‘Waterloo’ (1970) tells the story of one ego-maniac’s vision to conquer all Europe and so he marshals together a collection of vast forces to achieve his monumental goal. Of course I’m talking about Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis who brought together talent, actors and crew from the Soviet Union, Italy and elsewhere and gave them a crap-tonne of money to create an epic on a scale that would shake the earth itself. But, much like Napoleon invading Russia, did he fall short? I don’t think so because, flaws and all, ‘Waterloo’ is an absolute blast.
The story is simple — naughty Napoleon has escaped from Elba and Wellington is going to stop him from getting up to any further mischief. And that’s pretty much it with the film focusing on the build up, followed by the logistics and tactics, of the battle rather than concentrating on these men’s inner lives.
Although watching director Sergei Bondarchuk’s film and witnessing the incredible sight of thousands of soldiers and countless horses clashing together in a spectacle that blows most other films’ battles scenes to smithereens I sat back and allowed myself a slight, self-satisfied smile because after falling madly in love with his adaptation of Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace (1966) last year all I could think was “Well, this is what Bondarchuk does, folks!”
Yet familiarity with what Bondarchuk was capable of was still no defence against the power of ‘Waterloo’s might because this film still crashed over me with an intensity, scale and enormity almost defying description.
Indeed, the scope of it all is so immense that, as with Bondarchuk’s ‘War and Peace’, the only readily direct comparison is with Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ and, apparently, Jackson has admitted ‘Waterloo’s influence and it’s readily noticeable. The most telling example is during the Scots Grey cavalry charge against the French when Bondarchuk suddenly puts his film into dreamy slow motion, drops out the soundtrack to almost total silence and the feel, tone and overall look are remarkably similar to when Faramir rides his men out to Osgiliath in ‘Return of the King’ (2003).
Elsewhere Armando Nannuuzzi’s cinematography is by turns intimate, sweeping, dramatic, chaotic, controlled, beautiful, ravishing, immediate and breath-taking whilst Nino Rota’s score provides just the right amount of sonic support. The result is a film that is never anything other than compelling and captivating. This film hooked me from the start and never let go for a second.
Not that ‘Waterloo’ is perfect by any means as it contains some readily identifiable flaws. Want an example? Then try these knee-high, leather boots on for size.
There’s a scene near the beginning when the British are having a ball in Brussels when a Prussian officer breathlessly enters to urgently inform the Duke of Wellington that the French are at Charleroi to which, in response, the Duke stops dancing, gazes into the middle distance and whispers (to himself!) “Charleroi” only for the windows to suddenly burst open and fill the room with the booming sound of thunder and flashing of lightning. It’s so unsubtle Bondarchuk might’ve just as well had Rota go “Duh-duh-duuuhh!” with the score. But good grief, it’s certainly dramatic as hell.
Then there’s the acting which is as enjoyably boggling as the spectacle because you sense that Steiger is reaching for an Oscar whilst Plummer is so ridiculously aloof that he seems to be breaking in the performance he would later go on to give as the Emperor of the Universe in Luigi Cozzi’s ‘Star Crash’ (1979) (I kept expecting Wellington to win the battle by calling on his Imperial Battleship to suddenly “halt the flow of time”).
What’s beyond criticism, however, is the pacing with ‘Waterloo’ compacted into a tight 134 minutes so the film, unlike many other epics, never feels bloated (whoever said this movie was “lumbering” was a complete idiot). Besides, it could’ve been worse. Imagine if this had been directed by, say, Richard Attenborough. Now that’s a cinematic prospect that doesn’t even bear thinking about let alone sitting through.