“Waterloo” is a Soviet/Italian production released in 1970 and directed by Soviet Sergei Bonderchuk. He used 15,000 Soviet soldiers and 2,000 cavalrymen. 50 circus riders were employed for the numerous horse falls. It was a big budget epic that did poorly at the box office. The battlefield was sculpted by bulldozing two hills, transplanting 5,000 trees, and reconstructing four historic buildings.
The movie opens in April, 1814 at Fountainebleu Palace. Napoleon’s council explains to him the dire situation of the allies closing in on Paris. They all recommend that he abdicate. Napoleon (Rod Steiger) has mood swings from despair to optimism to rage to resignation. At one point he talks strategic nonsense in front of some maps. The whole scene has a "Downfall" vibe to it and someone should think of using it for a new You Tube series. Napoleon finally sees reason and says goodbye to his Old Guard in a speech that shows his charisma and why his soldiers worshipped him.
The movie then jumps several months to Napoleon’s return from exile. King Louis XVII (Orson Welles looking like Humpty Dumpty) sends General Ney (Dan O’Herlihy) to arrest Napoleon. The encounter between Napoleon and his loyalists and Ney’s larger force is suspenseful. Napoleon’s forceful personality wins the day. The blimp flees and Napoleon is back in power.
In Brussels, the British are holding a dress ball attended by Wellington (Christopher Plummer) and his officers. There is much pomp with period costumes, dancing, and music. There is romance in the air including a fictional one between the Duchess of Richmond’s daughter and a dashing aide named Lord Hay. Will her fiancé survive the battle? Word arrives that Napoleon has stolen a march on the allies and has crossed the border. Coincidentally, the doors are thrown open by a sudden storm. Get it?
The Battles of Quatre Bras and Ligny are aftermathed. Standing amidst the detritus of Ligny, Napoleon scolds Ney (who reports directly to him) for not vigorously pursuing Wellington and then instructs Marshal Grouchy to tail Blucher’s Prussians. The night before the battle, it’s dueling councils as Napoleon and Wellington discuss strategy. Wellington has an encounter with a pig-stealing soldier (earlier he had described his enlisted men as “scum, beggars, and scoundrels”) who he promotes for his cheekiness. A reference is made to Napoleon’s health problem, but it is not specified what is ailing him. If it wasn’t based on fact, you would think Bondarchuk was setting up an excuse for (spoiler alert!) Napoleon’s defeat.
The day breaks clear after a very rainy night, but the mass of mud causes Napoleon to postpone his attack. The battle begins at 11:35 (the movie labels key events) with artillery fire which sounds authentic, but the cannons have no recoil which cancels the sound effects. Napoleon launches a diversionary attack on the farm house Hougomont and the action begins.
The action shifts to the center and features a magnificent charge by the Scots Greys. Multiple cameras give every view imaginable. There is slo-mo and moments of silence other than the sound track. Bondarchuk uses his full kit. One of the principles, Lord Picton (Alex Hawkins), meets a quick death that replicates his actual demise. The flaw is the cavalry encounters no enemy until they reach the French artillery and then they are counterattacked by French lancers. The movie is excellent in getting the audience to arch its back in anticipation of being speared from behind. The leader of the Greys (Gen. Ponsonby) also has an accurate death as his exhausted horse is ridden down in the mud.
The movie briefly updates us on Grouchy as he stubbornly refuses to march to the sound of the guns and continues to simply dog Blucher. These little touches aid the audience in following the big picture, but it definitely helps to have prior knowledge of the battle. Napoleon collapses due to the stress of wondering where Blucher and Grouchy are. While he recuperates, Ney mistakes a rearward movement of the British center to take refuge from cannonading as a general retreat and orders a massive cavalry charge.
What follows is one of the great scenes in war movie history. The multiple cameras come into play again, including aerial views. The British get into squares and weather the storm of thundering hooves. There is a brief reappearance of the pig-stealer, but the grunt that makes the most impression is one of his mates who bizarrely leaves the ranks to rant about the inhumanity of the killing. This heavy-handed sermonizing mars the action. The pompous music also detracts, but it is still an awesome rendering of one of the seminal moments in cavalry history.
From Ney’s disastrous waste of the cavalry (one is left to wonder why Napoleon forgave Ney for his Louis XVIII flirtation), the movie alludes to the French capture of La Haye Sainte in the center but foregoes the potential for some hard core infantry combat. (In fact, the movie is very cavalry-centric which is odd considering the cavalry units mostly embarrassed themselves in the battle.) The moment of decision has arrived as Napoleon can see the Prussians approaching on his right flank. He orders the Old Guard forward to break the spine of the British Army.
The French march ominously forward, but the British are prone on the reverse slope. Upon orders from Wellington, they rise and deliver volleys which break the Old Guard and send it reeling. “The Old Guard is broken!” Wellington is giddy (for him) and won’t let the delimbing of Uxbridge faze him. “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg.” “By God, so you have.” No better example of the clicheish British stiff upper lip exists in movie history.
The chaos of a battle epilogue is rendered and capped with the refusal of the Old Guard to surrender. Their “Nuts!” is “Merde!” (which means not “go to Hell”, but “shit”). The cocky response is met by massed cannon fire that is over in a blink. All that is left to be shown is the ignominious carriage escape by Bonaparte, the civilian scavenging, and the obligatory victorious general solemnly traversing the corpse-strewn battlefield. “Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won.”
“Waterloo” is one of the most accurate depictions of a major battle ever put on film. None of the major events are contemptuous of history. However, there are some key events and exposition that are left out. For instance, the movie glosses over the mistake made by the French of feeding more troops into the attack on Hougoumont in what was originally conceived of as a diversion. The handling of the charge of the Scot Greys is also shortchanged by eliminating any contact with French infantry. The pummeling of the British infantry by Napoleon’s batteries is not depicted well. In fact, the withdrawal that the movie Ney mistakes for retreat actually occurred earlier in a response to French artillery (Not enough is made in the movie of Wellington’s famous “reverse slope” tactic). Ney’s faulty decision was most likely a misreading of casualties withdrawing. The fight for La Haye Sainte is completely skipped. Much of this was probably logistical decisions, plus the desire to control the length of the film. What is less excusable is the handling of Blucher’s arrival. The movie has him arriving unimpeded on the French flank. In reality, the Prussians had to fight their way to the position shown in the movie. Not a big deal for a movie that has built up good will up to this point. The only ridiculous moment comes with the destruction of the Old Guard. They did fight to the last man, but were not mown down by artillery in less than a minute.
There are a few sloppy mistakes that bear mentioning. I did not see a single reloading of a musket or cannon in the film. There is no use of the bayonet. I already mentioned the lack of cannon recoil. However, once again, the little details make up for these errors. These details include French drummer boys, the British rum ration, the use of snuff, and the bagpipers. The rain, smoke, and mud show the attention to environmental details.
“Waterloo” is a worthy attempt to recreate the most famous battle in history. The scale is appropriately epic. Bondarchuk literally had an army to work with and the non-CGI combat benefits from this. In spite of the quantity of soldiers, the movie is very much a command-oriented film. All of the main characters are not only higher command, but also upper class. We have to take Wellington’s famous word that his men were scum because we learn little of them. The decision to concentrate on command can be debated, but the movie is strong in getting in the minds of Napoleon and Wellington. Bondarchuk even resorts to the device of giving us their thoughts. Thankfully he does not abuse this conceit and it is effective. The movie is more interested in strategy than tactics and it does a good job of the big and medium picture. I already knew a lot about the battle, but I think an average viewer could learn the basics from this film.
One flaw is the acting. Steiger and Plummer dominate which is not surprising given the weak supporting cast. The appearance of Welles is a Brando in “Superman” stunt. Steiger chews the scenery, but so did Napoleon so I think the criticism of his performance has been too harsh. I actually was less enamored with Plummer’s take on Wellington. My reading has not given me the impression that the Iron Duke was the witty, bon mot fellow of this movie. I don’t think he smiled as much as Plummer does. It doesn’t help the actors that some of the dialogue is a bit pompous, but many of the lines are direct quotes.
The cinematography is eye-opening at times. There is a wide variety of views. Early scenes have plenty of close-ups, especially of the eyes. The battle is noted for multiple angles from the five Panavision cameras. The two cavalry charges stand out. The sound effects are well done, but the sound track is bothersome. The movie has long stretches of no music, so when the standard epic war movie score kicks in it is jarring.Cracker? Definitely. It is one of the best 100 war movies ever made. However, those who argue it is the best movie of its type are forgetting about "Gettysburg". It’s not bad to come in second to that movie. If you want to understand the Battle of Waterloo, you can do no better than this movie.
Grade = A-