Reviews of two Netflix documentaries, Being Napoleon and Sad Hill Unearthed

By John Ruberry

Because American politics, in my view, is dead in the water right now due of the partial government shut down–“Build the wall!” No, “Tear down the existing wall,” I think today is a great time to take a peek at a couple of worthwhile Netflix documentaries.

Being Napoleon explores the bicentennial reenactment of the Battle of Waterloo. While thousands of reenactors are needed to stage the 1815 battle between Lord Wellington’s multinational force against Napoleon’s Grande Armée, there can be only, as the promos tell us, one emperor.

There are two candidates: On the surface Mark Schneider is perfect. Not only does he look like Napoleon, he has a theatrical panache, probably perfected during years of portraying Marquis de Lafayette at Colonial Williamsburg. But he has two drawbacks. He’s American and as someone sneers about him, he speaks French “with an Anglo-Saxon accent.” But Schneider points out that Napoleon, who was born in Corsica, spoke French with an accent too.

Schneider also has a dark skeleton in his past.

The other claimant to the crown of the republic is Frank Samson. He’s overweight, he wears glasses, and he’s bald. But he’s French.

Perhaps because many of them are in my age group–too old to be a soldier–I was drawn closer to the reenactors. “We are not tourists,” one man in a smart red and orange uniform says, “we are travelers in time.” And so they are. Early 19th century uniforms are not anywhere near my field of expertise, but what the troops are wearing, down to their boots but not their underwear, appear authentic.

Another soldier, this one with the Grand Armée but apparently English, remarks that while of course you can read about battles and history in a book, to really experience history you need to do what the reenactors do. Such as hoofing it in full uniform along the Route Napoleon, the path from the Mediterranean along the snowy foothills of the Alps that the emperor took after his escape from his first exile.

But the 21st century intrudes. “Put your camera down, I’m filming,” one soldier complains to another.

While Napoleon was of course defeated at Waterloo, he won the future. His counterpart, Wellington, receives about ten seconds of screen time in Being Napoleon. And Napoleon’s dream of a united Europe edges closer, one character comments, as most of Europe has a single currency. Although those nasty British, with Brexit, present a possible derailment for those plans.

“The English are really rotten, aren’t they?” one French soldier laments here.

From France and Belgium we move to Spain and another documentary, Sad Hill Unearthed. Another anniversary looms, the 50th of the release of the greatest spaghetti western, Sergio Leonne’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which starred Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef. The setting of the movie is the 1862 New Mexico Campaign of the Civil War.

On the surface this film shouldn’t have worked. The acting styles of the American performers and the Italian actors clash, the dubbing is awkward, and there are several glaring historical inaccuracies, such as Angel Eyes’ reference to the Andersonville POW camp as justification for his torturing Confederate prisoners. Andersonville didn’t accept its first Union prisoner until 1864.

Yes, the movie in way is like an opera where crusaders wear togas, but it succeeds and it’s a classic. Speaking of opera, the final scene of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly takes place in a circular Confederate cemetery, Sad Hill, which was constructed to look like a Roman auditorium. At Sad Hill Tuco frantically searches for hidden treasure as Ennio Morricone’s operatic composition, “The Ecstasy of Gold,” plays.

In the documentary a group of Spaniards, the Asociación Cultural Sad Hill, decide to restore the cinematic cemetery, which is near Burgos in central Spain, starting with the field stones that are buried under three inches of turf and dirt, at the center of the graveyard. The gravemarkers, with the use of a creative fundraising plan, are rebuilt. As with the participation of the reeanactors at the Battle of Waterloo, the restorers of Sad Hill aren’t being paid, their work is an act of admiration and love.

Many actual soldiers–members of the Spanish military–appeared as Union and Confederate troops in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Some of them are interviewed and there are some personal snapshots of them, as well as some of the local residents, who played bit roles in Leone’s elegy to the madness of war.

Eastwood makes a cameo and Morricone is interviewed, as is Metallica’s James Hetfield. The metal rockers have used a clip of Tuco at Sad Hill in its concert introductions for many years.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.