Napoleonic, WSS & ECW wargaming, with a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Monday 25 December 2017

Hooptedoodle #289 - It's Amazing

La Duchesse Nails the Punchline

La Duchesse Veuve Culdechat (1934-   )
It being the Season of Goodwill, today we were delighted to welcome my mother-in-law to the humble comforts of the Chateau Foy. It is some time since she made a state visit at this time of year - you can read about the last occurrence here if you wish.

You will gather that we are always on our very best behaviour on such occasions. However, today her visit went very smoothly, and, as a bonus, she undoubtedly produced what so far has been the best line of the holiday period around here.

During the chatter before lunch, she suddenly asked me, "Do you still do - erm - whatever it is you do with toy soldiers...?"

You will recognise that this would be the moment for cheery self-confidence on my part, so I put on a big smile and my best, reassuringly breezy baritone.

"Oh yes - very much so," I said. "In fact, that's been going very well recently - there are a couple of chaps who live not too far from here, and I've been getting together with them for some pretty big games. Splendid fun!"

My smile may have been sagging a little at the end of this, but she was very positive about it all.

"That's good - it's amazing, though, isn't it?"

"Erm - what is?"

"It's amazing," she said, "that there are two people in Scotland that have the same interest as you."

And - of course, as ever - she is completely correct.

Saturday 23 December 2017

Thinking Aloud? - Marston Moor (maybe)

Royalist celebs preparing for Marston Moor - the fellow in the carriage may be
the Marquis of Newcastle, enjoying a crafty pipe of tobacco
One of this week's Things to Think About in the Background is the possibility of my staging an ECW battle - possibly in February. This is to be a proper, social game, not one of my weird solo efforts, so I am keen to make a decent job of it. Any kind of a historically-based scenario is always viewed with some suspicion here at Chateau Foy, but since the tie-in with history usually vanishes after about two turns it's not really a major concern.

My short list of promising scenarios has been steady at a choice of two for the past month. I did an ECW game based on Kilsyth (that's Montrose vs the Covenanters) a few years ago, which went well, and is a smallish action on interesting terrain, with plenty of potential movement, and highlanders and Irishmen and all sorts - that might be an attractive thing to have another go at.

On the other hand, it is tempting to go for the Grand Bash, just for the mind-numbing spectacle of the thing. I am drawn towards Marston Moor - hardly a leap of the imagination, you might think, but I've never attempted it, and it does have a certain [moronic?] appeal - flat, open field, groaning with toy soldiers, minimal scenery - all the alarm bells should be ringing.


I've been doing a bit of reading, as you would expect - everything from Peter Young to Osprey, with John Barratt and Newman and a few others on the way - I've even looked at scenarios for MM in De Bellis Civile and Charlie Wesencraft's Pike & Shot book.


The major criteria, of course, are the lowbrow ones: how many soldiers have I got, and how many would I need? What size table? That was easier - I believe that, without any extra figure painting (always a potential disappointment, since, in my experience, the fresh units always get eliminated within the first few moves of their debut appearance), I can set up a ⅔-scale version of the battle on my larger (10'6" x 5') table. The ⅔ refers to numbers of troops, rather than of units - we'll just assume that the smaller entities were assembled into fewer, larger groupings...

OK - looks pretty good. I need to improvise some scenario-specific rules for the treatment of the small bodies of musketeers which both armies interspersed among their units of horse in this battle, but that's all part of the fun. Righto - at the moment, it looks like Marston Moor is feasible. The background thinking may continue.

You may hear more of this, in time. I'd even get to field Rupert and his magnetic dog - the dog doesn't know what he's in for, does he?

Sunday 17 December 2017

A Christmas Greeting

I've decided to snap out of my unnecessary paranoia about the winter weather - it's all part of the cycle of the seasons, after all - if we didn't have winters then we couldn't have summers, and the crops wouldn't grow, and all that. Nature is what it is - let's just celebrate it.

Stob Dearg - Glencoe

Loch Restil
Here are some suitably frosty photos of the Highlands of our beloved Scotland (borrowed from a couple of hikers'/photographers' websites I'm fond of), and the scene in the Great Hall here at Chateau Foy as we get ready for the festive season.

Whether you just chanced by here, or you are a regular reader, or if you are a good friend, or even if you never got here and never read this, I wish everyone all the very best for Christmas, the New Year and the future. May your hearth be cosy, may the mince pies remind you of childhood.

Thursday 14 December 2017

Hooptedoodle #288 - Donkey Award - another solution for a problem you didn't know you had

Courtesy of a couple of whizzo articles from, an exciting glimpse of the future - pick your own nightmare.

Naturally, we are all fascinated by the possibilities of the scientific world of plant nanobionics, which has recently produced such marvels as a variety of spinach which can give off a warning glow in the presence of explosives (if you don't believe me, click here). The idea is based around the development of  microparticles containing enzymes and other organic substances, which are small enough to be absorbed into the leaves, so that extra reactions can be introduced into the plant's normal repertoire.

MIT have recently developed a strain of watercress which glows in the dark. This was achieved by studying the chemical processes used by fireflies, and introducing microparticles into the humble watercress which will simulate this same light-producing trick. Thus far, it isn't very bright, to be quite honest, but the hope is that it should be possible to engineer plants as seedlings so that the trick will last throughout the life of the plant - the aim being to make it hereditary. There is hope that indoor plants will be developed which require no additional energy to produce a light bright enough to read by, thus saving some of the estimated 20% of the world's electricity bill which goes towards providing lighting. Beyond this there are visions of specially "hacked" species of trees whose leaves will glow bright enough to replace electric street lighting - just think of that.

If we ignore the potential psychological damage to confused fireflies, not to mention what chaos will hit the streets in the autumn when these wondrous shining leaves fall off, you may still wish to share with me some concern at the possibility that someday it may never be dark again. Fear not, o timid soul - the engineers at MIT are already considering that the hacked trees may be further tweaked so that they can turn themselves off on a given command, so what can possibly go wrong?

What if the plants propagate and spread naturally, beyond the places we want them? Is this the future botanic section of Jurassic Park?

I really don't know how people can be so negative when there is so much potential out there. Read all about it here.

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Histofig - courtesy of the Wayback Machine

A sample of what's on the Histofig archive - some Württembergers
I'm not sure if this is strictly legal, but I thought I'd share it - if I get complaints, I'll pull the post, and you can forget I ever mentioned it.

I used to be very fond of a very nice French website, Histofig, dedicated to Napoleonic uniforms and army organisation - it was not always easy to find your way around it, and it was never complete, but a lot of what was available there was attractive and very useful, and featured the very fine colour illustrations of Frédéric Pouvesle. [And before anyone asks, no - I don't mean Historifigs, the American figure manufacturer who still make some of the Scruby ranges.]

Anyway, like a lot of things one doesn't appreciate sufficiently at the time, it suddenly vanished. I gather that the information on the site was subsequently made available on a commercial basis - I don't know very much about that.

To my surprise, I am informed that it is still possible to access at least part of the old site, it is archived HERE. This post is just for info - I have no stake in this - if it is useful to you, have a look. It's always sad when these things are lost to us.

Thursday 7 December 2017

1809 Spaniards - More Light Horse

Yesterday I received a couple of commissioned units which have been in the pipeline for a year or so. Mr B has been somewhat indisposed recently, with one thing and another, but he duly delivered in time for Christmas, so I now have a nice present to give myself - or perhaps it was for last year - doesn't matter really.

Here, in Mr B's trademark style, are two custom-built units of converted Hinton Hunt figures. One is simply a Creeping Elegance project, to replace another unit of the same name, which I was never really happy with - so here is the new version of the Husares Españoles...

Heavily converted HH figures - French mirliton hussar, hacked about, plume moved
to left side - not quite sure what the provenance of the horses is - if you're an HH enthusiast,
please spot the donor castings
I'll attempt a team photo of all the Spanish light cavalry for 1809 - that's
6 units of converted Hintons
The other unit utilises a very nice converted figure which I've admired ever since Clive (I think) got some a few years ago. Here, ladies and gentlemen, are the Lanceros de Carmona, all ready for Bailen.

Something a little different - straight from the pages of Jose Maria Bueno
They're nice, aren't they? Complete with stripey blankets - businesslike.

And that is the Spanish light cavalry complete, except....

Well, except that it would be a shame to waste the older version of the hussars, so I may repaint them and re-recruit them as the Husares de San Narciso - not sure about this. Beyond current planning, anyway.

There are now just 4 units of heavy (well, heavier) cavalry still to be painted for the 1809 Spanish army. - 1 of dragoons and 3 of line cavalry. They are in the new, all-singing, all-dancing plan for 2018.

Wednesday 6 December 2017

Hooptedoodle #287 - The Sun Made It Again

08:13am 6th December 2017, South East Scotland
Having got up early this morning (lots to do), and having been subjected to the radio news long enough to get up to speed on what those ridiculous clowns in Westminster have been doing, and having heard the latest forecasts for the economy and the weather, I am almost surprised that the sun bothered to come up today.

In fact it did such a good job that the Contesse went out on the steps with her camera.

Perhaps there is still a little hope.

Coffee. Toasted bagels. Franz Schmidt's 1st Symphony. It all helps.

Saturday 2 December 2017

Getting Better Organised - Productivity Is a Good Thing

Painting has been going pretty well recently - by my standards! Only bad news is that I'm adding to the queue faster than I'm getting through it. Current big refurb job on a load of vintage Napoleonic French infantry is doing OK, though not setting the grass on fire - I've just finished a second coat on the white, and it's still not as opaque as I'd like it, so a third coat is coming up. Elsewhere I have some jobs outstanding for the Spanish and Portuguese - notably some pretty challenging cavalry - and then there are some other Peninsular War things, but the big monster coming up on the blind side is the 20mm Bavarian army which is to start after New Year - there are plenty of figures ready now and there's more on the way.

In the circumstances I am very pleased to have re-established contact with David, who did some nice painting for me a few years ago - this should be a big help. I'll be shipping off some 1809 Spaniards for his attention in a week or so. I've unearthed the pilot figure for this first batch - these will be the Reales Guardias Españolas, who are destined to be brigaded with my existing Guardias Walonas in the Reserve division. The figure is a modified NapoleoN casting - some tweaks in the cuff detail to make him into a guardsman. Two battalions of these chaps will be a weight off my conscience - less little voices to nag me about not being painted yet. The intention is to have one battalion in the brown overalls illustrated, the other in dark blue.

If all goes to plan, the finished troops should be ready in about a month, and there are some more Spanish light infantry next up...

Tuesday 28 November 2017

Hooptedoodle #286 - A Brief Journey into the Unknown

Saturday was the day for my exciting trip to Perth & Kinross, which is unusually exotic for someone who doesn't get out much. Since I am not too confident about the last bit of the route, I transferred the satnav from my car into the van and loaded up the route. It is a very ancient Garmin Nuvi 250 - the only reason I persist with it is because I invested in a lifetime supply of map updates. Whether it is for my own lifetime or the device's is a matter of moot - I could never raise the courage to find out.
I was aware that there would be a strange bit in the middle of the run, since, though my maps were updated pretty recently, they predate the September opening of the new Forth road bridge, the Queensferry Crossing. I was interested to see what Martina (Ms Satnavrilova, the resident female voice in the device) would make of the lack of information.

Last time Martina had a nervous collapse was some years ago, on a very wet day in Inverness, when she got into an eternal loop in the one-way system, and the display briefly turned psychedelic before I switched her off, out of sympathy as much as irritation.

On Saturday, probably predictably, as I left the approach road for the old bridge, the display showed that I was travelling through a clear white space (previously farm fields), which became a clear blue space as I reached the water. There was the usual image of the rear of a car in the middle, but the rest of the display was blank. Martina said, "recalculating...  recalculating... recalculating..." over and over, for about 3 or 4 minutes, and then sort of trailed off. The display still showed me heading off into the unknown - although the view outside the windscreen was of traffic, and of the road over the new bridge on a nice sunny morning, the display made me feel rather lonely - almost homesick. I felt a bit like the Voyager spacecraft heading into the depths of space.

Voyager on its way to Kinross
As I approached the other side, Martina suddenly brightened up, though she didn't sound too confident.

"In one mile," she announced, "enter roundabout...", though there was nothing on the screen apart from the little car. Soon after, the road joined the Northern approach for the old bridge, and Martina was back to her businesslike self.

"Enter roundabout, and take first exit...", and normal service was restored. It was amusing to see what had happened, but I have to say it is not comfortable to behold that you are lost at sea. Today I am updating the maps again - that should sort it. Mind you, even the latest Garmin updates still give warning of a temporary 40mph speed limit on the A720, the Edinburgh By-pass, between Sheriffhall and Musselburgh, which was removed at the end of a spell of roadworks in about 2007. I keep a careful eye on Martina for signs of dementia. As it used to say in the audit manual, Trust but Verify.

Sunday 26 November 2017

Möckern Around on a Saturday Afternoon

Tough nut - the French-held village of Möckern, complete with medieval tower
and - can that be Felsham church...?
Yesterday, before dawn, it was all busy, busy here at Foy's Travelling Wargames Inc, the van was packed and I set off with many little friends packed in magnetised boxes, headed for 16th Oct 1813 and that far corner of the Kingdom of Fife which calls itself Perth and Kinross. Very nice too, despite the weather forecast and rather snowy conditions.

Goya hosted the event at his baronial palace, where he has busily been painting Prussian troops to make up the cast list. The combined Prussians of the armies of Goya and Baron Stryker (under Goya's command) were to fight the French VI Corps under Marshal Marmont (played by Stryker himself, still glowing with the glory of his recent French success at Talavera). I was the umpire, a role which I enjoy (leveraging, as Dilbert would say, my OCD tendencies to advantage) and which gives a very good chance of avoiding defeat.

Möckern, of course, is one of the outlying precursors to the Battle of Leipzig, which took place two days later. Research is hampered a little by the fact that there was another battle of Möckern, some 6 months earlier, which, since it was a French victory, is rather better documented [discuss].

The large village of Möckern at that time was some distance from Leipzig, and sat on a road from the north which went to the Northern gate to the city. Our battle was only part of the real historical one - we covered the left of the French defence - that part which was opposed by Yorck's Prussian I Corps of Blücher's Army of Silesia. Our scenario comes from the official Commands & Colors: Napoleonics Expansion #5 booklet - the only amendments were some substitution of Prussian units to fit with the miniatures we had available, and a house rule tweak to include a couple of roads, and allow a small measure of quicker movement for regiments which used them.

The French start the day strongly positioned in the village (thus having 2 bonus Victory Points at the outset, which, if they lose the place, will disappear and become 3 for the Prussians). There were also bonus VPs available if the Prussians managed to exit any units over the French baseline (which in rugby terms is known as a try, we think). 10 VPs for the win. Standard size 13 x 9 hex table. A couple of scenario rules concerned the small bend of the River Elster and the minor stream (Pleisse? - Parthe? - can't remember) on the French right flank, and a more significant rule, in that the outlying Manor Farm of Möckern was a strong, walled strongpoint allowing defenders to disregard one "retreat flag" if one came up.

The Prussians, being Prussians, are allowed an allocation of Iron Will counters by the C&CN rules - on this occasion they had 4 available for the day - these may be used as a last-resort means of cancelling retreat flags - 1 counter per flag. [We used 20-cent Euro coins, in fact]

In the real battle, the Prussians made pretty slow progress attacking the village, suffered heavy losses and retreated. The French were somewhat inconvenienced by an exploding ammo cart (so Marmont says, anyway, in his memoirs), but the Marshal ordered up his corps light cavalry - a brigade of Württembergers commanded by Generalmajor Normann - to pursue the repulsed infantry, and - allegedly - Normann refused. Marmont then ordered forward Lagrange's infantry to carry out the pursuit, and they were caught by the Prussian cavalry, and very badly handled, falling back in disorder onto the village of Gohlis, where they joined Ney in an attempt to hold off the Russian advance the following day.

Normann's disobedience may seem less surprising when it is remembered that the Württembergers were one of the German states which defected to the Allies on the 18th.

Our game started with the Prussians butting their heads against the walled farm, in authentic style, and they started losing men rapidly - a tendency which became established as a general theme for the day. They then had a quick, dramatic success when a battalion of French légère received two retreat flags and - special rule or not - were forced out of the farm, to be replaced by some Prussian grenadiers, who held it for the rest of the engagement. That was as good as it got for Yorck. Hampered by astonishingly poor dice (unbelievable - it quickly passed beyond amusing to downright embarrassing, so after a little while no-one laughed any more...), Yorck also had problems with the quality of his army - he had a lot of Reservists (double retreats) and militia (triple retreats), and thus had to use the Iron Will counters to stop his militia cavalry disappearing to the rear - and his cavalry, though much more numerous on the face of it, were relatively puny, the scenario stipulating 3 "blocks" per unit, compared with the French 4 per unit.

The French at one point were 8-0 up on VPs, though the Prussians did eventually wear a few units down, and then there was the extraordinary episode of General Lagrange. Lagrange was present with a French line unit which was eliminated. He survived, though was only able to retreat to a very hazardous position adjacent to the farm, where the resident grenadiers duly used him for target practice. They missed. Apparently crazed by his luck, Lagrange hung around for another volley, waving his hat to goad them - they missed again. At which point a unit of militia lancers appeared, and captured him, which certainly served him right.

The Prussian attack on the left fizzled out from lack of sufficient good-quality troops, and the game ran out a 10-4 win for the French - still with the initial 2 for holding most of Möckern village, and with the Prussian 4th VP counter entirely due to the death-wish of General Lagrange.

Interesting game - very interesting. None of us has any idea how the Prussians could have won; once again we overturned history. They never got close to securing any bonus VPs for scoring a "try" on their left - they couldn't have spared the troops anyway. One alternative strategy would have been to ignore the very strong village and concentrate on an assault by the Prussian left - it would be necessary to clear away a good few French units to rack up VPs, and then exit over the French baseline with enough units to get up to 10VPs with the scenario bonus.

As it was, this was never a possibility, and the day's bloodshed made very little contribution to the overall cause of Befreiung. Not to worry - an excellent day's entertainment, and excellent food, as ever. Special mention must be made of the personal efforts of Count Goya, who had banished his family, along with all the servants, to the country for the weekend, and did a fine solo job of the catering. My thanks to my colleagues for their excellent company and good humour.

Thoughts on C&CN scenarios? Not very much - we should maybe be suspicious of general application of the standard C&CN national characteristics. In particular, the French line infantry get an extra combat die in melee combat against infantry, simply because of their famed élan and effectiveness. That's well and good, but the point is well made that, though Marmont's Corps was among the better of the French line troops at Leipzig, the French army was nothing like what it had been in 1809. We should have a look at scenario rules more carefully in this respect. The French OOB for VI Corps includes many provisional regiments which consisted of battalions of veteran Peninsular War regiments, but typically these were the 5th or 6th battalions of such regiments, and the large numbers of "Marine Infantry" present are something of an unknown quantity - whatever some of the historical paintings may show - these were not the Marins de la Garde - nothing like.

Right - to the pictures. Please ignore the labelling you see on the units - there were a great many sabots on loan from other armies, so the presence of apparently Spanish or Portuguese units should be disregarded.

General view - French on the left, Prussians and the North to the right, and the
village of Möckern dominating the Leipzig road at the far end
From behind the Prussian left, at the start (about 11:30)
The village, with its outlying walled farm, seen from the French side, with the
little village of Wahren on the far edge (featuring a town gate which I like, and
which doesn't get played with very often, on account of the clock in the tower being
a poor fit with the ECW). General Lagrange is already practising his hat-waving
act, just this side of the village (with the white border to his base).
Yorck's Prussians make a start against the walled Manor Farm
Though the farm is not very promising, the main village itself is a very formidable 
objective, with enough size to allow garrison units to provide mutual support
Just for a moment, things seemed to be swinging a little, as the Silesian grenadiers
drove the French out of the farm
Further left, the Prussians under Horn and Steinmetz ponder the chances
of a breakthrough
And on the far left flank of the Prussian force, Hünerbein did at least have some
better quality regular troops
General problem for Yorck was that his cavalry was understrength, and he had
too high a proportion of Reservist and Landwehr units...
...more particular problem was his spectacular lack of luck with the dice. Here's a
good example - this is the result of a 3-block militia lancer regiment attacking in
melee. Normally, 3 sabres would be 3 hits, but of course militia don't get to count sabres
in a melee under C&CN rules. We did have a laugh at this one, in fact.
Action on the Prussian left - a brief glimpse of the legendary French 15eme
Chasseurs à Cheval (on the road) who did not manage to live up to their celebrated
success at Talavera
The battle for the farm reaches its peak - the French were driven off here
Having driven off an attack by the French (Württemberg) cavalry in the centre,
the Prussian cavalry here are too weakened to contribute further
The extraordinary adventure of General Lagrange, waving his hat in defiance of the
Prussians in the farm. The lancers in the background did for him shortly afterwards.
The final situation - stalemate on the French right, the Prussians have failed to capture
the village and - ultimately - lost too many men. If you have good eyesight, you may
see the white Victory Point counters on the respective baselines - 10 for the
French (including 2 green ones for hanging onto most of Möckern) and 4 for the

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Hooptedoodle #285 - Drawing the Line Somewhere - another crap post

One of the hazards of living in a rural area.

With all due apology for lack of taste, here's a minor item of local news from here in East Lothian. Apparently, council workmen painting lines along the road near Longniddry managed to paint over a patch of horse manure. Shock horror. My first reaction was that it obviously must have been the responsibility of a different department to shift the stuff, but the council have already explained.

They claim that

(1) it wusnae us - it was a contractor - so that's all right then

(2) it's no so easy to spot this stuff, they paint the lines with a special wagon, you know, and the driver is in a cab, well above the road. Anyone who thought that the painter would be on his knees in the road, working with a big brush and a ruler, go and stand in the corner.

While I was looking for a better picture, I found a much more graphic example, but this is from Kirklees, courtesy of the Huddersfield Examiner [a Mirfield Conservative Councillor described this as "careless" and "beyond belief" - anyone who regards this as evidence of some lack of imagination may also go and stand in the corner].

Since I was now on some sort of roll, I looked online to see if this is a more common problem than I had thought, and came across a show-closing photo of a road line painted over a dead raccoon, from California, at which point I decided to stop. I'll spare you the dead raccoon - I'm sure you can find it through Google if you really want to.

Sunday 19 November 2017

Hooptedoodle #284 - Napoleon (1927) - something of a breakthrough

In a recent post, I mentioned that I have had another bash at watching Abel Gance's classic Napoleon, from 1927, in its restored and enhanced new edition, with magnificent new musical score, previously unseen material and all sorts of bonus wonders. I also admitted that I had made a pretty poor fist of appreciating it thus far, had decided that a casual "bash" at watching it is obviously not the best approach, and had determined that I would set about it in a more businesslike manner.

This, after all, is FILM as high art. Thus it behoves me to approach the matter in a suitably studious and appreciative frame of mind, and there is the other matter of potentially having to write off the £28 or whatever the box set cost me if I don't shape up. Deep down, though, is the awareness that it is not cool to have to admit that one has watched one of the acknowledged classics of the cinema - of all time - and has made nothing at all of it. This is not recommended as a chat-up line at arty parties.

Abel Gance
The experience is not to be taken lightly - there are some snags. One is that the storyline does not always hang together well - the box set - all 5-and-a-half hours of the movie, plus some hours of additional material - is assembled from bits of a much longer, incomplete film series on the life of Napoleon which Gance had envisaged, and Gance himself had several attempts to re-edit what he had. Thus far, I have watched the first two of the four discs, and have got as far as the Siege of Toulon. There were plenty of points of confusion;  the second Act includes - completely out of context - the murder of Marat in his bath by the extremely foxy Charlotte Corday (played by the Mme Gance of the day, apparently); also, bewilderingly, the Extras section on the second disc includes a lengthy clip entitled the Centre of the Triptych, which covers the start of the Campaign of Italy, which is blatantly outside the scope of the story content of the remainder of this disc. Hmmm - some spinning of the head.

Let's revisit the timeline a bit here - the section of the film which now exists was published by Gance in a 5-hour "Opera" version and a 9-hour "Apollo" cut (cut??). The film in the box set (I think, though I cannot promise I fully understand this yet) was originally to be a section subtitled Bonaparte, which takes us as far as Arcola. Clarity is not helped by the frequent use of colours in printing the movie - by which I mean that it is not a colour film, but that it occasionally switches into monochrome blue (which makes the chaotic battle scenes at Toulon almost impossible to follow) or red, or whatever Gance decides is artistically appropriate. I also still have a problem with the acting - the inserted caption screens with bits of dialogue are few and far between, and some fairly routine exchanges appear to involve a level of melodrama completely out of all proportion to the subject matter. One has to remember that this was a very long time ago, and all the actors on view - including real giants such as Antonin Artaud - came from a theatrical background in which it was necessary for the dimwit on the very back row of the auditorium to realise that a cast member was rolling his eyes. Thus the acting is hammed to high heaven throughout. Remarkable bravura piece of hamming is offered by Artaud himself, as Marat in his bath, who crams more hysteria into a short scene than you would believe possible - and this is before he realises he is being murdered.


Albert Dieudonné as young Bonaparte
Antonin Artaud - who takes getting murdered in the bath to a new level
The puzzle of the out-of-context Extras material encouraged me to re-think my approach. I don't usually bother with the Commentary option on a DVD, but in something approaching desperation I have tried it on this movie.

Aha! A glimmer of daylight! The commentary is added by Paul Cuff, an expert on the works of Gance, and the author of a number of books on exactly this topic. Thus my new approach is, first of all, to watch each disc with the commentary switched on, and suddenly it all makes a lot more sense. Thereafter, I am all set up to watch it again with the commentary turned off, and I can enjoy the full spectacle and Carl Davis' lovely music soundtrack without worrying about it. This is a major investment of time, but for me it's the only method which is likely to work.

This is the new, restored and heavily revised edition I'm watching
It is necessary to get very clearly fixed in my mind that this is not just a nice movie about the life of Napoleon. I need to have some understanding of:

(1) the underlying history - the Napoleonic Wars and all that - that's a given

(2) the history of the film itself, including

* Gance's intentions, and most of the screenplay was only sketched out when they started
* Gance's own adventures with successively cutting and re-editing his movie, given the drastic changes of scope it was subject to
* where the movie has been since, and the various re-issues for cinema presentation over the years
* the digital enhancement and restoration of the latest version, and the way in which it has been changed around to incorporate unpublished sections and to make the story hang together rather better

As a random example - in last night's (second disc) re-run, there is this young lady gazing adoringly at young Bonaparte - who is she? Well, the commentator explains that she is the daughter of a chap who was the general dogsbody at Napoleon's school at Brienne (on Disc One - who mysteriously manages to follow the great man throughout his subsequent career, and has duly arrived at Toulon, where he keeps an inn, in time for the siege), and that Gance had loosely planned that she would be a casual love-interest, though the scene which was to explain this has vanished. Further, the murder of Marat was to appear in a later (unpublished) reel, but was stuck into its current location to give a better fit with the historical timeline. You can see how this sort of insight might help.

So it's all good, now - the need for time planning is increased because of the double viewing, but it is a whole lot better.

I shall proceed with greater confidence. I'll start Disc 3 tonight - I'm now actually looking forward to it. If anyone has watched this new edition of the movie, I'd be very interested to hear what you thought of it. I've always had a little problem with the Great Art thing - ever since childhood, I have had a split view - one side of my brain tells me that this is a wonderful, enriching experience, and that it is a privilege to see it and marvel at the creativity and imagination which produced it, while the other side of the brain keeps interrupting with mutterings about my having no idea at all what is going on, and wondering if there are any scones left in the cupboard.