Thursday, 22 April 2010


22/4/10, Royal Festival Hall

3 hrs including interval (the film itself was 134 mins). Carl Davis and the Philharmonia accompanying Karl Grune's 1928 epic version of the great battle. A German response to Abel Gance's Napoleon, though not a patch on it: nowhere near as ambitious or as absorbing or as long (though the battle itself seemed interminable and pretty well incomprehensible, the participants largely indistinguishable except for the "Armee Anglaise" in natty little kilts and the Garde Francaise all in white, which Natasha said made them look as if they were in nightgowns).

Carl Davis's music mostly borrowed from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony and from his Wellington's Victory (highly popular in B's own day, despised now, absolutely appropriate in this context). Plus Weber's Invitation to the Waltz for the treacherous Polish countess and a wonderful Berlioz arrangement of the Marseillaise for the scene in which Napoleon's army, sent to arrest him, threaten to shoot him, only to come over to him en masse when he stands before them, unarmed, on a strategically placed hilltop, an says "Surely you would not shoot your Emperor?". And a fine Viennese waltz (which sounded late rather than early 19th century) for the scene at Metternich's Ball in Vienna during which Napoleon escapes from Elba.

It was played with great gusto by the Philharmonia who, according to the sheet handed to us as we entered the hall, were 85 strong, though I thought I counted well over 90. (The reason for the sheet? To credit the sponsors: "Principal Cello's Chair Endowed in perpetuity in memory of Amaryllis Fleming (1925-1999) by the Amaryllis Fleming Foundation and Fleming Family and Partners Ltd"; "Principal E flat Clarinet's Chair Endowed by Mercedes and Michael Hoffman" and so on).

The film was complete bunkum as history: hard to know where to start in listing the errors. It had Wellington not Castlereagh leading the British delegation at the Congress of Vienna (he surely was in Paris at the time); it had Wellington and Blucher meeting in Belgium: "You take Ligny, I'll take La Belle Alliance, and each will come to the other's aid if pressed..." which was not exactly what happened; there was no mention of Quatre Bras; Blucher and Napoleon both rode into battle cowboy-style at the head of their troops; the English were shown falling back all the time at Waterloo and likely to turn tail and flee until news came of the Prussians' arrival, whereas they stayed pretty much where they were throughout (not that there was much danger of Wellington actually winning until Blucher got there); the landscape in which the battle was fought was Mittel European pine forest, not rolling agricultural Belgium, etc etc.

All this went beyond the justifiable simplifications required to dramatise events and turned the film into a wishful rewriting of history: "It was the Prussians wot won it". Interesting that, ten years after the end of the First World War, popular German audiences should have been offered such a romantic notion of war (all patriotism and courage and La Gloire and no-one getting their limbs blown off), in which the French were pretty dastardly (their spy at the Congress of Vienna was a servant who lifted the fireback in the meeting room to load on more wood while eavesdropping on proceedings), the British stoical but inadequate and the principal manifestation of German military prowess an ageing eccentric who had resigned his commission more than once, twinkled and the ladies and twirled his moustaches despite his great age, was soft-hearted, loved his men and was loved by them in return, and refused to let the medic cut his boot off when he injured his leg because boots were in such short supply back at the depot and it would be a waste.

It was Blucher's film. He was played by an actor called Otto Gebuhr with tremendous relish and much mugging, often with intentional comedy (at our first glimpse of him we saw only his rump as he bent over to examine a horse he was buying from a dealer who looked shifty and Jewish).

We also liked Gniesenau (who looked a bit like Mussolini) and the young chap who played the love interest Reutlinger, Oskar Marion, who looked like Errol Flynn or John Barrymore. I'd forgotten how much silent film acting relied on actors' facial impressions in close up: some of them were marvellous.

There were also some fine visual touches, including a crane shot of the battle (didn't think they had those in in 1928). The French army was often shot from unusual angles, including a dramatic top-shot looking down on their serried ranks marching towards the bottom of the screen; frequent shots of soldiers or their commanders silhouetted against the skyline; an interesting shot of Napolon's army following him between two trees in the foreground, down a short hill into dead ground and then re-emerging to cross a wide open space before vanishing into trees. (The British and the Prussians, by contrast, were shot much more conventionally.) There were some nice special effects as well, like a diagonal split screen showing Napoleon's soldiers flocking to him in the top half, a polka at Metternich's Ball in the bottom half; or a fan-shaped multiscreen topshot of delegates to the Congresss scattering in their coaches and with bag and baggage after news arrived of Napoleon's escape from Elba.

There was an entertaining sub-plot involving the young officer, his fiancee, the Polish countess, a stolen despatch etc etc involving honour and betrayal and other juicy things.

The film came with bilingual French and German intertitles and modern English subtitles which I found I didn't need (my French being adequate to the job).

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