plus several other famous historical battles through the eyes of a battle movie crazy youth…
In addition to the remarkable Mary Poppins (1964) the other two films that first set my spirits soaring – though in a markedly different way to Mr Banks’ joyous kite – were The 300 Spartans (1962) and Zulu (1964)*. Like most little boys growing up in the 60’s (and some little girls too in my experience of the time), I was thrilled by epic cinematic depictions of battle. But, whereas movies like Ben Hur (1959), Cleopatra (1963) and even the extraordinary Spartacus (1960) did that Wagnerian thing of interspersing the brilliant battle and action scenes with boring half-hours of tedious “drama” (or so I thought as a child), The 300 Spartans and Zulu were vehicles for the (beautifully staged) battles themselves – Thermopylae and Rorke’s Drift respectively – with the drama, merely the filler. In other words, perfect films for little Adams everywhere.
The most ambitious film ever made about a single battle was Sergei Bondarchuk’s enormous Waterloo (1970), which I first saw as a ten-year-old on its UK release. But even then, as much I was awestruck by the superlative battle scenes, I was irritated by the stodgy script (actually, just an endless seam of historical quotes) and the awkward caricaturesque acting, which lurched wildly between the histrionic French and the aloof British.
With more modest budgets and far smaller casts, by canny use of camera angles, stunning photography, beautifully paced editing, and (certainly in Zulu’s case) thrilling musical scores, directors Rudolf Maté with his Spartans, and Cy Enfield with his handful of red coats, made films that felt far larger and much grander than they actually were.
But perhaps the greatest testimony to the enduring appeal of all of the above is how well they stand up against their modern CGI equivalents. For example, Frank Miller’s 1998 Thermopylae film, 300 – allegedly inspired by Maté’s 1962 version – despite its having a virtual cast of millions and “authentic Spartans and genuine battle violence” is – apart from one or two scenes – utterly forgettable. Most interestingly of all is how “small” and claustrophobic the later, studio created film feels by comparison with its location-shot forerunner. And similarly, for all the earlier film’s wooden acting and heavily tableau’d dramatic interludes there is a dignity and humanity totally lacking in Miller’s animated comic book treatment.
The pictures presented above date from about 1970 – 75, and reflect the obsession I had as a 10-14 year-old boy for attempting to recreate the battles that had thrilled me so much on the cinema screen. Sometimes, I would base my pictures on famous historical battle paintings, using the figures in the original artwork as templates for my own infantry and cavalry, often for battles of different eras. Those wonderful “templates” – all of which influenced my childhood self almost as much as the movies above, are included below.
*Other films which are worth looking out for as noble – if imperfect – examples of pre-CGI historical battle movies are: Clive Donner’s 1969 Alfred The Great – a turgid film, but with decent battles; Tony Richardson’s 1968 Charge of Light Brigade – marred by Richardson’s anachronistic, relativist, anti-war message, laid on with a trowel, but largely successfully staged, and a genuinely epic charge; Cy Enfield’s return to Natal for his 1979 (“prequel” to Zulu), “grittier and more historically accurate” Zulu Dawn – compares poorly to the near-perfect Zulu, only proving yet again, that grit and accuracy (and vast numbers of extras) alone do not guarantee a great picture. Worth seeing though, just for the British scouts first sighting of the massed Zulu impis (11,000 warrior extras) – an astonishing cinematic moment.
Plus, two more CGI fiascos to avoid at all costs: Oliver Stone’s 2004 Alexander the Great – should be retitled, Alexander the Petulant, and as for the cartoon-filled battles!; Also, the woeful 2004 – Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy – which has to be the leading candidate for worst adaptation of a great and immortal work of literature ever executed. Brad Pitt’s appallingly miscast, pouting, kung-Fu-fighting super hero, isn’t even the worst characterisation in the film!!
Finally, one exception to prove the rule, although CGI is mercifully absent from the superb opening battle scene, is Ridley Scott’s exceptional 2000 film, Gladiator (actually, a close reworking of Anthony Mann’s terribly dull, 1964 Fall of the Roman Empire) – which introduced the historical battle movie genre to a whole new generation of little Adams…