Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Centurion - 'B' Movie Fun

When I first started “Sword and Sandal Gaming”, one of my first posts concerned the anticipated release of “Centurion” - the British produced film about the disappearance of the Roman Ninth Legion in 117 AD, when it ventured north into what would one day become Scotland in order to subdue the warlike Pictish tribes.  Although the film opened in England last spring, it did not appear in the States until last weekend.  I finally did get a chance to see it, although not in a theater, but on my own home TV during a special, On-Demand, "before opening in theaters" showing provided by my local cable provider.  Now that I have seen it, what do I think?  Let's see....

If nothing else, Centurion is a ton of fun – a rousing, action packed, period piece that is combination war, adventure, and chase film.  Is it historically accurate?  I think more so than most movies supposedly inspired by historical events, but it also has the advantage that its limited, non-Hollywood scale budget gives it a more focused concentration than that of a major production studio film trying to be epic in scope.  Most of the armor and equipment are reasonably accurate, with the exception  of a battle scene where the Romans are spear, instead of pilum armed.  And at one point, the construction of Hadrian's Wall is seen commencing, which didn't actually happen until 5 years later in 122 AD.  The Picts are shown as woad adorned Scots, but given the paucity of sources about these tribes from this era, well ... why not?  Finally, there are now scholars who contest whether or not the Ninth Legion was actually lost in Britain in the first place, but if not completely factual, the tale of the lost legion and its eagle is an iconic and almost mythological one for Ancient History enthusiasts.  So, these are all minor quibbles really, and the bottom line is that there was nothing in Centurion that made me seriously wince at its complete disregard for “what really happened”.

But is Centurion a great film?  Or a bad film?  It has gotten mixed reviews from the professionals, and in a sense I agree with that evaluation. Expecting so much more, I was just a little bit disappointed with the final product.  The film is very weak on character depth, and there are several less than satisfactory, mile wide  plot holes.  More than a bit derivative, despite its original subject matter, it is in essence mainly an extended chase film, whose plot line could be easily substituted into a 1960's era Western with the Romans as the American frontier cavalry and the Picts as Plains Indians.

Despite the above criticisms though, if you are a fan of movies set in the Ancient world, then Centurion is still good enough that it is a must-see.  Although the characters are all rather one-dimensional, they are very well acted – particularly the roles of the son of a gladiator Centurion, played by Michael Fassbender (last seen in “Inglorious Basterds”),  and of Etain the Tracker, as played by Olga Kurylenko, who manages to be sensuous, mysterious, and frightening, all at the same time.  Neil Marshall, the British director more well-known for his cult-classic type horror films, sets a break neck pace from beginning to end, filming the battles, ambushes, and combats just as if Centurion was itself of that film genre.  There really is something to be said for that approach – although brutally and unflinchingly violent, all the on screen mayhem, blood splattering, and chopped off body parts, even if a bit hyper-realistic, is probably a more honest portrayal of what up close and personal hand-to-hand combat with edged weapons was like  rather than that shown in most mainstream movies.  The film has some really nice small touches too, like for instance, the distinctly visible scars on the grizzled faces of the veteran Legionaries when viewed in closeup.  And the cinematography is simply beautiful - the film is just flat out good looking in almost every frame.

All in all, if you are a fan of well-made B-movies, and you are not expecting an Oscar quality film, then Centurion is quite the thrilling ride.  Fans of Ancient History, Ancient Wargaming, and Sword and Sandal films should definitely rush out to see Centurion.  I don't think you will be disappointed, and you will most definitely not be bored.

For a brief sampling, the clips below show the scenes of the Ninth Legion being ambushed in the Pictish woods.  From an Ancients gaming perspective, it looks like the Romans were caught marching in column through disordering terrain, then were disrupted by a rolling fireball stratagem, before finally being fragmented by a medium foot impact charge starting from a higher elevation.


Part I - Great Balls of Fire:




Part II - Impact Foot Charge:



Sunday, August 29, 2010

More Dailami

I have finished several more units of Dailami for the army I intend to play at the upcoming New England Regional FoG Tournament this November.  Except for the supporting archers in the photos below, these are all Essex Miniatures 15mm figures.  The archers are Old Glory 15s.  I had always considered Essex's figures to be in the category of "just good enough", but recently, I've grown very fond of them.  Their simple poses work great for multi-figure basing, and they are very easy to paint.  I think they have a nice, "old school" character about them, and they are the kind of figures that look much better once a bit of paint gets slapped onto them.

The figures above are from Essex's Ghaznvid line, and are actually listed as for use specifically as Dailamis.  I have a really difficult time as a painter doing shields (that's why I use shield transfers whenever I can - note the Phalangites a couple of postings back), but for these figures I thought I would try using some very simple geometric designs that would be appropriate for an Islamic army.  I guess that with age, my hands just aren't steady enough to get these just right, but as units on the tabletop en masse, the finished shields are definitely passable.  Regardless, I do need a bit more practice, I think, painting neat, straight lines - anyone have any simple tips for doing so?  For hand painted designs though, these were at least a lot easier for me to pull off than European Heraldic ones.

Now these guys are actually Ghaznavid heavy infantry, but even though they are carrying bow cases, which isn't probably very accurate historically, I think they make pretty good Dailamis.


Finally, here is an Elephants unit for use in countering my opponent's lancers and knights.  Once again, I used Essex figures from the Ghaznavid line.  Glass cannons, the elephants may be, but an army composed primarily of medium foot infantry must have something to give opposing cavalry cause to pause.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Alexander Star Trek

A gaming friend of mine tipped me off to these links of a failed TV pilot for "Alexander the Great", starring Captain Kirk himself - William Shatner.  The pilot was filmed in 1964, but thankfully, the series wasn't picked up.  Later, in 1968, after Shatner had gained enough respectability performing on Star Trek, the pilot was actually shown as an one time special.  This  posting has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Ancient History wargaming, but I think it is certainly appropriate for "Sword and Sandal Gaming".  The scenes from the pilot show a cliche sword-and-sandal production, with bad acting, horrible dialogue, rudimentary special effects, and atrocious battle scenes.  And although entitled "Alexander the Great", this is really a formulaic Hollywood production with nothing historical about it at all.  But it is one of those films that is so bad that it is hilarious, and for anyone who grew up watching the original Star Trek, it is most definitely something you would like to check out.  One more thing though - the short tunics on the Greek (that's right, they are not called Macedonians) characters are just a little bit too disturbing.

See the video clips below, and enjoy.

Part 1:



Part 2:



Part 3:



For anyone who just has to indulge in the full measure of sword-and-sandal punishment, the film version of this novelty is actually available from Amazon.com at:

Alexander the Great - William Shatner

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Xyston Phalangites


As I've said before, I only consider my painting skills to be "wargaming standard", but one of my purposes of this blog is to show how to get those kind of results with a minimum of effort and as rapidly as possible.  I think that newbies to Ancient gaming are frequently frightened off by the quantity of miniatures that need to get painted for a full battle, non-skirmish game, but I hope to demonstrate that it is not that difficult to get their miniatures to an acceptable standard without devoting month after month to painting them up before having them ready for a game or tournament.  With that in mind, above is an unit of Macedonian Phalangites that I just  finished.  I have a gaming friend who is a much more skilled painter than I am, and his version of these same miniatures would easily shame mine, but I think these actually came out pretty good.  Once again, the figures were spray primed with Rust-oleum Flat Brown paint, then got a quick dry-brush with Delta Ceramcoat White paint.  The figures were then block painted with craft paints before receiving a very dilute wash of Liquidtex Raw Umber mixed with Future Floor Wax.  The figures are by Xyston and the Shield Transfers are by Little Big Men Studios.  I did paint the shields white before putting on the transfers, and then the edges had to be touched up with red paint.  Once dry, the figures received two spray coats of Testor Dullcote before basing.  Reasonable results, I think, in a very short amount of time.

Monday, August 16, 2010

New England Field of Glory Tournament Upcoming

New England Field of Glory Regional Tournament
There is an upcoming Field of Glory tournament to be held this November in the Boston area.  Normally, our group of regional Ancients gamers would be heading toward Fall-In, the HMGS-E convention in Lancaster, PA, but this year it is being held on the Halloween weekend.  For those of us with young kids, which is a large percentage of us, that is simply a no-go gaming weekend.  Because of this conflict, our group, the New England Ancient Wargaming Network has decided to host our own tournament on the weekend following Halloween.  Matt Iverson (who may be known to some of the regular FoG gamers as "Mr. the King") has actually  been doing the  heavy work to put this thing together, but the rest of us New England FoG players  also intend to do what we can to help him out.  

The tournament will be Open Format, with 800 point armies, 15mm scale.  The last time we held a regional tournament, was last spring at HAVOC - New England's largest miniature gaming convention - and with very little advance notice, we got a total of 14 players, all local to New England.  Since then, we have recruited several more regional players, so we are hoping for a very good turnout for this one.  In fact, we are encouraging out-of-town players to attend, and specifically, we would love to get the New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania players to show.  And if we can get the guys from farther a field, like some of our south of the Mason-Dixon line gaming friends, to visit the cold Yankee wastelands, even the better.

Anyway, below is the announcement that Matt made for this tournament on several of the appropriate forums.  In the interest of promoting this event, I figured it would only make sense to post this information again here.

The New England Regional Tournament will be held on November 6-7, 2010 at the Bedford
Plaza Hotel, 340 Great Road, Bedford MA.

Schedule:

Saturday, November 6:
Round 1: 0900-1300
Round 2: 1400-1800
Round 3: 1900-2300

Sunday, November 7:
Round 4: 0900-1300

Only the top three results will contribute to tournament score, so players have
the OPTION of playing only 3 games if they wish. If a player elects to skip a
round, they must declare which round they will skip at the beginning of the
tournament.

Numbers permitting, there will be a beginner's division open only to players who
have previously competed in no more than one tournament.

The hotel is definitely 2-star, but the cost, including tables and taxes, is
$750. With a few contributions this will put the per head entry cost at
$20-$30. There is also more than adequate space in case of a large turn out and
plenty of food options within easy walking distance.

Rooms at the hotel are $75 per night.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Lest Darkness Fall

My last Ancient History book finished was "The Ruin of the Roman Empire", by James J. O'Donnell.  Although an enjoyable read, the book has many shortcomings.  The narrative, which is very unfocused, concentrates on the reigns of Theodoric (King of the Goths), Justinian (the Byzantine Emperor), and Gregory the Great (the Pope who became by default, ruler of what civilization remained in Italy after the Gothic Wars).  The book is an easy read, even for non-scholars, and does offer some insights - like the nature of ethnicity in the Late Empire, the "Romaness" of the Barbarian Successor Kingdoms, the existence and conflicts between many different kinds of early Christianity - but the premise of the book (that the Western Empire didn't really fall in 476 AD, since the barbarians who ruled in its place were just a continuation of the old order in different clothing - and that things only completely collapsed after Justinian's ruinous wars of reconquest) is presented in an unbalanced manner with few footnotes or references.  To put it simply, O'Donnell feels that everything Roman is bad, barbarian is good, and if the Byzantines had just stayed out of the way, European culture would not have been as devastated as it was in the 5th century.  I just don't agree with this view of the Fall of Rome.  In my opinion, that event was catastrophic for the people living through it. Huge areas of Europe were depopulated, political and economic systems were destroyed, Rome became a small pastoral town on the Tiber, and most areas came under the equivalent rule of what was the local motorcycle gang.  Although I know that there is the alternate way of viewing these events, that the European world was simply changing culturally, and shifting its center of gravity from the Mediterranean to Northern Europe, I think it was more like a turn of the Wheel of Time as described by the Robert Jordan novels, where what had gone before the Fall became essentially the Time of Legends for the post-Classical World (just consider the scarcity of surviving Ancient literary sources compared to what we know existed that we no longer have access to).  Very much of Classical civilization was lost and it took Europe a full millennium to recover.  So, O'Donnell's book is a worthwhile read if you appreciate a good turn of literary phrase, but to get a more meaningful and complete understanding of the era covered, interested readers should search out additional books.

One side benefit that I did receive from my reading of "The Ruin of the Roman Empire" though, is that it reminded me of a different, wonderful, science-fiction novel of alternate history that I read decades ago in college - "Lest Darkness Fall", by L.Spraque DeCamp.  Unfortunately, after rummaging through my attic, I couldn't find my paperback copy of this book, purchased back in the 1980's, with the whimsical cover shown here.  Because of this, I will have to give my impressions in this posting from memory, and since the book is presently out of print, I'll have to search second hand sources in order to obtain a replacement.

"Lest Darkness Fall" is the story of a modern archaeologist (well, from 1938, that is), mysteriously transported through time to 6th century Italy, under the rule of the Ostrogoths just after the death of Theodoric.  Martin Padwell (the name of the modern protagonist, if memory serves me well) initially scrambles to figure out where he is, but quickly adapts, becoming a Classical era entrepreneur.  He builds a printing press to publish a newspaper, and then makes a fortune distilling liquor.  In order to keep his business enterprises functioning, Padwell is drawn into the politics of Ostrogothic Italy, wins the heart of a princess, reforms the military, defeats and convinces Belisaurius to switch sides to the Goths, and finally remakes Western Europe on the model of the early 20th  century USA.  In other words, civilization is preserved and "Darkness" doesn't fall.  The book ends with Padwell planning a nautical expedition to the New World to find tobacco, a fondness for which he still retains.  The book is  timeless, historically accurate and well researched, entertaining, and has all kinds of color describing what life may have been like at the end of the Roman Empire - lice, crazy Gothic cavalry charges, Byzantine treachery, arguments about the precise nature of Christ and how many angels fit on a pinhead.  All in all, a fantastic read for history and adventure buffs. An absolute classic, and one of the first alternate history novels ever written.  A much more entertaining way to consider the premises in "The Ruin of the Roman Empire" without the heavy-handedness of O'Donnell.  I've got to keep searching my old science fiction boxes for my copy or hope to get a replacement soon.  Or just maybe, the book may actually get reprinted once again.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

NASAMW Dice at Historicon


One nice thing about the Ancients tournaments at Historicon is the occasional freebie.  Last year participants received a collared shirt with the NASAMW (North American Society of Ancient and Medieval Wargamers) logo on it.  This year there was a box of dice sitting at the umpire's table, each die bearing the NASAMW acronym on it in place of the '6' pip.  They came in a variety of colors too, so definitely suitable as combat dice for Field of Glory.  They have a nice hefty feel to them, and when I used them for the last day of games at the convention, they seemed to roll at least no worse then my regular dice.   I grabbed a few handfuls of these in between games, and for now I plan on making them my dice of choice for FoG - that is, until the day comes when they totally betray me.