaining family members in Liverpool will, without hesitation, identify that I now have a Scottish accent, a suggestion which would astonish my friends and relatives in Scotland, who think I probably sound as if I come from the North of England, though they might not be quite sure where. If I hear recordings of myself speaking, I would say I maybe sound a little like Michael Palin, or maybe Melvyn Bragg - that sort of thing, anyway - fairly vanilla, educated North of England, right enough. Nothing particularly memorable, nor likely to conjure up images of (say) George Formby, or Yosser Hughes. Nothing (I hope) that suggests I might be incapable of joined-up thinking, or might have a tendency to steal the wheels off your car.



However, it seems Sir Henry remembered our brief chat, and subsequently his secretary sent a message to the head of my Division of the company, asking him was he quite happy that someone with my accent should be acting as a spokesman for our fine organisation. My Director, bless him, said that yes, he was quite happy, though he also made sure that I got the message about Sir Henry's discomfort, so we'll give him only a qualified blessing.

So what on earth was all that? Sir Henry had no idea what I was talking about, partly because it was below his horizon but also because he was too frigging dumb. However, he unerringly managed to pick up on the fact that I might not be one of the Chaps. I filed the incident away - I was a little indignant, I guess, but I was quite a tough fellow in those days. I did not propose to be mortally wounded by a posh old tosser like Sir Henry, and I forgot about it all very quickly.

Now, having remembered him, I checked to see what Sir Henry is up to. Perhaps, I pondered, he is no more? - certainly he has, once again, become invisible. A friend and former work colleague confirmed that he is still alive, but, alas, is not keeping very well. The old fellow is now in his mid-eighties, suffered a major stroke some years ago, is confined to a wheelchair, and has great difficulty with speech.

I find that very sad. I was hardly a close friend, obviously, but it is always tragic to witness the downfall of the mighty. One can only hope that he is still wealthy enough to ensure that all the people who care for him and look after his needs do not have regional or Eastern European accents - at his stage of life he most surely does not need the strain of having to pull that face again.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Bavarians - Figure Samples

This is a little selection of figures for which I have already obtained samples. Here are some miscellaneous infantry poses from Falcon, including a rather charming mounted infantry officer, a couple of artillerymen from SHQ/Kennington and a charging grenadier and a OPC chevauxleger from Hinton Hunt.

The castings are resting on a cutting board, and the little squares are 5mm. All these ranges stand 22mm soles to eye, the hats and weapons match, they have sensible human proportions. It all looks rather promising, doesn't it?

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Hooptedoodle #276 - Supellism: from a Dark Place

A previous blog post of mine was intended to be about the labelling of children's clothing, but it accidentally strayed into rather more touchy areas such as stereotyping in society, and prejudice.

I found the experience particularly uncomfortable because, privately, I have recently been troubled by growing doubts about myself. I have never really spoken openly of this before, and I find it hard to write about. Obviously, one has to maintain appearances; one's career and standing in society depend very much on being accepted, and there are clear implications for the interests of our families, but one also has to be at peace with oneself. It is very hard to live a lie.

Let's cut to the chase: I am becoming more convinced that I am not as I may seem to others - in my heart I am - well, to be blunt about it, a wardrobe. I realise this may give rise to some incredulity, but it is true; I am now almost sure that the real me, the me that the everyday world does not get to see, is a fine, handsome wardrobe.

There, I've said it. It wasn't as hard as I expected. I'm not sure that a blog is a good place to discuss this, but I have previously raised the topic with a couple of close friends and their reaction was disappointing, though maybe predictable - exactly the sort of unreasoning, stereotyping behaviour that we have to expect, that so-called social norms instill in people. It was pointed out to me that I do not make it as a wardrobe on a number of counts - organically, materially and functionally. Not even the most devout follower of Thomas Stahlberg could dispute that I fail on one of the key facets of being a wardrobe - i.e. no-one can keep clothes in me, at least not to any useful extent. I am not discouraged; I feel I have to stick to my guns, to follow this through. 

This self-doubt thing is not entirely new. For years, to all outward appearances, I was an actuary working for an insurance company, but there were many occasions when I seriously thought that I would rather be almost anything else. Once, on a flight to Frankfurt, having drunk too much Lucozade, I woke up convinced I was an Eccles cake, but that is a story in itself.

Another story
Naturally, I have looked around on the internet to see if there are others who feel like this, and I have been reassured to find that supellism, as it is called, apparently, is surprisingly common, especially in the USA, though most of the people affected there seem to regard themselves as sofas. I have avoided the self-help fora thus far - too easy to get sucked in (or plumped up), and too many tales of tragedy for my taste. This has to be a positive change, or I'm not going to proceed with it.

I was genuinely flabbergasted to learn that my local County Council - here in rural, unsophisticated Scotland - has a trained, specialist counsellor in exactly this field. That does seem a remarkably long shot, doesn't it? As it happens, she has been on holiday in the Farne Islands for four years, but the message on her voicemail service assures me that she will be in touch as soon as she gets back.

You can have an operation. I don't know too much about this yet, but it seems that it is carried out in stages. The first step is to get yourself veneered - I thought a nice, traditional, satin-finish, light oak would complement my personality best, though I am still thinking about it. I have written off for a leaflet.

A nice, burred oak - tasteful, restrained, dignified
I have also been warned that a number of people and institutions, Her Majesty's Department of Work and Pensions being one, may react unfavourably to my coming out as a wardrobe. No-one suggested this was going to be easy.

I am not going to bombard anyone with this topic, or give daily updates, or become evangelical about it. I shall pursue it quietly, in my own way. I felt that airing the matter like this would give me a further opportunity to examine my own feelings about it, and maybe bring comfort to others who might share my situation.

If you find that you gain great solace from extended visits to the furniture departments of large retail stores during your lunch-breaks from work (in my case, coincidentally, it was usually John Lewis), that might be a clue. If, like me, you are mystified that the bar staff cannot actually see you waiting to be served, that might be a clue. If, again like me, you find that standing motionless in a corner of the bedroom for hours is surprisingly liberating, that might definitely be a clue. And - finally - if you have already looked for Thomas Stahlberg on Google then you should try to get help as soon as you can.

One more thing. If you find any element of this post tasteless or offensive, go and have a big drink of water, look at yourself in the mirror and breathe deeply a few times before you send me a flamer.

I feel better now - still troubled, but better.