WATERLOO (1970)

  • Release Date: 27/10/1970
  • Cast: Rod Steiger, Christopher Plummer, Jack Hawkins, Orson Welles, Virginia McKenna, Dan O’Herlihy, Philippe Forquet
  • Director: Sergei Bondarchuk

Napoleon Bonaparte (Rod Steiger) has been the emperor of the French for over a decade but his decision to attack Russia has backfired miserably. He not only loses the campaign but is pushed back to Paris. The combined forces of England, Russia, Prussia, and Austria are at the doorsteps of Paris and they want Napoleon’s head on a platter. Forced to abdicate his throne, Napoleon is forced to take exile in the Island of Elba with his trusted Old Guards of a 1000 men. With this, his enemies believe that he is done for good. Little do they know that he will return one last time to leave a lasting impression on world history and the history of the war as a whole.

After Bonaparte’s exile, the rule of France is handed over to Louis XVIII (Orson Welles) who quickly becomes unpopular among the masses for his policies. There soon comes a time when Bonaparte escapes from Elba with his 1000 men and arrives in Paris. Marshal Michel Ney (Dan O’Herlihy) is sent by Louis VIII to capture Bonaparte. Ney promises Louis VIII that he will bring back Bonaparte in an iron cage. However, things turn out very differently during the attack. The soldiers of Ney’s army, upon seeing Napoleon, refuse to attack and instead embrace their beloved emperor for returning to save them in a difficult time. Napoleon soon has the whole French army under his command and Louis VIII is forced to leave Paris. Once in Command, he sets out to form a Government and offers peace to all his enemies. His enemies see through his plan of buying time to recuperate and instead declared war on the man. This was probably the first instance of 3 countries declaring war on an individual and Napoleon, as he was, had a hearty laugh about it.

War soon reaches his doorsteps and with the kind of mindset that Napoleon had, he decides that offense is the best defense for him under the given circumstances. He attacks the Prussians under Blucher (Sergo Zakariadze) and kills 15000 men of his army forcing him to fall back. As Blucher tries to move back, Napoleon orders 30000 of his men to follow and choke Blucher. This proves to be a costly mistake that he would regret later as his men never find Blucher and also never come back to assist him. Blucher had never retracted but only taken a different path back to the battlefield. By this time, Arthur Wellesley, The Duke of Wellington (Christopher Plummer) had caught up with Napoleon and the two parties engaged in an elaborate battle on a place known as Waterloo. The rest, as they say, is history.

It isn’t every day that you see two back to back brilliant war films and find it hard to decide which one is better. I finished my review of Gettysburg yesterday and here I am today, undecided if Waterloo was a better film than Gettysburg. Waterloo is only 2 hours and 31 minutes long but even in that short runtime (considering the amount of history and details it has to cover), it does a brilliant job of being both historically correct and at the same time exceptionally engaging. The film starts with the abdication of the throne by Napoleon and then his address to his men which is particularly touching. The film then swishes past a big chunk of the period and lands us smack in the middle of the action as by now Napoleon has escaped from Elba and reached France. The next few scenes take us quickly through some of the key events in the period between Napoleon’s arrival in France and the battle itself. However, the director Sergei Bondarchuk takes enough care to ensure that we get multiple scenes that show us how the mind of Napoleon works. I just loved the scene where the army rally with him. It is exceptionally well done and when you experience it first hand, you get the feeling of how it might have felt to the actual men on the scene. One can sense from Rod Steiger‘s rendition of Napoleon’s expression in this scene that he wasn’t sure if the situation would turn out in his favor. However, the end result was mighty inspiring, to say the least.

Once Napoleon takes over the throne, he is constantly haunted by his thoughts on what he must do and whether he is physically capable of doing it anymore or not. This we experience through the wonderfully rendered monologues that layout Napoleon’s thought process for the viewers. He has atleast two breakdowns of which one is on the night before the battle. He is constantly weighed in by the elements of the weather that makes a joke out of his plans for the war. He also has to put up with some incompetence from his Generals that further deteriorate his position. All these elements combine to present an interesting albeit less than composed mental state of the great commander and this is also where Rod Steiger scores heavily. One can feel every nuance of the character and his feelings through the rendition of Steiger who becomes Napoleon in body and soul.

The supporting cast of the film is equally good. Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington is towering. His character is so likable that after a point I didn’t know whether to love him or hate him. He has some of the funniest lines in the film and he delivers them with impeccable comic timing. In a film like this, it isn’t exactly an easy thing to do but he pulls it off wonderfully. Jack Hawkins as one of the Generals of the Duke of Wellington is noticeable because of his mannerisms and the fact that he is a true character in a crowd. Virginia McKenna is there for a short period but she makes her presence felt even in that minuscule role. Dan O’Herlihy as Marshal Ney shares a love and hate relationship with Steiger’s Napoleon and it works wonders between the two. He is also the one who took a false step by going after the English without knowing they had laid a trap for him. The look on his face after the end of the war tells it all.

If Waterloo is 50 % about the drama and the performances, the rest of the 50 % is about the war and how well it is filmed. A huge chunk of the Russian army was used to make up for the men and just like Gettysburg, everything you see on the screen is there for real. No CGI or visual effects can ever make up for what the real men and arms can do for you in terms of visuals. When the men are being arranged in detail, one can see the sunlight glistening off their weapons. It is something that not even the greatest visual artist can envision and create. “Scotland Forever!”, an 1881 oil painting by Lady Butler about the Royal Scot Greys charge is recreated in the film when the same charge is shown to take place. This is one of the most physical portions of the battle rendition as we see horses and riders collapse to Artillery fire and it all happens at an unimaginable speed. I can’t bring myself to imagine how they must have shot these scenes in the 70s.

If that was not enough, the sheer thrust of the artillery and the armies muscling into each other brings an unthinkable feel to the action. The elements of the weather like the winds and rain are effectively integrated into the battle sequences to compound their effects. All this is done still sticking to the details of the historical events and staying true to it. Waterloo has hands down one of the best cinematography that I have seen in a war film. Armando Nannuzzi’s aerial shots to show the formations, tactics, and combats are breathtaking. He also adds a sense of speed to certain sequences by shooting soldiers and the horses in a specific manner. The film also boasts of pitch-perfect editing that adds a lot to the overall feel of the film.

Waterloo is one of those rare war films that one can watch over and over again and still not be bored by it. It’s not just the performances, action and drama. It is the fact that anyone watching this film knows that whatever he/she is watching can be sighted as a history lesson and is totally accurate to the real events. This historic accuracy also makes us wonder at the losses and about the men who fought in this war. It makes us think about the war and its aftermaths and that is where the film grasps our attention and commands our senses. Waterloo is a near-perfect war film and should be watched by anyone and everyone interested in films of any kind.

Rating: 4.5/5 (4.5 out of 5 Stars)

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