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?