August 6, 2013

Movie Review: Waterloo (1970)

I made one mistake in my life; I should have burned Berlin. - Napoleon Bonaparte (Rod Steiger)

Director: Sergei Bondarchuk

Writers: H.A.L. Craig

Producer: Dino De Laurentiis, Richard C. Meyer, Tom Carlile

Studio: Paramount (US), Columbia (non-US)

Major Stars: Rod Steiger, Orson Wells, Christopher Plummer, Jack Hawkins

Note: In keeping with my policy about movies 25 years old or more, I feel no compunctions about revealing the ending of the film. With that in mind, there are SPOILERS below. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you may want to avoid this review.

Waterloo has a pedigree unlike any other film you’ll find on this list. It is a joint-production between Italy and the Soviet Union shot in the late 1960s at the height of the Cold War. It used over 15,000 members of the Red Army as extras for the panoramic battle sequences, shot in the Ukraine. It was funded entirely by Kinostudiya MosFilm because there was no way to get American funding for the film. And it was a complete box-office failure in the US.

But damn it, this is a good movie. I saw this first on a showcase that Paramount/MGM used to run on Saturday afternoons for their films (Ivanhoe was another film they played). I was probably nine or 10 at the time and I remember just being captivated by the scenery and the colors and the beautiful cinematography of the film.

Waterloo is the story of Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, his exile to Elba and his return to France for the “Hundred Days” that culminated in the epic Battle of Waterloo. It is an excruciatingly accurate portrayal of how the battle went. So much so that you could use this film to teach the battle in a classroom. Sergei Bondarchuk shot it as his sequel to War and Peace, which he directed in 1968.

Rod Steiger plays Napoleon very well. He has him sway between genius and arrogance very easily and believably. Napoleon is a very complicated historical figure. He was a dictator, but he also strove to create a common law and common European state. He was a military genius (understatement, I know) but late in his life he could be paralyzed by indecision or a single bad choice. Steiger portrays all that quite well.

Christopher Plummer steals the film, in my opinion, as General Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. To the point where if I am reading about Wellington in a book, it is Plummer’s face I see in my mind. He plays Wellington as a proper English general – he has a detached distaste for his own men, he has a gentleman’s respect for the enemy’s officers and thinks nothing of ordering thousands of men to their death. But at battle’s end, he is clearly dismayed by all the death and waste when he says the famous line that "Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won".

As to the battle scenes themselves…I don’t think you’ll ever see a better on-screen representation of a battle from the Napoleonic Wars. To try and shoot these sequences today would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Every point of the battle is shown, from Hougoumont to the farmhouse at La Haye Sainte to Napoleon’s final retreat. It is an amazing piece of work. Director Sergei Bondarchuk and cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi deserve a lot of credit for bringing it to life.

To just give one example…in the battle there is a point where the British cavalry has driven back some French infantry only to get stuck in the mud and carved up by Napoleon’s Polish Lancers. Wellington orders his lines to move back and over a ridge to get out of range of the French artillery. One of Napoleon’s marshals, Ney, sees this and thinks the British are retreating. He has no infantry left so he sends all his cavalry to try and break the British center.

So you see this wave of French cavalry riding over the battlefield. It is huge. The pounding hooves sound like thunder and their unsheathed sabers all shine in the sun. It looks like an unstoppable mass as the come over the ridge…directly into the British squares. The proper counter for a cavalry charge, the British infantry had created hollow squares, bayonets extended, to keep the French cavalry from breaking them.

All this is seen from above in an amazing panoramic shot. You see the French cavalry forced between these squares of Redcoats, puffs of smoke firing from their muskets. It’s like a tabletop battle fought with tin soldiers come to life. It is, without a doubt, one of the best battle sequences ever shot.

As for the negatives…well, it’s not what I would call a great script. The dialogue has some good lines but it’s not a tour de force in that department. The dubbing of the film is hit-and-miss. And there is one blatantly false moment. At the end of the battle the remnants of France’s elite unit, The Imperial Guard, are surrounded as they sit utterly beaten in a loose square. Called upon to surrender, they refuse. The British then wheel up cannons to blow them away. That never happened. They did refuse to surrender but were cut up protecting Napoleon’s retreat. So points off for that. I understand it looks good. But as I have said before, if you are going to tout the accuracy of your film, you are bound to do just that.

The odds of you seeing this film without paying are not what I would call “good.” It never plays on television anymore. Getting the DVD is still hard to do; CD Universe used to carry it but I can't confirm they still do. Amazon has only imports available. It’s worth it, though. To see a film back when there was no CGI, when 20,000 men on screen was actually 20,000 men on screen…that’s worth spending a few bucks. Or you could You Tube it.

So where does it fall on the list? I hesitate to put it above The Bridges at Toko-Ri. The epic scale and the cinematography of Waterloo are just amazing to behold. But it doesn’t have any of the emotional depth that Toko-Ri has. I think Waterloo will be almost a kind of dividing line in this list. It has so many things right about it, but just enough wrong things to keep it from being in the top part of the list.


Post a Comment


Site of Future Awesomeness

Coming soon.

Site of Future Awesomeness

Coming soon