When I saw the Kickstartee for Miniature Wargaming The Movie at the end of 2015 I decided to back it purely because it was unlikely that anyone else would be making a documentary about wargaming anytime soon. I had no great expectations about it and, as the months of production turned into years I mentally pretty much wrote it off, especially when they had to launch another Kickstarter to get extra funding. It was taking nearly as long to make as Cleopatra and some of the things filmmaker (presumably he saw it as a showreel for his future projects) Joseph Piddington had issues with, such as the cost of stock footage, baffled me. Why, I wondered, did you need to buy expensive footage of wars? It should be about war gaming not war. It was starting to look like one of those Kickstarters that were a litany of delays and excuses.
I was surprised, therefore, when the DVD dropped through my letterbox last week. Yesterday my computer decided to have one of its periodic issues when it struggles to install updates and while it sorted itself out I sat down to play a bit of the film at lunchtime. Much to my surprise it was good enough that I sat through all 105 minutes of it. I nearly didn’t bother as it starts slowly with a group of modern re-enactors in a wood. Re-enacting has nothing to do with wargaming, I thought (discuss). Then we had the first of what seemed like endless aerial drone shots of market towns (far, far too much of this) placing each of the chosen people, who were to be the principal subjects, in their environment. I soon came across the second problem that I had. There were a number of onscreen captions which popped up from time to time offering further snippets of information. However, some of these disappeared before I could read them and all of them were really difficult to read. I am 58 years old and only have 70% eyesight. Even on a reasonably sized widescreen TV I couldn’t read these as the font used a very fine line and it was too small. I did manage to read one which told me that the world’s first wargames club was set up in Oxford University in 1874, which I appreciated, as a former member of the Oxford University Dungeons and Dragons Society from 1979.
Sensibly, the director realised that to give the film wider appeal it needed some personal interest stories; people whose wargaming projects we could follow during the programme, although of these only two were wargamers only, planning to attend an international tournament in Norway. The others were manufacturers and I think the main fundamental issue I have with the film is that it was much more about manufacturers not players. Although we were offered glimpses of bigger players, like Warlord, the focus, perhaps accurately, was on garage style one man (or one man and a long suffering partner) operations. These threads, like much of the film, proved to be rather downbeat and told you more about the trials and tribulations of running a small business rather than wargaming itself.
With these chosen protagonists I did have another problem in that I couldn’t hear much of what they were saying. Partly this may have been down to recording but also, to a certain extent, it was the subjects not enunciating as clearly as they might. I have done quite a bit of TV and a lot of speeches and presentations and you do have to make a conscious effort to speak more clearly when being recorded, as I was told in my media training. Or maybe, like my eyesight, my hearing is going too.
Thank goodness, then, for Henry Hyde, whose section on the history of wargaming was excellent and was more like what I was expecting the whole film to be like. I have to say that I liked the animated graphics too; it should be said that there was nothing about the production that looked low budget. When the two wargamers went off to their Norwegian tournament the camera went along too. It was not the filmmaker’s fault that the big international tournament turned out to be a dozen blokes in a Norwegian wood shed (sjed?) but it was another slightly downbeat thread. Still, they did film Salute and follow the progress of one man and his scenery stand there.
This was another fundamental issue with the film; in that this character, an ex-soldier, not surprisingly traumatised by his experiences in Kosovo, had used wargaming as a way to fight depression. It was interesting to see that he took this up at the Combat Stress rehabilitation centre, Tyrwhitt House, which is less than a mile from where I live. This is a good story but, obviously recognising documentary gold, the director dwelt for far too long on it and it unbalances the film, particularly the last third. There was a war in Kosovo, OK, but we really didn’t need two long (and no doubt expensive) clips of Bill Clinton making speeches about it. It’s like the director thought, oh damn, I am stuck with funding for this silly wargames film but I really want to make a BBC2 documentary about fighting depression. Wargaming was obviously pivotal to this man’s recovery but the war story element and his subsequent breakdown unbalanced the message somewhat.
No doubt because of the unexpected length of the project, there was a chance to revisit some of the protagonists eighteen month later which was interesting but not necessarily very uplifting.
In conclusion, I really enjoyed the professional standard of the film with its excellent animation and good photography, although we could have done with less drone shots. There was also one sequence of a man walking down an avenue towards the camera and I thought, after several long seconds, that we were going to get a re-enactment of Omar Sharif’s first appearance in Lawrence of Arabia. ‘Cut! Cut!’ I shouted at the screen. I also had trouble with the unreadable captions and some of the sound. I enjoyed the interviews and behind the scenes looks at some of the bigger companies and figures in the hobby. Not ‘The Hobby’, they were conspicuously absent, although much referred to by previous employees.
There were some things I expected but weren’t really covered; such as a little on the mechanics of wargaming; skirmish versus big battles, units, command, morale, shooting, melee, scenarios and campaigns. No-one watching this would have any idea of how wargames work. This, however, finally begs the question: who is this film aimed at? Not much for the committed wargamer but equally a little baffling for the complete newcomer.
A valiant effort, very professionally realised (the section on YouTube videos on wargaming had me recalling quite how cringingly unwatchable nearly all these amateur efforts are) with a few interesting things I didn’t know. Slightly downbeat, because of the particular personalities featured, so that the subliminal message almost came across that if you are a socially inept, sad loser you might enjoy wargaming which probably just confirms to the rest of the world what they thought about it anyway.