Monday 30 September 2019

Painting French armour for 1940

The French had some distinctive camouflage schemes for much of their armour and there are a whole host of possible schemes to choose from. The two AMR 35 tanks below have seen better days, but this contemporary colour photograph shows one of the paint schemes very clearly.

Many, many years ago I bought the original Matchbox 1/76 set that included both a Char B.1 and a FT17. While Airfix was always my first love I did have a lot of time for the Matchbox sets which came complete with a display base.

While you can still come across the original Matchbox kits on eBay the same kit has been produced more recently by Revell and I picked up one a few years ago from a local hobby store.

The toughest decision was to select a suitable colour scheme for both. Not always easy to see but a close inspection of the Char B1 in the picture below shows a similar paint scheme to that on the AMRs in the first picture and I liked the idea of something along those lines.

The French tank museum at Saumur (Musee des Blindes) has recreated similar schemes on restored tanks in its collection.

And this has been replicated in the collection at Bovington.

I've been fortunate to see several FT17s and a couple of Char B.1 in various museum collections. The FT 17 crops up in several and the one below, with the 37mm gun, is at the Musee de L'Armee in Paris.

The Tank Museum at Bovington has one in the First World War hall.

This one below, with a pipe in place of the main armament, is in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

Finally this one which is in the First World War halls of the Musee des Blindes at Saumur.

The Matchbox FT17 appears to be a fairly good replica, especially considering the age of the kit. Surviving examples of the Char B1 appear to be less common and I've only seen two of these. The one below is also at the Musee des Blindes at Saumur, which perhaps unsurprisingly, has an excellent collection of French AFVs.

And the other is in the Tank Museum at Bovington. This one doesn't appear to have been restored, however it is almost impossible to work out what the original colour scheme might have been.

One of my reference books is an excellent guide produced many years ago by Steven J Zaloga and is a great source of inspiration and information.

Looking through the book I liked the idea of trying out this scheme for the Char B.1.

So here are the Matchbox kits of the Char B.1 and the diminutive FT17 after construction. Both kits come in two tone plastic and a display base (as was the way with all the Matchbox kits) .

Using the photographs I've taken as a guide I've added a few details using plastic card to both plus a chain on the rear of the Char B.1, but other than those these are pretty much as they build out of the box.

Both models were primed in matt grey and then sprayed in the base green colour. The camouflage patten was marked out using Silly Putty. I find Silly Putty perfect for this job as it's easy to manipulate and and has good adhesion to the model to prevent any seepage of paint.

It is workable like plasticine but doesn't crumble in the same way. It is adhesive, but unlike blu tac it doesn't adhere so strongly that it will lift the paintwork. It's perfect for this particular job where you want a hard edged camouflage in an irregular shape.

The whole model is then sprayed with the lighter sand colour.

The Silly Putty is then removed to reveal the camouflage. Despite being covered in paint the Silly Putty can be rolled back together and is good for multiple uses (as you can see from my earlier picture, that blob is well used as it usually comes in a uniform flesh colour when new).

There's no easy was to get around painting the black key line between the two contrasting colours, that's a job for a good paintbrush and a reasonably steady hand. The tracks are painted with a dark grey. With that done the whole model receives a spay of a gloss varnish and once dry decals are applied.

I kept things very simple with the FT17, after all there really isn't a lot of room to play with on such a small model.

The decals were sealed with another coat of glass varnish to protect them. The next stage is a pin wash using diluted oil paint (I haven't record this here but you can follow the technique in this post about painting a Cromwell tank). Once dry the whole model receives a thorough coat of matt varnish.

The final detail apart from the usual weathering was to try to replicate the look of the tracks on the Char B.1. Looking at the tanks at Saumur and Bovington I wanted to get the same sort of metallic quality with more wear evident on the surfaces that were likely to connect with the road. While the tanks in the museum are not running regularly it's quite easy to distinguish the areas that would receive the most wear.

Using a very similar technique to that which I used on the Cromwell I worked up the worn metallic look using a base of acrylic paint and then detailing with oil paint. The dusty look was obtained using pigments.

Something very similar was done with the tracks on the FT17.

Overall I was very happy with the result and the Char B.1 in particular has a very distinctive finish. Quite a contrast to the monotone greens on my US, British and Soviet armour. I used a very similar technique to paint these FT17s and Vickers tanks for my Chinese forces in the picture below.

In this instance the FT17 models come from HaT and the Vickers is from UM. By the way the infantry are based for Crossfire and one day I plan to get around to re-basing them individually in anticipation of creating a platoon for Chain of Command. I suspect the publication of the forthcoming Far East Handbook will be the prod I will need to get started.

Friday 27 September 2019

What irks me about A Bridge Too Far

With all the attention on Operation Market Garden at the moment I thought I'd write a post on some of my observations about the film A Bridge Too Far. As much as I have enjoyed watching the film over the years, like so many cinematic attempts to tell a historical story it falls short.

Every film is about something and while that seems blindingly obvious the story line is often only a creative device to convey the perspective of the director and writer. On the surface A Bridge Too Far is a big budget, star-studded, Hollywood war epic about Operation Market Garden, but while that’s the dramatic device to drive the narrative I don’t think that’s the story the film is trying to tell.

Let’s start with the general premise, this is a film about a major Allied operation in the Second World War where the good guys lose. That alone makes it a quite unusual choice of subject matter, we tend to like films where the good guys win, don’t we? What is more interesting is the film doesn’t seem to suggest they lost because they were outfought by the bad guys. No, the key message emphasises the defeat as a result of their own actions and more particularly because of the hubris and arrogance in the high command. This is very much the conclusion of Cornelius Ryan's book and much of the historiography of the operation.

The film then appears to be about brave men sent on an impossible mission by an ambitious, arrogant and egotistical higher command. Dare I say it, it appears to be a film about ‘lions, led by donkeys’.

That shouldn't come as a complete surprise. Why? Because the director of A Bridge Too Far is also the director of the film adaptation of Oh! What a Lovely War. Originally a stage play from the 1960s it is a powerful anti-war satire about the First World War, although I'd argue it tells you a lot more about the anti-war, anti-establishment sentiments of the 1960s than it ever will about the First World War. It is a classic example of taking a narrative and using it as a vehicle to convey a sentiment or perspective about something else entirely.

The director Richard Attenborough is an accomplished actor and Oscar-winning film director who had a long and distinguished career. He was an active member of the British Labour Party and a committed pacifist. In many ways his work as a director was a product of the terrific creative furnace that was the 1960s and much like others working in that period he was anti-establishment. Before I go any farther, I’d like to stress that I am a great admirer of Attenborough both creatively and because I share many of his political views. This is not an attack on him because of his left-of-centre politics but an attempt to understand his creative output by framing it in the context of his world view.

This sets up an interesting perspective for A Bridge Too Far. Here we have a left-leaning, anti-establishment pacifist making a Hollywood blockbuster war movie. In many ways it doesn’t really make sense. I don’t believe Attenborough wanted to make a film that helped people understand the military events that led to and occurred during Operation Market Garden, I think he set out to make a more subversive film using the traditional war movie as his vehicle. It would be an epic, action adventure with a subtext akin to his world view.

There’s absolutely nothing unusual about that. If we look at another British war film of similar vintage, in this case Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, made a little earlier in 1968, we can see a number of parallels. Here is another film with a focus on a military disaster. Once again we see the arrogant, aloof senior officers, almost caricatures of the British ruling class, sending fine young men to their deaths. It's not a good film about the Crimean War or about the battle of Balaclava. On the other hand it is a good vehicle for someone wanting to make a film about class politics and reflect on the notion of lions led by donkeys. A look at Tony Richardson’s other films such as Look Back in Anger as well as the political affiliations at the time of his wife Vanessa Redgrave help to put this in context.

If we lump the three British war films together – Oh! What a Lovely WarA Bridge Too Far and The Charge of the Light Brigade it is easy to see a pattern of authorship that reflects the personality of the directors as much as the times in which the films were made. If you consider that Attenborough was also the director of the Oscar winning Ghandi, with its strong anti-imperial and anti-British establishment themes, then perhaps it becomes easier to see what it was in the story of Operation Market Garden that so appealed to him.

With that in mind certain scenes in A Bridge Too Far make more sense. Some are obvious like the very condescending way that Browning deals with the intelligence officer and dismisses his concerns. The intelligence officer is based on Major Brian Urquhart but his name was changed to Fuller for the film so as not to confuse audiences with Major General Urquhart, played by Sean Connery. 

Fuller is played as a slightly nervous man, lacking in confidence and fearful of his superior. This is a marked contrast to Browning who comes across as a well mannered but slightly sinister, public school bully. There's almost a clash of classes happening, with Browning's clipped Queen's English and Urquhart's faltering, nervous voice - the middle class civil servant facing the upper class mandarin. In fact Urquhart attended Westminster School and Oxford. He went on to have a very successful career, playing a significant role in the founding of the United Nations and so was hardly the middle class boy out of his depth. I sense the decision to cast and juxtapose the two different class types draws attention to Attenborough's intentions for much of the film.  

The one scene that always irks me is James Caan’s depiction of SSgt Charles Dohun (renamed ‘Eddie’ in the film). While this is based on a true story, in timeless Hollywood fashion it has been embellished and dramatised (there was no chase involving a jeep, for example). To be honest that doesn’t bother or surprise me, but what I do find strange is the amount of time dedicated to this one solitary story. Dohun’s action is not representative, in fact it was highly unusual. So why give it so much time and what does it tell us about Market Garden? Nothing really. At its heart it is about a man fighting back against the system, against authority and military regulation. I think it is given such a long treatment because this is more what Attenborough wants the film to be about.

The Dohun scene celebrates individuality and revolt against authority. It contrasts well with a scene that comes in the latter part of the film - the supply drop that features the canister of red berets. This is a powerful sequence played for full emotional impact. The final words come from one of the watching paratroopers as he cries in anguish ‘Oh Jesus Christ’ and the camera lingers on the dead soldier and the red berets blowing uselessly in the wind. This is a dramatic pause in the pace of the film and it’s the filmic equivalent of underscoring or putting words in italics. In many ways with his anguished cry the paratrooper is speaking for everyone watching and it is perhaps this scene more than any other that sums up Attenborough's thesis.

Without a doubt the thought left with the audience is ‘what a terrible waste’, which then begs the question, who could have allowed this to happen? The canister of berets is a powerful device used to emphasise how out of touch those in command are from those in the front line and it carries potent echoes of the 'chateau generals' of the First World War. Several earlier scenes with Browning set in a very chateau-like HQ do nothing to dispel that illusion.

The film has been applauded for its accuracy and when it comes to elements like equipment, uniforms and weapons I think it is well deserved. A lot of time and effort was put into getting the right look and feel and while the treatment and realism of war in the cinema has changed with the advent of films like Saving Private Ryan there’s no doubt A Bridge Too Far made a concerted effort to get things right.

However, looking realistic and being good history are not necessarily the same thing. In fact that’s just the problem, the more realistic a film looks the more inclined we are to take what it is saying as real or true. The problem is any film is much like a book or a play. It is an artistic interpretation, written and directed by people who set out to tell a particular story. They will have an opinion and a view of the world that will inform how they interpret that story. Choosing to depict Operation Market Garden demonstrates this very well because there was simply no way the full story of the operation could be told in a three hour film. It wouldn’t have been possible in a twenty hour mini-series. At some point a series of storylines have to be selected and those that are selected will be those that best support the premise of the film the writer and director have set out to make. What to keep in and what to omit? That all depends on what story they want to tell and what impressions they hope to leave on the audience. 

For a film about a major operation in WWII it strikes me the Germans don’t really play a key role. They are simply the foil. The major dramatic tension is between the British and the Americans. Attenborough seems to use the Americans to emphasise the rigid, class bound nature of the British. To that end it seems he was comfortable playing loosely with history in order to suit the thesis.

Sir Antony Beevor said recently he has seen a letter written by Colonel Julian Cook to Cornelius Ryan, the author of A Bridge Too Far and a consultant on the film, in which he objects to how Redford played him. "Most men would have been flattered," Beevor said. Before the river crossing Redford’s character describes the mission as "a real nightmare".

Another scene sees Cook berating a British officer for his inactivity. "Those are British troops at Arnhem. They're hurt bad. And you're just gonna sit here and... drink tea?" This is a powerful moment in the film that reflects badly on British conduct of the operation and yet the man who purportedly made the statement was not at all happy about how that was portrayed.

The fictitious character Colonel Stout played by Elliott Gould and by all accounts based on Robert Sink is the embodiment of American impatience and vigour. His character seems to spend as much time pushing against the British military bureaucracy as he does fighting the Germans.

The Americans are set up as the counterpoint to the British. Browning makes an easy villain and Dirk Bogarde plays the role to the hilt. If there’s an evil character in the film then it’s not a German, it’s actually a British officer – Browning. Our anger and bitterness is not directed at the Germans, but oddly enough it’s directed at one of the Allied commanders. That’s not to say Browning is without blame for much that happened during the operation (and history has generally judged him harshly), but is he really the villain of the piece? I think he is a useful character for Attenborough to use to embody all the higher command and while Montgomery is conspicuous by his absence it is perhaps more than coincidental that Browning is the conduit for Monty’s thoughts during the film.

What's also interesting is that Cornelius Ryan never interviewed Browning for his book. Neither did he interview Dempsey or Horrocks, which strikes me as rather odd, especially given how much time and correspondence he had with other commanders, particularly Gavin. However even Ryan didn't go in for the character assassination that screenwriter Goldman and director Attenborough carried out in the script for A Bridge Too Far. Every story needs a villain and so while it might have made for a good story I'm not sure it made for good history. 

Cultural events such as films, books and plays can do much to influence our perceptions of history. They can feed prejudices and entrench myths. Many of the popular perceptions of the First World War were fostered during the 1960s with films like Oh! What a Lovely War and the attention given to poets like Wilfred Owen (who was not a popular poet during or immediately after the war, only rising to prominence much later). If you are looking to tell an anti-establishment story what better vehicle to use than the military and what better device than an example of military incompetence. Operation Market Garden appears to fit that narrative rather well.

Does all this make A Bridge Too Far a terrible war movie? On a superficial level the answer is no, it delivers in spades with plenty of very well executed action scenes. What’s not to like about Anthony Hopkins’ Colonel Frost calling ‘Bring up the PIAT’? Or the 82nd Airborne crossing the Waal River?

Despite all that I don’t think it’s a great film about Operation Market Garden. From a historical point of view the film leaves many questions unanswered. For example why was it even necessary for an elite paratroop unit to conduct a river crossing under fire when the principal use for airborne troops is surprise and coup de main?

However that is to assume A Bridge Too Far is a history lesson, when actually it’s a piece of dramatic entertainment that uses the events of 1944 as the vehicle for a commentary on the British establishment and a message about the futility of war. In that sense it certainly succeeds. The fact it is also a high quality, action-drama film should not surprise us, after all Attenborough was a masterful story teller.