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Bondarchuk’s Waterloo


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The 18th of June marks the 200th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. The defeat of Napoleon by the Duke of Wellington reshaped nineteenth century Europe.

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The movie about Waterloo is a 1970 Russian-Italian co-production, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk and produced by the late, great Dino De Laurentiis. Dino persuaded the Russian government studio Mosfilm to provide 16,000 troops and 2,000 cavalrymen for the battle sequences, which were shot in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, and might be again if Vladimir Putin has his way. The troops were commanded by officers who took orders from director Sergei Bondarchuk by walkie-talkie.

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Director Bondarchuk once quipped he was briefly in command of the seventh largest army in the world.

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Final costs were over £12 million (UK) equivalent to about US $38.3 million in 1970, making Waterloo, for its time, one of the most expensive movies ever made. Critics found the movie ponderous, heavy handed. As Roger Ebert put it: ” if you’ve seen either half of Bondarchuk’s “War and Peace” you’ve seen the better half of “Waterloo.” The movie failed to recoup its cost. I worked on the trailer at National Screen Service in England, with veteran trailer maker Bob Quinn. We created optical wipes evoking ragged edges of flags passing camera as transitions. We had an Oxberry optical printer in house and I liked putting it to use!

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Here’s the trailer.

 

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Waterloo stars Rod Steiger as Napoleon Bonaparte and Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington with a cameo by Orson Welles as Louis XVIII of France. Christopher Plummer carefully underplays Wellington, knowing perhaps of Rod Steiger’s tendency to gnash at the scenery, albeit with great charisma. Note how this recent fan made trailer avoids his more histrionic moments than our original did.

The true story of the battle of Waterloo is in fact a very exciting story – the film could have been a thrilling battle action race-against-the-clock movie, while sketching in the characters of the opposing generals. The international cut (130 mins reduced from an original cut of 180 mins) had some fine moments but overall felt a little lethargic; its tableaux style battles lacked the visceral cut and thrust of close quarter combat. Most expensive epics of that era needed to obtain a ‘U’ certificate ( universal exhibition with no age restriction) from the British Board of Film Censors, to reach the widest British audience. For that reason, gory moments were purged from the battle scenes of the 1969 epic Cromwell. But Waterloo’s battles, while jaw droppingly spectacular, feel sterile and un-involving. Nor did the film greatly illuminate the characters of Napoleon and Wellington. Perhaps the Russian cut, around 4 hours, told a richer story. For completists, here’s an historian’s evaluation of the accuracy of the movie.

I visited Waterloo in Belgium a few years ago. .

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This is the Lions Hillock, the monument built to commemorate the battle of Waterloo.

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As I looked out over the Waterloo landscape, not greatly changed from the Belgian farmland of Sunday June 18th 1815, I wondered what great stories could be told in a high end mini-series, covering the battle experiences of the lowliest ranks to the commanding generals. Below me, on that wet early morning, two armies of approximately 70,000 each faced each other along a two and a half mile front, bisected by that distant road. This documentary offers a concise detailed account of the events on that fateful day.

Here’s my pocket version. Wellington, with mainly inexperienced troops and 100 fewer artillery pieces than Napoleon, had to hold his position long enough to receive re-enforcements from Prussian General Blucher,

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His troops had received a severe mauling at French hands the day before, and were regrouping slowly. Blucher, a 70 year old man, was leading his men forward on horseback despite being wounded in the previous day’s battle. That’s one tough senior citizen. Napoleon, with veteran troops, had to defeat Wellington before the two armies could unite against him. Napoleon was confident in the outcome because he had something Wellington did not – 14 regiments of armored cavalry, 7 regiments of lancers, vastly outnumbering Wellington’s cavalry.

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But the battlefield was sodden from a night of rain. Bad for cavalry maneuvers. Bad for artillery too. Cannonballs would embed in mud, rather than skip along hard ground, creating a swath of destruction. So Napoleon had to wait for the ground to dry, knowing that Blucher was inching closer every hour, though he too was delayed by muddy roads. At 11.30 Napoleon could wait no longer and ordered a series of attacks, driving a wedge into Wellington‘s position. It was thrust and parry all day. In the Iron Duke’s words: “ the nearest-run thing you ever saw.” If Blucher had not arrived in force around 4 pm, Wellington would have been obliged to retreat.

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As it turned out, it was Napoleon’s army that was driven from the field in disorder. His carriage was found abandoned, still containing a pouch of diamonds. Casualties from both armies totaled over 47,000 dead and wounded. All in the space of a few hours. This skull from the battlefield is on display at the museum in Waterloo that was once the inn used by Wellington as his headquarters.

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That’s probably a roundshot hole. Artillery would also fire ball, canister and chain. There’s an example of the effects of chain scything down rows of infantry near Al Pacino in Revolution. Suffice to say, the wounded in 19th century warfare suffered terribly. It took 3 days before the last wounded men still alive received what passed for battlefield medicine then. Today, it’s hard to imagine the emotional, social, and economic impact of such huge loss of life in a single day. The human cost of his ambitions were never Napoleon’s concern. He was a man drunk on the elixir of conquest and domination, and such men have to be stopped. Here are two portraits of Napoleon, one bloated with pride,

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the other humiliated by Abdication.

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Wellington, a master of ambush, parry and counter attack, was the defense-savvy general to stop him.

But what if Napoleon had not been stopped? What if he had put Wellington to flight, then turned and blasted Blucher’s advancing columns. The war weary allied powers might have made an accommodating peace, Britain might have stepped back, leaving Europe to sort out its own problems. Britain might never have become the world power that its leadership in the victory over France ensured. The map of Europe would certainly have been different by the dawn of the 20th century. Would the unification of Germanic states under Prussia have taken place or not? Then, would there have been a World War One, which led inevitably, from the punitive peace imposed on Germany, to the rise of Hitler and World War Two? I recommend the New York Times best seller WHAT IF…? edited by Robert Crowley that first hooked me on counterfactual historical scenarios.

I have a particular affection for the Duke of Wellington, because from age 13 to 18, I attended the school founded in his name, Wellington College in England, which encouraged my interest in drama in general and cinema in particular.

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Funded by the school with a couple of pounds sterling worth of 8mm film, I shot my first battle scene at 17, with 20 members of the Cadet Corps, blank ammunition, and thunder flashes. I learned, to paraphrase Robert Duvall, that I love the smell of cordite in the morning. Perhaps Wellington has a lot to answer for…

Historian’s Review

WATERLOO is available on an import dvd.