#493: Waterloo (1970)
The fall of Napoleon is given exactly the spectacle it deserves
Initial release: October 26, 1970
Director: Sergei Bondarchuk
You’ve got to hand it to Napoleon Bonaparte: a guy who came up from nothing, who took advantage of the collapse of the French monarchy to crown himself Emperor yet used his position to consolidate the reforms of the French Revolution, setting a standard of laws and practices that has inspired legal codes the world over that continue today. On top of that, he was arguably the single greatest military leader the world had ever known, conquering a Europe that had looked on at the Revolution in horror and swore to beat France’s citizens back into line.
But for all his achievements, it’s ironic that the most famous event connected with him is the Battle of Waterloo, a bitter last stand that would see his last-ditch attempt to reclaim a crown he’d been forced to abdicate just a year prior end in failure. The battle has gone on to become synonymous with coming to ruin after reaching great heights; and rightly so, for whoever flew higher than Napoleon up to that point?
Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo is a bit of an odd production. Jointly produced by Italy and the Soviet Union, directed by a Ukrainian, with a largely British and American cast, and distributed by American film companies Columbia and Paramount, it’s a multinational effort, much like the coalition that brought Napoleon down. Rod Steiger is thunderous and fiery in the role of Napoleon; opposite him is Christopher Plummer as Duke Wellington, smooth and sardonic. We also get Orson Welles in a cameo as King Louis XVIII — not the first time he’s been in a Napoleon flick!
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Waterloo is all spectacle — indeed, the last half of the film is dedicated largely to the sheer light and noise of the battle. But it’s more than that; at its heart it’s a tale of two men, Napoleon and Wellington. Bondarchuk dedicates time to both of these characters, helping establish them as more than just dry historical figures, but as almost superhuman. Napoleon is eccentric and charismatic; when he makes his escape from the island of Elba, he’s confronted with an entire army, but all he has to do is say, “If any of you will shoot your emperor, here I am,” and they all fall into line behind him. Wellington for his part has a lot of villainous charm; while you could argue that given which side he was on he represented, essentially, the bad guys in this conflict, ultimately it was just a job to him — he was the only one who could stand up to Napoleon, and so it was up to him.
But if you’re here for the spectacle, well, there’s certainly plenty of that. Bondarchuk displays a talent for taking what might be a fairly straightforward historical war epic and turning it into something a touch more psychological, with uses of quick cuts and unusual shots. But perhaps his greatest triumph is an incredible slow-motion sequence of the famous British cavalry charge; you can see every muscle moving, every hoof pounding the dirt, a deliberate homage to Lady Butler’s Scotland Forever!
Sadly for all that, the film did poorly at the box office; aside from a number of historical inaccuracies, largely for the sake of art, it generally failed to recoup its costs — though, given that the film was almost entirely shot in the Soviet Union, with Ukrainian farmland terraformed into a battlefield and most of the extras coming from the Soviet Army, including a full brigade of cavalry, things could have been worse — they could have filmed it in the West at three times the price. And yet the film does have some legacy; all one has to do is watch Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and you can see the influence.
There aren’t actually a lot of films about Napoleon; the Napoleonic Wars as a whole have substantially more representation (a big part of it being the Sharpe series of TV movies that made Sean Bean a star) but the man himself? Not so much — if only Abel Gance had gotten to finish his dream project! But we’ll just have to make do with what we’ve got, and Waterloo is, appropriately, a good way to cap it off.