A view of Florence and the nature of History.

This is the find of the week for me, something I’ve not seen before that I suddenly noticed adorning a book jacket. A view of Florence c1490, painted I hope by the anonymous gentlemen pictured in it. It’s amazing what art can do. Today I was feeling pretty humdrum, nothing much to stir the juices, then two or three hours ago I caught a glimpse of this and suddenly everything went into warp drive. This little post is the result.

A View of Florence.

Continue reading “A view of Florence and the nature of History.”

Waterloo: The Making of a Battle.

On any given night during the summer of 1969, if we are to believe Roger Ebert, [1] the stars of Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo gathered in Rod Steiger’s suite to drink Johnnie Walker Red and tell dirty stories. The suite was the only one in the run down Bolshevik grey hotel in Uzhgorod Ukraine, that served as the cast accommodation. It consisted of two tiny rooms; “One to sleep in and one to breath in” said Christopher Plummer. [2] Steiger, Irish actor, Dan O’Herlihy (playing Marshal Ney) and Plummer often got together in the evenings before “Napoleon” departed to drink, joke and moan about the location. [3]
A morose Steiger, brooding over his recent divorce didn’t need much excuse to have a glass in his hand. Ebert remembered Steiger braced over a table one night in the hotel dining room, periodically drinking back measures of local wine to steady his nerves. His horse had been spooked by an areal explosion and bolted. Horses being spooked by explosions were a problem, and not just for the Russian cavalry. In a scene that didn’t make it past the editing room floor, Plummer and Terrence Alexander (playing Uxbridge) went on an unscheduled ride after the pyrotechnics went off at the wrong time [4].
“My family was destroyed by alcoholism,” Steiger cried dramatically. “I can’t let up!” Plummer and O’Herlihy laughed. “Joking, of course,” he said “Trying to bring my small measure of poetry into the world.”‘ [5]

Christopher Plummer. Wikipedia.

The hallways of the hotel smelled of sweat and the dining room mixed this with the even more unpleasant tang of urine. When Christopher Plummer had arrived, after a horrendous train journey in a ramshackle carriage with no facilities save a hole in the floor, the most comforting meal that could be scrounged was a plate of chicken and a sad salad of poor tomatoes and cucumber. [6]. He’d already been greeted by a welcome gift of caviar and a cordial welcome sent round by the director, which the messenger then asked him to pay for. To add insult to injury there was never anything to eat in the hotel except Borscht, which did nothing to improve Steiger’s mood. ‘”Borscht again!” Steiger said, stirring the thick rust coloured soup so the potatoes surfaced occasionally, like pale islands through the sour cream. “It’s the g******n stuff of life on this location. Borscht for lunch. Borscht for dinner. I’m afraid to come down for breakfast.” [7] He gazed morosely into the brownish red gloop and mused about his role and wether Napoleon would’ve cared a curse if Borscht had been on the menu every day. He pushed the bowl away from him and emptied his glass. Plummer tried to improve his mood with some artless but well meant flattery;
“It is the role, my dear sir, you were born for.”
“Don’t you read E.E. Cummings?” Replied Steiger “A World of made is not a world of born.”
“Then it is the role you were made for sir.”
Steiger didn’t argue further, “You can say that again.” [8]

Jack Hawkins. Wikipedia.

Ukraine in 1969 was beautiful, scorching hot, and dirt poor. The actors were not allowed to fraternise with the locals who came to stare, nor to stray far from their lodgings. The hospital was a death trap, as were most of the rooms in the hotel. It was a rich agricultural area, but hungry because the bulk of their hard earned produce was the property of the state and by law sent to Moscow. The area was full of Soviet citizens that were either indifferent to, or hated Russia. In part the only reason Plummer’s wife was able to get to Uzhgorod was because the driver he had hired to transport them was a Hungarian with a Magyar’s disdain for the Russians, and stubbornly got them through checkpoint after checkpoint. Georgians, Transylvanians, Yugoslavians were also common nationalities to bump into and the area was volatile. Part of the reason the film was even possible was because of the buildup of Russian troops on the Czech border after the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968.

Dan O’Herlihy. Wikipedia.

Sergei Bondarchuk didn’t understand Englishmen. Indeed his knowledge of English itself was scant at best. The first time he met Christopher Plummer, the Canadian actor was in makeup for his role as the Duke of Wellington. They were in Rome at the time and master makeup artist Alberto di Rossi was just informing Plummer his nose was more than big enough for the task of emulating “Old Nosey’s” famous beak, when the intimidating form of Bondarchuk strode in tailed by a stern group of what Plummer took to be KGB agents. He was a very Russian looking Russian. A large compact bear with frowning eyes and a pugnacious chin, after observing di Rossi’s work he voiced concern about the upper lip not being right. The Italian makeup artist had a sharp wit and asked if it wasn’t “stiff enough.” To his and Plummer’s surprise he responded in the affirmative and had to be informed that “Stiff upper lip” was an expression, not an ailment. After he had been made to understand, the taciturn Bondsrchuk turned on his heel and left without another word [9].
Rod Steiger said humorously that the director knew three phrases in English, “How are you?”, “I come back soon” and “Bonjour.” [10] For the scene where Wellington and Uxbridge mildly discuss his lost leg, he had something much more dramatic and emotional in mind, which would have seen a tearful Duke escorting his fallen comrade from the field. His feeling was that the reality was almost monstrous as Wellington seemed to be making fun of Uxbridge. He was talked around to sense, but Plummer distinctly thought the process had made “Bondars” wash his hands of the entire cold blooded, stiff lipped Anglo Saxon race. [11]

Bondarchuck (L) and Orson Welles (R) who played a small part in Waterloo.

The long dark looks, the short sentences and the morose expressions from the Soviet director could well be explained by the sheer size of the undertaking at hand. Italian Producer Dino di Laurentiis had been trying to get Waterloo off the ground for 10 years. His production company wasn’t big enough to handle the monster alone, and no one else wanted the risk either. Russia was the only place such a logistically challenging movie could be made and Mosfilm stepped up to the plate [12]. A giant budget made the Waterloo project one of the biggest movies in production, and a bigger responsibility, but Binderchuck was used to immense budgets. War and Peace had cost $100 Million. Even so, had it not been made in Russia, with the Red Army it would have cost three times that much. At the time it was said that Sergei Bondercuck commanded one of the biggest armies in the world. 15-16,000 Soviet troops had been mobilised to act as the various armies of 1815, including a full brigade of the Moscow Militia Cavalry, making the recreation three quarters the size of the real thing. Each man was played the princely sum of $1 a day for his trouble, a salary that seemed dazzling to them. In order to control his army Bonderchuk counted on a staff corps of Russian Generals, 3 of whom were military historians, who consulted on formations and tactics, General Kozakov, General Lushinsky, and General Oslikovsky,[13] a former major, Anatoli Chemedurov was his assistant director.[14] [15] What with these men, and his small troop of 4 interpreters the soft spoken, plainly dressed man, often mistaken for a Georgian farmer by curious visitors, [16] certainly seemed like a General himself.

Movie producer, Dino di Laurentiis. Wikipedia.

It was obvious that despite the rubbish accommodation Mosfilm was ambitious in its outlook. For months the set director had been carefully manicuring a hitherto ordinary parcel of Ukrainian farmland near the Czech border into a facsimile of Mont St Jean Ridge, Belgium. He bulldozed two hills, deepened a valley, laid five miles of road and six miles of pipe to create mud. He sowed fields of rye and barley and recreated four historic buildings, it must stand as one of the most impressive set builds in history for sheer landscaping alone. To film the massive battle scenes, 100 foot towers had been constructed, a helicopter readied and an overhead railway built [17]. The schedule was relentless but as usual at the mercy of delays, weather being one, and the importation of a giant telephoto lens from Italy, which kept the entire “army” hanging around doing nothing for a week while, rumour had it the Russians were making notes for a copy [18], which did nothing to ease tensions of army officers worried about overheads, or actors, stewing in their dump in Uzhgorod. Plummer and the rest of the cast, spent their time either drinking smuggled booze or socialising at dinner parties given by his wife, who had braved the Spartan living conditions to join him on set.

Roger Ebert had mused about the Soviets in drag; “If the Czechs did decide to rise up one day, would the Russians take time to change? Or hurry across the border in costume, Napoleon’s Old Guard against the students?” [19]. On one morning the cast had driven out to the set, a couple of miles in a suspensionless van over bad roads, but driven (in Plummer’s case) by a excellent man they called Fred, to find it empty. Apparently there had been some emergency and the troops had been scrambled, uniforms and all to go to fight the enemy. [20]

Rod Steiger at the 40th academy awards. This win was not because of Waterloo. IMDB.

The Russian infantry and cavalry were quartered in a massive encampment near the field. They had been taught close order drill, and 2,000 had been taught how to load and fire muskets and they were having quite a good time. Soon after breakfast they marched to the film set and were outfitted, fifteen minutes afterwards they were expected to be in position. The Russian technicians were happy too, and gorged themselves on the pasta and vino Bondarchuk flew in from Italy every other day for lunch [21]. The Moscow Militia Cavalry, who Plummer identified as Cossacks and Tartars, undertook gruelling rehearsals for the massed charges, that were filmed from the tracks, aircraft and towers with the high powered Panavision lenses. [22]

These charges were awe inspiring to watch, but painful as well and not just because everyone was getting the feeling that their parts were becoming lost against the vast sea of extras. The Western, Yugoslavian and Russian stunt men could make their horses fall on command, but the cavalry mounts had no special training. Trip wires were used instead with fatal results. Watching one charge Plummer and the rest of the cast were horrified to see a horse rise from the ground with its neck bent at a ghastly angle. It pleading pitifully for help. Its rider heard the plaintive cries of distress, and unable to be restrained he sprinted to its side, ignoring all calls to get out of the shot. The animal was in dire pain, and whinnied piteously to its owner, who in no less internal anguish cast around desperately for a gun to end its ordeal. With none to hand, he took out a knife and with shockingly accurate precision cut the animal’s throat. When the cameras stopped rolling an eerie silence fell over the scene, penetrated only by the cries of the heartbroken soldier weeping over the body his dead friend. [23]. Horses were to drop like flies during the 48 days of battle shooting, to the degree that when the prop department began to run out of fake carcasses and began to use the real thing. [24].

Whenever filmmakers and historians get together to create something, battles are fought over battles. During that summer in Ukraine, one of the men waiting in attendance on Bondarchuk was his British advisor. A colonel, who not only sported a monocle and moustache but habitually wore a kilt. His name was also unforgivably British; Willoughby Grey, whose great grandfather had actually charged with the 2nd Heavy Dragoons, Scots Greys at Waterloo. He is credited as playing Captain Ramsey of the RHA In the movie, and thus has one line and a brief appearance in the film. A generally affable fellow, who chummed around allot with the actors and was usually in on most of the big production calls. He was supposedly an expert on Wellington and the British army he commanded [25]. It is due to Willoughby, (nicknamed “Willow” by the cast) and Plummer that all those witty lines got given to Wellington, and that he was allowed to show some of his repressed emotion.

Plummer, unhappy about the dry treatment the Duke was getting in the film, cornered Willow and said “You know practically every recorded statement the Duke ever made. Let’s put them in the script, even if they are out of context. The writers have all gone; let’s give him back some of his wit and style.” Of course Willow agreed, most of the lines in the film were indeed said at one time or another, although in different ways. Bondarchuk accepted these alterations with good grace, as he’d never liked the script much anyway, and tolerated everything from unauthorised script changes to Steiger’s on the spur ad-libs.

Wellington’s bearing was also helped by the fact that Plummer was given a wonderful old former police horse from Moscow called Stok, and was completely deaf after having going through so many gun battles. Willow spent days organising the scene were the French cavalry charge the squares, assisted by second unit and assistant director Major Chemedurov. On the day appointed 5 large squares of “British” infantry had been formed on one of the hills, but for some reason Bondarchuk refused to shoot it, snapping through an interpreter “It may be authentic, but it’s not cinema.”
Willow calmly argued that it would indeed be cinematic if he put his areal cameras to good use, but that just made the Russian dig his heels in. Plummer thought he was feeling threatened by someone who had done their homework. “But this is correct” the Colonel insisted “This is how it happened. I can’t change it. I won’t change it.” Silence from the Russian corner.
“There is really no point in my being here at all if you won’t listen to anything I say!” And he stormed off. Behind him trailed the Russian Generals who had all taken his side, together the soldier historians marched stiffly along the ranks of waiting cavalry, a picture of injured military dignity. The Generals were impressed by his stand, and invited Willow to their tent where they all promptly got pickled toasting him in vodka and discussing the battle, with Chemedurov serving as the interpreter. In the end Willow won his Waterloo and the areal shot of the squares remains the most admired part of the film. [26].

One by one the actors fulfilled their duties and got out of dodge. Plummer, Terrence Alexander, Willow and Jeffrey Wickham, appealing to Bondarchuk to let Michael Wilding finish his scenes first due to an encroaching illness. Jack Hawkins having soldiered through his scenes while recovering from an 1968 operation to restore his voice, (he’d had his Larynx removed due to cancer in 1966 and died in 1973), and packed up, much to the relief of the cast who worried about his exposure to all the smoke.

Living conditions had brightened up in Uzhgorod that September with the arrival of the Georgians. Sergo Zaquariadze, playing Blucher was a big star in the Soviet Union, he had the red carpet treatment and for the time they were there the hotel almost became liveable. He brought good company and copious amounts of red wine. Apparently he had more scenes than what most audiences remember, stills show the famous meeting at La Belle Alliance & Plummer remembered watching a dramatic scene where he is presented with Napoleons captured hat but, they didn’t make it. Or if they did the phantom director’s cut has never surfaced and is perhaps merely legend. When the Georgians left, things returned to drudgery and the remaining cast wondered when it would all be over. When it was finally his time to go, Plummer was glad to get away, but reflected later he’d not have missed the adventure of filming the battle of “Batty-Poo” for the world.

See you again for another adventure in Historyland. Josh.

[1] http://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/interview-with-rod-steiger
[2] Plummer, In Spite of Myself.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ebert.
[6] Plummer.
[7] Ebert.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Plummer.
[10] Ebert.
[11] Plummer.
[12] Souvenir Program.
[13] IMDB.
[14] Plummer.
[15] IMDB.
[16] Program.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Elbert.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Plummer.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Program.
[23] Plummer.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid.


Ask me about 1066: The Answers part 3.

After a delay which I could put down to factors beyond my control, but instead will attribute to seeing something shiny, this video has been unnecessarily delayed but hurrah! At last I have posted by latest 1066 Q&A vid, I’d love for you to like, comment and favourite, I’d love it even more if you subscribed to my channel but no pressure, I’m easy going like that, wether 10 or 10,000 people watch it. (But please, please, please do).


Book Review: British Redcoat vs French Fusilier by Stuart Reid


Publisher: Osprey Publishing (24 Mar. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472812433
ISBN-13: 978-1472812438

The Combat series is fast becoming one of Osprey’s strongest assets as it bridges the gap between warrior, men at arms, elite and campaign, being a fair blend of them all. It fits in neatly with the spirit of the other lines the publisher has produced over the years. Bringing an in depth look at a specific point, and in addition “Versus” as it is also called, allows enthusiasts to actually investigate the age old “who would win” conversation.

This book examines the experiences of British and French regular soldiers during the French and Indian War 1755-1763. Essentially this is the story less told in the Last of the Mohicans, that of the red and white coats who formed the nucleus around which the more famous Rangers, Couriers du Bois, Indians and light infantry units were formed around.

Therefore bush warfare is not investigated here, rather it is the set piece battle in the open that the author, Stuart Reid looks at. At that immediately focuses the scope to a short period between 1759 and 1760 that nevertheless saw the little studied Battle of Fort Niagara, the legendary Battle of Quebec and the often overlooked Battle of St Foie.

These three battles don’t particularly reveal anything greatly striking about how conventional forces engaged each other in the 18th century. Rather they highlight some of the differences and challenges that regular troops, not trained for bush warfare, faced in North America. The French had to adapt set battle plans regarding columns to accommodate much smaller armies, they also had to make allowance for a large amount of militia being attached to regular battalions. The British were mostly refining their musketry, and did very little different, except in this sphere.

Both armies proved themselves to be incredibly flexible of course, but what the book actually revealed to me is a distinct lack on the part of field commanders, especially on the French side, which is telling, and how when push came to shove it was often down to battalion level officers to do the right thing. The lack of the horse in these campaigns would prove a distinct handicap to communications.

Maps and images, well chosen and properly accompanied by illustrative text, accompany every Osprey book, as do original paintings. Combat offers a look at both types of soldier, plus a split screen page were the same event is observed from both sides, and a traditional full page spread by Peter Dennis. As per usual with this artist, these illustrations are action packed, and very colourful. In the artist’s brief Reid must have stressed that Dennis pose the British Redcoat leaning forwards into the shot, which gives him a slightly strange look but highlights the sort of detail you can expect.

In other combat titles, a theme is used where either the same regiment, or the same soldier is used multiple times to allow a go pro “point of view” read. Here Reid’s combat analysis is based on the testimonies of a greater range of participants, which gives a more conventional “birds eye view” to the actions than is usual in some of the other ones, nevertheless it is an excellent short overview of linear fighting in America and highlights some interesting aspects of the war, showing how the two sides attitudes adapted to try and gain supremacy in Canada.

Review: Cosmonauts, the birth of the Space Age at the Science Museum.



Cosmonauts, birth of the space age, is an exhibition well worth a visit no matter how interested you are in Space. I spent over an hour and half there, and probably could have comfortably stretched another 30 minutes out of it, so even if I hadn’t gotten a gratis ticket because I have a blog I would have gladly paid the entrance fee at the ticket office, instead of at the gift shop at the end. It’s layout cleverly takes you through a chronological story from 1903 to 2010, the amount of 1st’s the Soviet Space Program and today’s Roscosmos accrued in that time is baffling. It is full of atmosphere and education, representing years of work to get the 150 or so artefacts to London from Moscow, almost none of which have ever left Russia. The guides and curators are very knowledgable and take time with people. When I was there several of them had extended conversations with an elderly Polish woman who was very voluble about her admiration of Russia, and eager to learn the details about the Cosmonauts and show her young relative around. The museum guards keep a sharp eye on those carrying cameras, so if you are carrying one make sure the lens cap is on and in a neutral position, it helps them relax. Backpacks appear to be fine, I saw two people wearing them. When I visited it was very overheated, so just in case wear something that isn’t too bulky or that you can comfortably carry around. The exhibition lets out into the well stocked gift shop and subsequently into the cafe. There are T shirts, and buttons and pins, a space dog cuddly toy, a great selection of books and stacks of postcards and prints. And if your budget goes to £100 and your style is akin to Will.I.A.M then the replica Cosmonaut jacket is definitely for you.
This exhibition was better than I could have expected, so please, when you go take your time to appreciate it to its full, it truly is a once in a lifetime show that tells a largely untold story. It is an exhibition that will make you reevaluate what you thought you knew about the Space Race, and encourage you to think about the importance of cooperation in the the future.

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age
Discover the story of Russian space travel in this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition
From 18/09/2015
To 13/03/2016
Price: £14 (concessions available)
Continue reading “Review: Cosmonauts, the birth of the Space Age at the Science Museum.”

Book Review: Gallipoli by Jenny Macleod

Hardcover: 280 pages
Publisher: OUP Oxford (23 July 2015)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 019964487X


Gallipoli, it’s a name most know, but few can pronounce, let alone fully appreciate. In the centenary year a great drive has been made to understand its place in the history of the nation’s who fought it, and therefore get a better grasp of why it matters, why it resonates still. A slim volume, with an attractive cover, 191 reading pages in all excluding the preface and introduction, notes etc, it’s not a cut and dry battle story.

Although each book in the Oxford Great Battle’s series includes (as they must) a description of the battle in question for perspective, the focus of the series realistically lies in the investigation of how the event is passed on and remembered.
These slim volumes are rich in detail despite being less than roomy for in depth discussion or narrative. Gallipoli by Jenny Macleod follows the set pattern laid down so far.
It begins with a fairly typical account of the campaign, detailing the mistakes of the allied General’s, the suffering of the troops, the heroism of the varying national contingents and the much more creditable performance of the Turkish commanders. This section takes up just under half of the book. Hindsight is deployed to present a coherent overview, and as with such studies it is necessary to focus on the decisive elements of the action in question.
The ANZAC legend looms large over any account of Gallipoli. Modern scholarship has tried to squeeze it back into its proper place. Macleod presents the conflict from a multinational standpoint, but because the legacy of the main players is what the book is really about, there is no doubt that the British, Australians and Turkish are the central nations examined. This as a consequence marginalises the Indian contribution to the Empire forces, though they are mentioned in the account of the campaign, it may be that there has been so little recognition of the Indian story that it did not merit its own chapter later on.

The legacy of Gallipoli, from then to now, is what primarily concerns the author and should be the main selling point of the book. I highly admire this series for its excellent idea to highlight the tricky subject of how a legend gets passed down to us. The second half of the book is split in three, dealing with the legacy of the Australian and New Zealand participation, that of the British and Irish experience, and that of Turkey.

I feel this book will be a must for those seeking to find out why Gallipoli should be remembered. People who saw and liked the Water Diviner will I think enjoy it. People interested in how Battles can influence the history of nations, apart from their military significance should definitely consider it, as it is a greatly enlightening read.