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

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

History as Farce - [look behind you!]

A few years ago, I spent a good while pondering the dreadful reviews of the 2002 French TV mini-series Napoleon, and decided that I should give it a miss. Eventually, a very cheap new copy turned up on eBay and - of course - I bought it. Since then I have managed to find lots of other things to do, so have avoided having to pluck up the courage to watch it. Last couple of days I thought it was probably time to give it a go, as the Christmas visitors have gone home and the New Year visitors have not yet arrived, so I have watched the first 2 instalments. My oh my.

The Ill-Tempered Clavier?

First thing I was dreading was the rumour I heard that the dialogue is badly overdubbed into English - you know the sort of thing - the young heroine's lips move rapidly and vehemently for 2 minutes, and the voice of an elderly American actress is heard to say "No way!". I had spent some little time trying to get a French-language version with English subtitles, but in fact it was a false rumour - the actors do speak English lines (so presumably there are different versions), though it is clear that on occasions they do not necessarily understand what they are saying. That's fine - you can get the hang of that. Oh yes - and my DVD, unless you do something about it, has Danish subtitles, which is probably why I got it cheap. OK - suppress the subtitles. Relax. Enjoy.

Christian Clavier - who certainly has commendable charisma - plays Napoleon as a pantomime character [oh yes he does!]. He is also, to put it bluntly, a very short, middle aged man with a comedic appearance - and no amount of his staring at the horizon changes that. The make-up applied to make him into Young Napoleon is a hoot, in fact all romantic scenes (and there are a great many) are a bit of a hoot, since his ladies are all, to a man(?), maybe a foot taller than he is. which makes staring into each other's eyes hazardous.

As far as the military stuff goes, we obviously have to cut them a fair amount of slack - a great deal of money was spent, and they really tried very hard, so it would not be reasonable to carp on about detail errors in uniforms or about the impossibility of doing a convincing full-scale reproduction of Austerlitz in a film (though, come to think of it, Bondarchuk did a good job of exactly that, but he had advantages of cheap manpower). It is attractive to watch - it is, after all, a fairy tale. There is a point where NB says "I have an army of 150,000 men with which I can conquer Europe!", and shortly (sorry - I mean quite soon) afterwards we see his army in action, and we manage to avoid thinking "so where are the other 149,875?".

I'm actually enjoying it a lot, though it has required a little adjustment to achieve this. It is soap opera, and not very high grade soap, at that. Empire-dale Farm, maybe? The Imperial family sitting in a semi-circle, taking turns to speak, is in the best traditions of high school drama groups the world over. The small Boy Scout camp which houses the army of invasion at Boulogne raises only a slight smirk once you have entered into the spirit of the thing. The history is a little odd, maybe - astonishing omissions and some surprising amounts of time given to what I would have dismissed as trivia, which just goes to show what a good thing it is for everybody that I don't work in television. It is pretty clear that the director (Yves Simoneau) has taken some major liberties with Max Gallo's novels (on which the films are based), and I leave it to someone who has read them to offer an opinion about the liberties that Mr Gallo had already taken with history-as-we-know-it. Not to worry - we have a gripping story, we have some colourful characters, we have a context which is close to my heart, and it is beautifully filmed. Pass the chocolates and get me another brandy and I am a happy bunny.

Nah - something jars.

It is very like the feeling I got watching the old Sherlock Holmes movies - I used to wonder why Dr Watson never told Holmes what a patronising, appallingly boring oaf he was - what a total lack of interpersonal skills he was cursed with, what a tragic shortage he had of compassion, or humility, or any other redeeming qualities - and hit him very hard with his umbrella. Or a large haddock would have done the trick. I would have stood and cheered - and no doubt would have been banned from the cinema.

Yes - it's the Alimentary Watson Effect. Napoleon utters his great plan for Austerlitz - "we will retreat a little, and when they follow us down the hill, we will charge back and kick the sheet out of them" (or something like that), and I swear the assembled General Staff all go "ooooooh!". Every line he speaks comes straight out of Napoleon's Quotations [the Concise Edition], and is delivered with the same, sneering, wide eyed expression of crazed over-confidence. I suspect that he will get his come-uppens in later instalments - history suggests that there may be a little of that. In the meantime, as well as the choccies and the armagnac, I intend to keep a large haddock handy.

Then I can relax and enjoy it fully.


  1. I look forwards - with relish (for the haddock) - to a full and detailed report of the 'come-uppens'...

  2. I always felt that Nigel Bruce did "The Man of Action" no credit.

    Edward Hardwicke, David Burke, Martin Freeman and Jude Law have all done better.

  3. You mean they did carry a haddock?

    My problem has always been with the Conceited Git Holmes, not the Man of Action.

  4. Mon chéri General Foy, Nothing I've seen to date has outdone the wonderful spectacle and acting of "Waterloo". To me, tackling such a grande subject should require a matching budget. The old American movie "Desiree" managed to capture Napoleon's adult life quite well enough even thought it only focused on a limited subject.

    Perhaps I can locate a copy on eBay or Amazon.com?

  5. Absolument! - Rod Steiger is to me the definitive Napoleon - no argument there. Brilliant film - some odd choices for the casting of some of the Brits - Jack Hawkins (Picton) for example - he'd had his larynx removed some years earlier, so all his lines are spoken by another actor impersonating Jack Hawkins, which is very weird indeed. I guess no-one will ever again have the resources to be able to attempt such a film using real people - I would feel very uneasy about someone doing it with computer graphics. Thank you for reminding me - I have a very wet afternoon here, so will dig out Waterloo and watch it again!

    Bonne annee