Retro Film Review: Waterloo (1970)

in #filmlast month


Judging by U-571, Patriot and Braveheart, makers of Hollywood historically-themed films pander to "political correctness", American chauvinism and presumed education levels of its audience - all that at the expense of historical accuracy. Many history buffs tend to cringe at the way Hollywood distorts real events, regardless whether they occurred in distant or recent past. But, if a film-maker chooses the different path and actually tries to make as historically accurate film as possible, this doesn't guarantee a success. Often the most intriguing, fascinating or spectacular events from history tend to be difficult to recreate in the form of feature film. One example for that could be found in Waterloo, 1970 historical spectacle directed by Sergei Bondarchuk.

Waterloo is one of the best known battles in the history of the world, yet it is not, as many people tend to believe, one of the most decisive. It wasn't even among the most spectacular or the bloodiest engagements of Napoleonic age. Its importance was inflated because because of the British participation; in Anglocentric vision of those times Napoleon was 19th Century equivalent of Hitler and Redcoats 19th Century equivalent of GIs saving the Europe from having to speak German or, in this particular case, French. On the other hand, most serious military historians and period scholars think that Napoleon's victory of Waterloo wouldn't result in anything more than Napoleon's return being remembered as 150 Days instead of 100 Days. Arguments for this could be found in the events that preceded those portrayed at the very beginning of this film.

The plot starts in Spring 1814. Less than two years earlier Napoleon (played by Rod Steiger), French emperor, military genius and undisputed master of European Continent, allowed his mighty Grande Armée to perish during the ill-fated invasion of Russia. With the myth off Napoleon's invincibility finally crushed, other great European nations got their act together, created mighty alliance, defeated French forces and invaded France. Napoleon, even with most of the battles in this final campaign being French victories, couldn't prevent Allies from reaching the outskirts of Paris. At the end, even his most trusted Marshalls like Ney (played by Dan O'Herlihy) are sick of pointless fighting and they force Napoleon to abdicate and become ruler of tiny Mediterranean island of Elba, much to the relief of exhausted French nation. It takes ten months for French to become so disenchanted with the new regime of King Louis XVIII (played by Orson Welles) and yearn for Napoleon's return. When Napoleon and his small band of most loyal soldiers land on French soil, Ney, now in Louis' service, is dispatched to arrest him. But Ney's men, just like many of Royal troops, are so overwhelmed with the sight of their former and beloved leader that they defect en masse. Ney reluctantly takes their example. Napoleon triumphantly returns to Paris, much to the delight of people. Great Powers of Europe, on the other hand, aren't amused and they raise huge armies to invade France again and crush Napoleon once for all. Napoleon knows that he must act quickly and crush Allied armies before they join. His forces cross Belgian border and use the gap between Prussian army under Marshall Blucher (played by Sergo Zaqariadze) and British army under Duke of Wellington (played by Christopher Plummer). Napoleon beats Blucher first and than turns his attention towards Wellington who had chosen strong defensive position near village called Waterloo. On the next day Wellington will make the stand, still unaware whether his Prussian allies are going to regroup and come to his rescue.

Even today accurate reconstruction of the Waterloo-sized Napoleonic battle would give huge problems for any film-maker. First is the mere scope of the battle - tens of thousands of soldiers, thousands of horses and hundreds of artillery pieces. Second difficulty is in simply presenting complicated reality of the battle - which was often too confusing even for the participants - to the audience in comprehensible manner. Third problem is in the incredible amount of period details - uniforms, weapons, equipment, insignia, military music – that filmmaker must recreate. Waterloo, like few films before and after, managed to do that. This is mostly because Dino de Laurentiis co-operated with Mosfilm, Soviet studio specialised in this sort of pictures. In the days before CGI, only large conscript militaries could provide enough disciplined and trained extras to realistically reconstruct battles involving tens of thousands of people. And Soviet Army at the time was the largest such military and with the biggest experience in these sorts of projects.

Another great asset to the production was Sergei Bondarchuk, director famous for his spectacular adaptation of Tolstoy's War and Peace. That film, one of the most expensive productions of 20th Century, featured not one but two famous Napoleonic battles – Austerlitz and Borodino. Bondarchuk has used that experience to make not only spectacular but also a very accurate reconstruction of the history. The film doesn't just feature tens of thousands of extras in period uniforms and with period equipment - two armies of extras face each other in almost exact manner their real-life counterparts did in 1815. Carefully reconstructed farmhouses and windmills are added to Ukrainian location, and Bondarchuk even bothered to make the soil as wet as it had been on that fateful day. Finally, helicopter shots are used to show that the movements of men and horses make some sort of tactical sense - only from air famous square formation presents its murderous effectiveness to the audience.

Another aspect of the film's historical accuracy could be found in the film's characters and dialogues. Overwhelming majority of the lines spoken in the film are actual quotes of the people who took part in the battle. Because of all that, Napoleonic and military history buffs usually point towards Waterloo as one of the rare examples of a feature film who got things right.

Waterloo works as an impressively accurate reconstruction of history, but it is less successful as a movie. The authors were so obsessed with accuracy that they forgot the exposition. The audience may have some idea of what happens in the film, but it doesn't know why. Even the most spectacular events in the film are pointless without at least something that would put them into understandable context. In other words, those viewers who don't have at least some basic knowledge about Napoleonic period are going to find this film incomprehensible and, at times, very dull.

For example, the film fails to properly explain why French people embraced Napoleon with enthusiasm upon his return from Elba. Even more importantly, the reasons behind Great Powers' decision to declare war on Napoleon aren't mentioned. During the battle, Napoleon often mentions that he misses his son but this would mean little to those who don't know anything about his marriage to Austrian princess Marie Louise and her decision not to follow Napoleon to Elba. The simplest explanation for the absence of such details is the length of the film - in its present form Waterloo is roughly two hours long; covering the important political events before and after the battle could result in film being four or five hours long. On the other hand, recent French mini-series managed to successfully cover Napoleon's 100 Days in roughly 45 minutes.

Another, somewhat less obvious, problem of Waterloo is casting of Rod Steiger as Napoleon. Steiger was a truly great actor, capable of delivering formidable performances. Napoleon, sadly, wasn't one of them. Steiger overuses the famous Method and reduces one of the most charismatic leaders of history to obviously sick and neurotic wreck. It is hard to imagine anyone who could allow himself to be led by that pathetic little man, especially not the very people who had betrayed him only few months earlier. Team of screenwriters and Bondarchuck add to the confusion by speculating what Napoleon's inner thoughts were in the moment of battle - they are narrated in a manner which is more annoying than interesting.

More fortunate was the casting of Dan O'Herlihy as Ney, Marshall whose career in many ways symbolised all the passion and extremes of the period. But the most memorable performance was left by Christopher Plummer in the role of Wellington. He very convincingly and very effectively portrays Wellington as an arrogant stiff-upper-lip British aristocrat who also happens to be very capable soldier and man without illusions what war and soldiering are all about. At the very end, when emotions finally reveal themselves on Wellington's face, the impact is much stronger than all of Steiger's acting before it.

Considering the effort and resources invested in it, it is a real shame that Waterloo isn't as great a film as it could have been. Its greatness is limited because of there are very few people able to appreciate its main quality.

RATING: 6/10 (++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on August 2nd 2004)

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