Thursday, 5 January 2012
History as Farce  – And It All Ended in Tears
And I knew it would. The first slightly uncomfortable moment came when the Imperial Headquarters were making themselves at home in Moscow. I was a bit worried about Napoleon riding his horse up the stairs, but the real shock came when someone burst into the room, shouting that Moscow was in flames, and when they drew the curtains back, sure enough, the whole city was an inferno. You'd think they'd have got some inkling of this a little earlier, but never mind - it was a great shot. The way home from Russia, of course, is very harrowing indeed - in fact this worked better than most of the film, since small groups of wretched stragglers looked more appropriate in this context. Then Napoleon is terribly rude to Metternich, who has come to Paris to tell him that it is all very well for him to declare peace, but the Allies would like to insist on a few conditions, and the subsequent unpleasantness of 1813 blends seamlessly into 1814 without any mention of Leipzig or anything significant like that. Next minute Paris surrenders and we're off to Elba. I am personally pleased to note that the surrender is blamed on brother Joseph, not on Marmont, for a refreshing change.
According to Gallo's script (apparently), Napoleon's decision to return to France is primarily triggered by his learning of Josephine's death, which seems a surprisingly oblique piece of whimsy, and when he gets there he is intercepted by the 5eme Ligne, commanded in person by Marshal Ney - an OOB which only ever existed in the screenplay for the Bondarchuk movie - I believe that in reality Ney turned up some days later. Waterloo is pretty much what you'd expect - a brave effort with sparse resources - but there is a strange moment when Grouchy has his classic argument with Gerard about whether their detached force should march towards the sound of battle. I’ve always envisaged this force plugging along muddy roads, but the artistic director prefers to have them arranged scenically around the countryside as though they were already in battle. Also, because of the obvious manpower shortages, battalions are seen marching about very smartly in what looks like about 33:1 figure scale - the units are 6 men wide by about 5 deep. It looks like a wargame played with real men - like giant chess.
There are some interesting bits while Napoleon considers a series of mad schemes to go to America (to become a scientist), to be smuggled through the British blockade in a barrel (which he rejects as inappropriate for the Emperor of the French) or to give himself up to the English and request a nice house near London with a few rose bushes. Of course, it's all baloney, and he ends up in St Helena, trying hard to re-establish some credibility as a nice guy. Hudson-Lowe, the governor, is brilliantly cast - the perfect Wicked Stepfather. As Napoleon's health worsens he has a series of flashbacks about his days at the military academy, where he was told that he would never amount to anything, and - infuriatingly - in his death-bed scene I didn't hear his last words, so will have to watch that bit again.
The scrolling text at the end explains that his ashes were eventually returned to France, where he now rests in Paris, and the splendid shot of Napoleon's tomb brought me a bit of a personal lump in the throat, since this is the exact spot where my grandfather introduced me to Napoleon and his adventures when I was 12 or so - and compromised the rest of my life! There is a family story that, years earlier, my grandfather, who moved to Paris in his early twenties, took his own father to the Invalides and the old man, who had a proverbially blunt turn of phrase, pondered the tomb for a while, and said, "Well, they certainly didn't want the bugger to get out of that again, did they?"
And on that note of appropriate bathos I shall leave Napoleon to the tender mercies of history, but I thought I'd mention a couple of points that came up in my reading this week - in the Campagnes du Capitaine Marcel, and in the autobiographical account of the Peninsular War by Lemonnier-Delafosse, I found two separate references to organisation of voltigeurs at brigade level, which I was pleased about because I have my wargames armies organised in this way, so all supportive evidence is welcome! Marcel was captain in charge of the voltigeur company of the 3rd battalion of the 69e Ligne, in the VI Corps in Spain, and he refers to a major of the 6e Leger who commanded the combined light troops of his brigade in action. Lemonnier-Delafosse was captain of the 4th chasseur company of the 1st battalion of the 31e Leger (who were, as it happens, Piedmontese) who were part of Ferrey's Division at Salamanca, which formed the reserve and covered the retreat of the French army - he describes the combined "battalions" of voltigeurs from each brigade being sent out en tirailleur to skirmish, with excellent effect.
That'll do nicely.