Magnificent, But Not War: One Grog's Complicated Relationship with Hollywood History

By Bill Gray 07 Feb 2018 4

C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre . . . magnificent, but not war! This was spoken by French General Joseph Bosquet as he watched the charge of the Light Brigade. Maybe because I’m American, or the wargaming cliques I hang out with, but I hear that quote every time I encounter something that never fails to send shivers down my tabletop spine. That thing would be the concept of 'Hollywood History,' an implication that the greatest military historian ever was Cecil B DeMille.


I speak of films that knowingly distort history in their productions. This means events out of chronological sequence (or never happened), tactics, formations, uniforms and flags totally inaccurate and so on ad nauseam. Many think of it as dumbing down for the masses at its finest. But if so, is that so bad?

Raison d'être

There are many reasons that Hollywood has taken this perspective, some quite justifiable if not downright smart. Before the advent of digital graphics, if one needed 50 German Pzkw VIb Koenigstiger tanks for its film, it had to come up with real tanks. Digital was not an option. The movie Battle of the Bulge made do by going to the Spanish army and substituting their M-47 Patton’s for the German King Tigers as no working examples exist today. Fair enough. But then all were painted Panzer grey. Now any Flames of War-rior knows that 1944 German armour was painted tan, with forest green and rust brown colouring applied in various camouflage patterns. That the film did otherwise, however, expose the primary reason Hollywood History still thrives.

Hollywood History 01

Hollywood is an entertainment medium that must turn a profit, and there is nothing wrong with doing so. To make this happen television needs advertisers and movies need to sell tickets, not to mention DVD or digital rentals sometime after. It’s simply not good business to confuse non history PhD audiences or, even worse, allow them to leave without a feeling of some type of exhilaration. The German army has always been associated with dark colors such as black (“are they Prussian black?” Wellington asked in the movie Waterloo, although historically the Prussian line wore dark blue) or grey, and indeed “Panzer Grey” was the standard color at the beginning of World War II, so why the heck not? (Accuracy Bill, that's why -ED)

Now consider films where open field battles centre around a bayonet charge conducted at a dead heat, resulting in a saber swinging, rifle butt bar room brawl. This is Mel Gibson’s The Patriot where the final battle shows colonial militia bolting, and well-disciplined British line breaking ranks to run them down at staple chase speed. They meet the American second line and ferocious hand to hand combat ensues. Yet records indicate only 2% of 18th Century battle wounds were made by bayonets, and by the American Civil War only 1%. French military author Antoine-Henri Jomini wrote that bayonet fights only occurred in enclosed terrain such as towns or fortifications. Otherwise, he never saw such a thing in the open field. Normally one side would break and retire before contact. This is reality, but is it exciting? Not so much. Here are just a few other examples to hopefully tweak a memory or two:

The Patriot 01 1

Flyboys (2006) – The American volunteer squadron flies the Nieuport 17, the Germans the Fokker DR-1 Triplane. However, the latter entered service only after the Nieuports were no longer operational and certainly not all were painted red. Producer Dean Devlin acknowledged this but said he wanted to give clear visual signals to the audience to easily distinguish friend from foe in the aerial sequences.

Britannia (2017) – The series has been severely hammered in the accuracy department, and it does continue the fine tradition of depicting the way Roman Legions did NOT fight and dress. In particular one thing that always bugs me is Roman scutum (shields), all rectangular, heavily embossed metal, painted red with the universal winged thunderbolt motif. Yet history tells us the real thing was three planks of wood glued together and then covered by leather and canvas. Stephen Dando-Collin’s Legions of Rome notes only the Praetorians (and possibly four civic formations for part of the Imperial period) used that motif, slightly altered in design and colour for each cohort. Of the other 46 legions, the IX Hispania and the XX Valaria Victrix mentioned in Britannia are typical, the former having a white bull and the latter a golden boar with three white arrows on its shields. Archaeology has some confirmation of this as the dig at Dura-Europus includes a 3rd Century scutum, the only one known to exist, and it has no similarity to what one sees in the movies. Pontius Pilate’s legionaries even compound this mistake in film given there were no legionaries in Palestine during his administration.

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The Charge of the Light Brigade – This means all versions, not to mention War and Peace. All charges are executed at top speed from the halt when the trumpet blows, even though reality tells us the animals would drop dead from fatigue prior to reaching the enemy. As a film of the modern French Republican Guard shows, tactics by Napoleon’s reign saw charging horse slowly ramp up speed and only going full tilt with 100 yards of the target. Control and formation was maintained for maximum impact, something His Grace Lord Wellington duly noted.

There are exceptions, particularly if reenactors and digital special effects are involved. Nevertheless, remember when comparing the 1960 Alamo film (to include Jim Bowie and his seven-barrel Nock Gun) with the far more accurate 2004 version (showing the Mexican army correctly attired, making an early dawn attack, with Crockett executed), it was the latter that became a massive box office flop.

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Pewter Pusher Predicament

All of the above would likely be transparent to computer and board gamers. Thus aficionados of GMT’s American War of Independence counter board games would notice little wrong with The Patriot. But a miniature gamer with interest in the period depicted by a film? Yup.

Miniature wargaming is a research heavy hobby. Resources in both time and money needed for miniature gaming often limits participants to one or two periods of play. However, they likely know everything about those eras because of this inherent research requirement. Computer or board gaming can segue into further reading, but there is no requirement to do so. Research is not only necessary for game play, but most consider it enjoyable as well. There are scenarios to create so battles might be played, and while scenario books are available, they add an additional cost and often less than comprehensive. In some cases miniature rules, such as Scott Bowden’s hugely successful Empire rules don’t include scenarios at all. And now with every library on the planet digitizing their Public Domain collections, the need for scenario books is less, while research is easier and more pleasant.

Hollywood History 04

But outside that, miniature wargaming also has a unique visual component. NATO symbololgy is one thing, but it’s certainly not a well painted lance of thundering plate armored French knights. This means research into uniforms, flags, and a whole host of other things. Grabbing a good uniform or order of battle book is an absolute must, and invariably includes extra facts, background history and more to tickle a person’s curiosity. This leads to an acute understanding of weapons, tactics, personalities and terrain. Thus the pewter pusher gets Patton’s comment that the bayonet frightened many, but killed few.

The first figures I ever purchased was four packs of 15 mm Heritage Napoleonette 1812 Russian Grenadiers. I also picked up paint, brushes and a copy of Philip Haythornthwaite’s Uniforms of the Retreat from Moscow and . . . well, who knew Russian Hussar regiments carried lances? Well I do now.


I’m certain I’m not the only miniature gamer with this experience, and I won’t be the last. However, it also means that when I see a movie or television show where something isn’t correct historically, I will notice it although no one else will. It recalls a conversation I had with the owner of Minifigs UK I had years ago, when I ordered a good 25 pack of Roman legionaries “with the rectangular shields.” Neville Dickinson replied, “OK, you want the Hollywood Romans.”

It still makes me cringe.

A Blessing in Disguise

So how should we fix this cruel travesty? We don’t.

First, even the most serious, 'gotta know the armour penetration of the SMS Derfflinger’s main turrets' Grognard does need a break, and playing some Hollywood History is a perfect reprieve. You simply morph into Heath Ledger’s Joker and think, “Why so serious?”

Hollywood History 03

More importantly, however, is realising Hollywood pulls patrons by allowing them to suspend the real world and enjoy themselves, even if only for an hour or two. If the “greying of the hobby” is true, this might be the way to start thinking in pewter land as well. New blood is needed, and successful recruiting is NOT dropping a newcomer into a complex game, regardless of high realism factor. Thus many criticise Flames of War (Hammer), but said rules have likely done more to pull in outsiders to the hobby than any other game before or since.

Remember the phrase “can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em?” So what if GI Joe bullseyes an over the shoulder shot at 1200 yards, while his German adversaries couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn with a blunderbuss? And then there is that 1864 joint task force of Confederate and Union cavalry tangling with Emperor Maximillian’s lancers and Zouaves? Heck, provide a Gatling gun too. Take a look at rules covering film franchises like Star Trek as a good place to learn and hone technique.

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I confess that at the 2016 Fall In convention, one of the best games on site covered the final battle from The Wind and the Lion (1975). The terrain perfectly matched the movie, while the Berbers, US Marines, Germans, French Chasseurs d’ Afrique were both colourful and Hollywood accurate. Mrs Pedecaris (and historically, she was a he) was there as a custom figure, as was the Raisuli and Captain Jerome. The table was always full – to include younger lads – and there was laughing, dice were rolling, chips and dips were eagerly consumed.

And if that isn’t good advertising for the hobby, I don’t know what is. Hollywood History may not be war, but it’s certainly magnificent and in the words of the great Mr. Adams, it’s also “mostly harmless”.



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