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

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Adventures of General Reel (or Rile)

It takes me a while to build up to these things; for some time I’ve been aware of the Pen & Sword series of Napoleonic DVDs, but I was rather put off by some unenthusiastic customer reviews on Amazon. Eventually, I had a careful think about the matter (prompted by a reduction in price, I admit) – if we are sensible about such things, I am not looking for a piece of great art, and I have previously bought and enjoyed the Pegasus series of ECW films (notwithstanding their cheerful, home-movie quality and the guy in the dodgy fake whiskers playing Charles I), so I decided to order some up.

I bought all four of the Waterloo Collection volumes, plus the newer one about Salamanca. Thus far I have watched the first two of the Waterloo items, and I am very pleased with them – I found no trace of the sound problems which came in for such harsh criticism on Amazon from Napoleon Fan, of Hants, UK, and quickly got into the feel of the presentation. This is not the History Channel – thank God – we do not get constant reminders (in case we have forgotten in the previous 10 seconds) that “he is now in great danger – if a bullet hits him in the head he could be deaded” – and the pace and style are fine. I warmed to the affable chaps (all professional battlefield guides, apparently) who walked us around the various locations and described the action sensibly and in a manner calculated to enable us to get a good feel for how the battle developed. I felt, whilst watching, that a film presentation can have definite advantages over actually being there; that is not to say that I would not like to go there, but watching the film gives a valuable overview and covers more ground more quickly than a walking tour could, for example. All right – go there, but watch the films first.

All very positive then – provided you approach this in the right spirit, I would recommend these films wholeheartedly (this is based only on having watched the first two, of course) – they are intelligently done and very informative – well, I found them so. A few minor themes occurred to me on the way:

(1) the film makers have gone to a lot of trouble to correct the traditional British downplaying of the role played by the Dutch-Belgian and German troops in the Waterloo campaign, which is welcome.

(2) the many inserted clips of re-enactors add colour and a lot of authenticity, but most of the participants, strangely, seem unable to stand up straight, never mind march convincingly. A real sergeant would have given them all a right shouting-at. I’m sure the buttons and lace are correct, but it would be nice if they looked like soldiers, too, rather than like self-conscious office workers dressed up. That may have been a very elderly thing to say – I’ll think about that.

(3) the presenters’ grasp of French pronunciation is so universally, well, crap, that at first I almost thought it must be a joke. I have no wish to appear precious about this, but if I were making a film about a battle involving a lot of people and places with French names (to show on the telly, like), I think I would have taken a little more trouble to get the hang of this – especially if I claimed to make my living at battlefield tours, and thus, presumably, to travel in Belgium a lot. It is not even up to the WW1 soldiers’ “san-fairy-anne” standard – at least that was a phonetic approximation. No, this is a literal, schoolboy reading of French words, mispronounced with the most English of English accents, avoiding all traces of any (embarrassing?) foreign-sounding inflection. Did they coach them specially? Did they agree this strange assault on the French tongue, as a matter of policy, before they started? Interesting. Poor old General Reille is referred to by a number of versions of his name – none even slightly correct. In the general flow of things, General Drouet d’Erlon morphs into General Drouot, who I believe was a different bloke altogether. Not to worry – it grates a bit, but I got used to it.

Not put off by any of this, I look forward to watching Part 3 tonight. Very good on a dark evening, with a glass of something.

Reading further, I see that the same team have produced a further two titles on the Peninsular War, one being a history of the 95th Rifles and one entitled The Keys to Spain, which I believe is a discussion of fortresses and sieges. I am intrigued to see that these are available only in the American NTSC format (that’s “Never the Same Color”, I am told) and are Region 1, so will not play on European TV equipment. Somewhere in my library of software I’m sure I have something which will convert video files into other formats, so I must look further in to this. Maybe they are available in a more UK-friendly format, and I just missed them.

Anyway, if you’re prepared to approach them in the right spirit, these DVDs would make a nice little stocking filler. God – is it that time already?


  1. I had not seen any of this series before. Appreciate your review and your recommendations. I may give them a try!

    1. If Vol 3 is a stinker I'll let you know!

  2. Thanks Foy. I'll keep an eye out for these at the local library. Ref your point 2, it may be an elderly thing to do, but sounds true. I was an American Civil War reenactor in my 30s and early 40s. Most of us were wannabes with no time in a real military and so no knowledge of dress, deportment, or physical fitness. Many of us had waist sizes in the high 30s and up (actually, the size 38s were considered slender). We couldn't drill much, we couldn't march far, and had StonewallJackson's foot cavalry ever seen us,they would have punched us all in the face and taken our shoes. And to think tourists looked at us and thought it was history. As you can see, confessing my sins now is bringing me some peace. :)

    1. Michael - I think I mentioned this before in some post or other, but apparently when Ridley Scott (and his brother?) did the History Channel TV version of Gettysburg there was some trouble because they insisted that all the fatties among the re-enactment units had to stand at the back, out of picture, since it was felt that an army which patently was too unfit to march would make the film ridiculous (and it is not too great, even without that, imho). I can't remember how they got away with it, but they did, they got their way, and there was a lot of harrumphing about alleged lardism, or whatever. I also read somewhere about someone making a movie about WW1, and they had a problem, since everyone that wanted to be an extra in the film had perfect teeth - they had to get the make-up people to give people authentically rotten, crooked teeth for 1915.

      Cheers - Tony

  3. I got an interesting email from Martin P, who reckons that battlefield guides may, like him, have first learned their Waterloo history from magazines as a kid, long before they heard the names spoken, or learned any French, and the names stuck in this ancient, sacred form.

    Martin - I've thought about your theory, and I reject it. Thanks.

    Interesting, though.

  4. The whole set has been doing the rounds of the lads while we've been on the 100 Days Campaign thing. You don't have to watch, just listen while you paint. I think they are all very good indeed. I may splash out on the Salamanca one.

  5. Have now watched all the Waterloo Collection, and if anything they got better as the series went on. Some things in there which were new to me - never seen much about the Battle of Wavre, for example. Very good.