After a break of more than 20 years I'm returning to one of the chief hobbies of my childhood, wargaming. This blog is about how, starting from scratch and faced with a bewildering array of choices, I'm trying to navigate my way. I hope it might be of some interest or use!
At long last... having had to recently rearrange our lounge, for the umpteenth time, I'm getting back into making and painting my minis! This was why I recently built myself a paint rack, to make space for actually moving my several wargaming projects forward.
Things kind of stalled. At least on the making and painting fronts. For ages! My first project now is to assemble and paint, and, incidentally, I guess, review my only figure purchase from my most recent Salute. And that is this set of WWII German cyclists, by Offensive Miniatures.
The painted examples looked superb, on the Offensive Miniatures stand, at Salute. I also like a lot of the Defenders of The Reich set. I was rather shocked at the very steep price. I paid £22, making these eight 20mm figures, and their gear, £2.75 each. That is, in my view, way too expensive. But I threw caution to the wind, as they were my only figure purchase of the show.
All eight assembled. 
Before I move on to documenting painting, I'll do a quick review if the figures themselves. Obviously I like them. In fact I love them. So how come they don't get a higher rating? Well, for one thing, they're overpriced, in my view (mind you, so are most metal figs these days). And secondly, a number of parts on my castings are less than perfectly cast. I note that even on the company website some of the bike frames haven't cast entirely successfully. And most noticeable of all, my pointing man figure is sans pointing finger!
Also, as nice as these are, there are some fitting/assembly and pose issues. Getting my riders onto their bikes, and then adding the handlebars so they fitted both onto the bikes and into the riders hands, was pretty tricky and time consuming. And it involved bending stuff. Mostly handlebars, but even bikes and sometimes even hands/arms. I also filed a few hands out, and drilled some of the handlebar mounting holes, to try and get stuff seated and aligned better.
Compare how OM pose this particular figure...
Finding a decent superglue that actually works for this sort of glue up has also been a pain. In the end I'm using a rather pricey Gorilla brand gel type.
In terms of the poses, they are mostly very nice. Offensive figures are a bit on the stocky side. But then so are most 20mm white metal minis. The two open mouthed figures are my least favourite, in terms of looking natural and realistic. Six of the figures are riding their bikes, whilst one stands to the side of his, and another lies prone, on one elbow, field glasses in his right hand. It's nice that each bike is festooned with a different array of clobber, from blankets and boxes to sundry weapons and other gear.
with how I've opted to do it. 
I opted to pose my standing guy differently to how they show him on the OM website. They have him holding the bike lengthwise, by one handlebar and the seat. I decided I wanted mine as if 'pushing off', before mounting the bike. So he's holding the handlebars with both hands - which involved angling the front wheel, etc. (as did the bike laying on the floor for the recce fig) - which involved much jiggery-pokery!
Today I undercoated them in grey, and started blocking in base colours.
 I'll probably only use a few of the many panzerfaust supplied with these guys. The rest will go in the spares box, for use elsewhere.  I prefer the drama of my solution!
An excellent book: wide-ranging and comprehensive, detailed and thorough, and written in clear, precise prose (almost all  the 'military buff' type info - inc. technical terms and suchlike jargon - is clearly explained in such a way that the general reader can get to grips with it). The author's expertise in the field appears to be prodigious, making this a fantastic resource for those with a borderline fanatical interest in the subject, like me.
Austerlitz, by Pascal 
Nonetheless, I did find one instance where he seemed to be at odds with other sources: in discussing Boney's artillery he states, on p. 49, ''counter battery fire' (artillery firing upon artillery) was rare'. From my limited reading of Napoleonic history I'd got the distinct impression that 'artillery duels' were notoriously common, and, despite the ire and much to the chagrin of commanders, once started, nigh on impossible to stop. Barbero mentions that this significantly affected artillery effectiveness on both sides at Waterloo, in his excellent book The Battle: A New History of the Battle of Waterloo.
The author's companion piece on the British army.
Haythornthwaite has also written an equivalent book on Wellington's army, as pictured above. I don't have that one, as yet. As readers here will no doubt know, he's a very prolific author on military history. He's certainly written some titles about the Russian Napoleonic forces for the Osprey Men-At-Arms series, which I'd like to check out some time soon (with my dormant but still strong interest in the 1812 campaign). But, I wonder, is there a single volume book of this sort on the Russians?
An excellent resource for those interested in the organisation, tactics and campaign history of Napoleon's military machine, living up to it's title admirably.
A Gribeauval 12 pdr, perhaps even one of Napoleon's 'beautiful daughters'?
---------- NOTES:  * I feel books of this sort ought to supply translations of foreign language quotes as a matter of course, and not assume we're all multilingual (wish I was!); Haythornthwaite is amongst those who don't always remember to do this.  This fabulous painting of Napoleon and his immediate entourage, at the height of one of his most famous victories, shows the rich pageant inherent in the military machine of this era.
Rollicking good fun. Crowe suits his role perfectly, as Capt. Jack Aubrey - tho' I didn't quite believe in him as a violinist! - and plays it (his role, not the violin ) with gusto. Too many modern films sacrifice character and even plot to endless action and special effects. Master and Commander is a near perfect balance of all these things. How refreshing.
Bettany as Maturin, and Crowe as Aubrey.
Even on board ship, the officer class keep a good table.
As a lover of war films, I feel there are far too few films set in the Napoleonic era (WWII by contrast continues to spawn countless movies). And of those there are, too many are duff. This isn't, thank goodness. I must admit, I really do love the scene that climaxes in the pun, 'One must always choose the lesser of two weevils!' This occurs around the dining table, possible even in the very scene pictured above. I won't synopsise the plot, as there are plenty of others out there on the interweb who've already done that.
Aubrey and young Midshipman Lord William Blakeney.
Aubrey lends a hand at the guns.
Drawing alongside the french ship, Acheron.
Boarding the Acheron.
There's a good sub-plot, concerning the ship's doctor and naturalist, Dr Stephen Maturin, exploring his friendship with Aubrey, and the conflicts that arise between personal and professional loyalties. Another sub-plot pertains to the Christian/seafaring superstition of 'the Jonah', a curséd soul whose presence brings bad luck to all.
Anyroad, all told this is a very enjoyable depiction of British sea power in the age of sail. I often dislike CGI heavy productions, as they sacrifice everything to visual thrills (and, to my eye, are often so overdone as to look unconvincing anyway). But that's not the case here.
HMS Surprise. 
 Actually both Crowe and Bettany do a very good job of miming playing their instruments.  Actually a copy of HMS Rose, a sixth rate ship launched in 1757, and actually scuttled before the Napoleonic Wars got underway.
In some very loose way, Tigerland follows the format of Full Metal Jacket, being split between a big first chunk in training, at the eponymous Tigerland training centre (a U.S. Army training facility at Fort Polk, Lousiana), and a second lesser chunk, in combat in Vietnam.
Colin Farrell, as Pvt. Roland Bozz. On a Bus...
... and with his buddy Paxton, hanging out in the latrines.
Full Metal Jacket just seems better on every level; better conceived, better executed, better acted and better directed. Just plain better. Given that Full Metal Jacket's already out there, I'm not quite sure why Joel Schumacher made this more insipid movie.
I don't remember any part of the film being as exciting as this film suggests.*
At the time of first writing this (ages ago now), I had only just watched it, very recently. And yet I could remember almost nothing about it. Other than it seemed to be a papiér-maché light edifice built of weakly acted thinly characterised clichés. I found it reasonably watchable - i.e. I got through it all - but totally unmoving and forgettable. Not recommended! * Actually, I don't remember anything about this film, other than it seemed like a waste of my time.
Warning: spoilers. Set in 1942, They Who Dare tells the story of a British Commando Raid on Rhodes, the goal of which is to simultaneously attack and destroy two German airfields, thereby lessening the Luftwaffe presence/threat in the North African theatre, as Monty prepares for El Alamein.
Directed by Lewis Milestone , and filmed in Cyprus, in bright technicolor, the intense sun and saturated colour give the film a very strong visual look, which I love. Dirk Bogarde plays Lieut. Graham, a plummy British officer leading a tiny group, comprising just ten men: six British soldiers, two Greek officers, and two local Greeks as guides.
Lt. Graham (Bogarde, right) and his team. Denholm Elliot at left.
A nice contemporary promo card.
After a briefing on the Greek sub that will drop them off, at which blood red wine is spilt over the map - an ill augur, perhaps? - the mission gets off to a shaky start. First they find their eagerly anticipated water source has dried up, and then Patroklis, one of the local guides, jeopardises the mission by visiting his family, which in turn leads to one of the Greek officers with the expedition injuring himself, whilst trying to stop him.
The first priority becomes getting water, which proves nigh on impossible. Bogarde gets into a funk, and is ready to return to the rendezvous and scrap the whole mission. But Patroklis' sister and two local shepherd boys come to the rescue, with a priest and a donkey loaded with provisions . The mission is back on. The group splits into two teams, and separates, to do the job.
A selection of attractive period posters for the film. 
Bogarde - who I often find rather unsympathetic; he frequently plays abrasively self important characters - is, true to form, a bit of a cock. His derring-do at the airfield ends up raising the alarm. And then after that they freak out a nun at the church where they're supposed to rendezvous. She ends up ringing the church bells! However, the bombs go off; mission accomplished.
Bogarde's six man team is down three men, and of those left one is the wounded Greek officer, whereas the other team, lead by caricature sketching Lieut. Stevens, R.N, are all ok. But they still have to get back to the rendezvous with the sub. This part of the film is every bit as tense and exciting as the mission itself. And mishap piles upon mishap, such that you anticipate all will be killed or captured. Anyway, I'll leave the plot synopsis there, not wanting to give it all away.
Bogarde, irritating but charismatic. Totally believable as an officer class type. 
The delightfully named Alec mango, as Patroklis, visits his relatives.
As much as I dislike a Bogarde's character, he does have onscreen charisma. A young Denholm Elliot also turns in a strong performance. Many of the other characters verge on caricature, from the portly, jovial Pappodopolous (Eric Pohlman ), Captain of the sub, to the rank and file Commandos, with their 'salt of the earth' banter. Having said this, all play their parts well, for all that, and they are a likeable bunch.
The Germans are, in fact, mostly Italians, including the planes. The vehicles look like a strange mish mash, but I didn't see anything beyond uniforms and guns that I recognised as definitely German, or even Italian (except the aforementioned planes). But whilst such issues of inauthentic matériel help ruin a film like Battle of the Bulge, they don't do such damage to this film.
A Daimler Scout Car, badly disguised as an Axis AC.
In many ways this is run of the mill stuff, based around British pluck of a David vs. Goliath variety. But something about it - perhaps the realism of a mission dogged by so many unforeseen problems, perhaps in part the actors, or maybe even primarily the visual side? - makes it somewhat more singular. Not an out and out classic, by a long chalk, but a strong film in its own way.
---------- NOTES:  Milestone is most famous for the 1930 version of All Quiet On The Western Front. He also directed another film I recently watched and reviewed here, A Walk In The Sun.  Let's be clear: the priest is part of the donkeys' load, he's not carrying anything! In fact, why did they bother? They should've left the priest and loaded more provisions in the donkey. I think the useless priest is included to add local Greek Orthodox colour! Speaking of which, the flute-tooting shepherd boys also serve that purpose. At one point a particularly striking looking young shepherd even contrives to save the Commandos from capture via his mellifluous noodling!  I really wanted to find some pictures of the opening and closing scenes on board the sub. But aside from the bottom left image here, couldn't find anything usable.  Self-assuredly confident they're born to lead, no matter how badly they do the job!  Pohlman's submarine Capt, whilst a caricature, is endearing. I knew I recognised him. But I couldn't place him. Turns out he's 'The Fat Man' in The Return of the Pink Panther!
It's 1944, and somewhere near Aachen a platoon of American troops of Fragile Fox company  are attacking a German pill-box. Jack Palance plays Lt. Costa's, whose boys get badly chopped up by machine gun and mortar fire, their promised support never materialising.
Capt. Cooney (Eddie Albert) is the vacillating, non-committal commander responsible for the debacle. Confronted with a challenge, he simply freezes. Holding his rank by dint of his father's society connections - daddy is a judge (and bully) - his costly failures look remarkably like rank incompetence, perhaps even cowardice. 
Lt. Joe Costa (Paklance, at right), can't stand Capt. Erskine Cooney.
After the initial opening battle sequence, we spend a while behind the lines. Capt. Cooney prepares to receive Lt. Col. Bartlett (Lee Marvin), who he knows from pre-war days, at HQ. A card game with booze and cigars is laid on. Cooney and Bartlett each intend to milk the occasion, laced with Southern bonhomie, for their own careerist ambitions. Cooney wants to win disapproving daddie's approval, by returning home as a decorated war hero; Bartlett seeks postwar office, with Daddy and Jr Cooney as backers.
But the rankling grievances that are festering below the surface erupt, and things turn sour. Costa just can't contain his anger over the Aachen affair. And it's soon clear that morale in the unit as a whole is close to breaking point, thanks to Cooney's lacklustre leadership. Lt. Harry Woodruff wants Costa to back him up in getting Cooney 'kicked upstairs'.
A great still, looking very like a documentary photograph.
Costa's too jaded to even try. And Bartlett manages to fob Woodruff off, saying that it's 100-to-1 they'll be pulled off the line. Instead, they're caught up in the Battle of the Bulge. Bartlett gives Cooney and Fragile Fox co. the task of taking and holding the strategically important town of La Nelle. Cooney requests Costa's platoon take the key initial position, a far, in the edge of town.
Like the pill-box near Aachen, it's a dirty dangerous job. But Costa reluctantly if fatalistically agrees, telling Bartlett that if the promised back up doesn't arrive this time, and promptly, and if he loses any more men as a result of Cooney's incompetence, he'll come back and shove a grenade down the Captain's throat and pull the pin!
Pulling the pin on a grenade is an image key to the film's pent-up violence.
Well, it's pretty clear what's going to happen. Exactly how it unfolds, however, is very well handled. Palance is just great, so ruggedly masculine you feel he might well be made of granite! Albert is also excellent, as the less than sympathetic Cooney. Marvin, another amazing looking fellow, is also reliably rugged, but with an added layer of viciously smooth careerist snakeskin.
Costa is a man who drives himself over the edge, Cooney one who never finds his footing, and Bartlett cracks the whip on the brink. Amongst the officers only Harry retains any balance and composure. Or does he? The film promoted itself with the tag 'rips open the hot hell behind the glory', and has been described as cynical. Certainly it's not a straightforward heroes of America fight and defeat their evil foe type affair.
Palance and friend during filming.
Actually I think it's a quite remarkable film. Palance is just great. His character, whilst extremely charismatic, in a homely yet gung-ho way, is damaged by the war. Yet we sympathise with him. Ultimately we may even sympathise with and feel pity for Cooney, who's the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Desperate to win the approval of a bullying father, but fully aware he hasn't the character to achieve his goal.
What transpires, over several well managed scenarios, is the evolution of this toxic set-up, under the rigorous strains of modern armed conflict. Us war buffs might grimace at the incorrect matériel - in particular the rather poxy looking M3 Stewart Light Tanks  standing in for magnificent panzers - but the film is good enough to surmount such limitations.
Palance prepare to bazooka a 'Panzer'.
Indeed, whilst on some levels this could be seen as a run of the mill WWII potboiler, in others, it clearly isn't. Palance's performance is almost Tolstoyan in intensity, but with a touch of neo-operatic ham. There are some familiar faces, like a Richard Jaeckel, and some low-budget workaround shots. But there's also an almost Francis Wolff (of Blue Note records, the famous jazz label)  aesthetic to the black and white photography, and the opening title sequence.
And in addition to a gripping well performed story, there's the moral complexity and the compromised systems of values that interplay. The denouement is appropriately messy and confused, much like the fighting depicted. Mixing the homely with the brutally cynical, it depicts a sad reality, in which humanity seems to oscillate under the polar lures of compromise and integrity.
Lee Marvin is great as the jaded and cynically practical Lt. Col. Clyde Bartlett.
All told, I love this film. Lee Marvin is great, Palance is like some kind of pagan deity in the flesh, attractively primitive and dangerously, combustible volatile, Eddie Albert plays an unattractive role with real vigour and credibility, and William Smithers (who I didn't know prior to this) is the Everyman, trying to fathom his moral compass on storm-tossed seas of war. Fab!
Smithers as Woodruff, the Everyman character.
 The film is based on a play, originally titled Fragile Fox.
 In fact actor Eddie Albert was a decorated veteran of WWII!
 Aldrich had to buy his own tank, and rent another, to make the film, as the US military refused to cooperate in the making of the film.
 It turns out it was graphic design maestro Saul Bass who did the superb title sequence.
Mel Gibson returns - or comes in from the cold, you might say  - with a film that revisits his twin obsessions of Christian faith and bloody gore. Remember his Passion Of The Christ? Well, this is obviously rather different, but Christian faith and ultra-violence are just two of the themes these films share.
The movie as 'true story' is a long favoured formula, and perhaps never more so than in the war genre, with WWII having spawned huge amounts of films 'based on real events'. How close such films steer to the truth, insofar as we can know it, is a moot point. Step forward Gibson's William Wallace, as exhibit A.
The real life Desmond Doss.
Desmond Doss' story certainly makes for a gripping film in Gibson's capable hands. By turns both homely and epic, it's also certainly hugely cathartic, in its depiction of the triumph of one man's convictions in the face of both the psychological and institutional opposition of his own army, and the physical weapons and soldiers of the 'banzai' era Japanese Imperial enemy.
Ironically, perhaps, in the light of director Gibson's statements, re this film, about real heroes not wearing spandex, Andrew Garfield, who plays Doss, achieved super-stardom as the superhero Spider-Man! But here he overcomes his pretty boy Hollywood star status to deliver a very involving and moving performance.
Andrew garfield is very convincing in the role of Doss.
Hugo Weaving* is excellent as Desmond's war-damaged WWI vet father.
Hugo Weaving is great as Doss' damaged WWI-vet father, and Teresa Palmer  is fine (in every sense) as his sweetheart and war-bride. Indeed, there are strong performances from all concerned. Until this film I always found Vince Vaughan too one-dimensionally macho. He's cast here according to type, as Doss' Captain. But he plays his part well, and at last achieves some more rounded humanity (at least in my eyes).
For us war film buffs this is yet another instalment of 'Americans in the Pacific' - the Yanks  seem to favour this more all-American theatre of the war  - but it's done superlatively well, and focuses on an action I don't believe I've seen depicted (unless it features in HBOs Pacific?) before. The terrain fought over is pretty extreme, fully deserving its brutal sounding epithet.
The paradox of the bravest soldier being the one without a gun.
Gibson and garfield onset during filming.
At the heart of the story is the idea that the apparently paradoxical soldier without a weapon might be the bravest man on the battlefield. And the catharsis of seeing a man successfully stand by his convictions, in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds is very powerful. I don't think you need share either Gibson's or Doss' religious views to understand and admire that.
Is Mel Gibson a racist, misogynist, religious crackpot? Certainly he's been portrayed that way, allegedly in his own words, by the media. I don't know the truth of those allegations, and have never looked deeply into it. Is Hacksaw Ridge a terrific film that tells an amazing story? That I can attest to. Yes!
* Better known, perhaps, as Elrond in LOTR, or Agent Smith, in The Matrix.
 It's ten years between this and Apocalypto, his previous film as director. And in the meanwhile there's been much controversy over his personal life and views.
 At first his hillbilly accent annoyed me a little. The Americans seem to treat a Southern accent almost as shorthand for an honest-to-God, salt-of-the-earth nature; a little dumb perhaps, but genuine. But it does also happen that Doss was a southern boy.
 And I never knew that my wife had a career in Hollywood!
 Gibson is often thought of as Australian. But he was born in New York, and is American. And even if he weren't, despite his troubled episodes, he's as good as Hollywood royalty these days. And besides, this is obviously an American story and film!
 Of course Commonwealth forces also fought in the Pacific. But compared with the European theatre, the Pacific was much more an American 'show'.
May '69, the 101st Airborne, or 'Screaming Eagles', are ordered to take Hill 937, a heavily fortified North Vietnamese strongpoint. Repeated assaults ensue and, due to heavy U.S. losses, the battle acquires the nickname Hamburger Hill.
This portrayal of those events is, like most American 'Nam movies, told pretty much entirely from the U.S. perspective. The disparity of means at the disposal of the engaging forces is depicted accurately, in that the Americans, if they don't always outnumber, certainly outgun their adversaries, calling in artillery and air support their foe simply don't have.
Dylan McDermott as Sgt. Frantz.
In some ways this is just another typical 'Nam movie; just like the Asian cookery of the region, certain key ingredients are esssential: most of the actors are perhaps rather too good looking to be entirely plausible, there's the ubiquitous war-weary male combat banter, and the movie as a whole straddles that paradoxical divide between a homage to 'our brave boys', and a condemnation of the wasteful brutality of war.
The core of the film shares a common theme with many contemporary war films, and real combat (from what I've read), in which soldiers ultimately fight for themselves and the men close to them - stay alive, stay together - rather than for any ideology. The themes of bonding and loss under extreme conditions are certainly major components of this film.
Courtney Vance as 'Doc' Johnson (right). 
Other prominent and interesting sub-themes are: ongoing issues of racial tension, a growing awareness of the anti-war movement 'back home', and doubt in the soldiers minds over why the battle/war is being fought at all. Where Hamburger Hill differentiates itself most noticeably from some other similar genre pieces is in its tight focus on a small ensemble of soldiers - 3rd Squad, 1st Platoon - fighting one particular ten day battle.
Ultimately it's the characters and the actors portraying them that make or break a film like this. The film's central character, Sgt. Frantz (Dylan McDermott), is good in this respect, as is Sgt. Worcester (Steve Weber), his war-weary immediate superior. The cast of largely less than familiar faces acquit themselves well; underneath all the macho army banter lurk real human beings. Courtney Vance deserves special mention for his charismatic portrayal of medic 'Doc' Johnson. These guys are believable enough that one really does feel engaged in their story.
The ensemble cast.
A second viewing confirms that it's this ensemble quality, and the above average quality of the dialogue, that lift this film above the purely workmanlike. Yes, a lot of the macho banter sounds clichéd - and in many ways it is - but that's a part of the reality of the tribalism that develops amongst fiercely competing all male groups. But there's also some subtler stuff in there to. The other thing that struck me powerfully on second viewing is the insane sacrifices demanded of the 'grunts'.
An impressive CGI-free production, in which terrain and weather play notable roles, Hamburger Hill sits between the old school epics, in which the violence of war is suggested more than depicted, and the more recent trend towards splat-fests. Whilst there's a lot of mud and blood, it's only occasionally punctuated with a smattering - or should that be a splattering? - of more shockingly visceral moments.
Enjoying behind the lines comforts.
Less self-consciously aestheticised or (pseudo?) philosophical than The Thin Red Line, and completely eschewing the over-hyped psychedelic rock-opera stylings of Apocalypse Now, Hamburger Hill is correspondingly that much more realistic. Not an instant classic, but a powerful grower, and more than just good solid fare for the war movie junkie. ---------- NOTES:  I sometimes wondered if the racial elements might have contributed to some of the ideas in Tropic Thunder.