1814: Paris is besieged by Austrian soldiers. At the urging of his marshals, Napoleon Bonaparte (Rod Steiger) abdicates as emperor and accepts exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba. But just ten months later, Napoleon escapes Elba, quickly regains the loyalty of his troops and snatches the throne back from the fleeing King Louis XVIII (Orson Welles). His appeal for peace is rejected and a British and Prussian allegiance amasses against him under the command of the Duke of Wellington (Christopher Plummer). Napoleon discerns neither army is well-coordinated and remain separate. He plans to manoeuvre his forces between them and win victory at the battle of Waterloo.
This sprawling historical epic was the first co-production between an American studio and what was then the Soviet Union. Impressive in scale but tepid as drama, Waterloo arrived at a time when vast period epics were going out of style and proved a costly flop for producer Dino De Laurentiis and overambitious filmmaker Sergei Bondarchuk. Bondarchuk was a highly respected classical actor in his native Russia (think Laurence Olivier) but made an international splash directing the Oscar-winning War and Peace (1967), which was seven years in the making and originally ran a whopping ten hours. His critical standing in Russia was tempered by suspicions regarding his profligacy and comparatively late conversion to communism, but De Laurentiis seems to have latched onto Bondarchuk as his own personal David Lean.
After Waterloo flopped, Bondarchuk continued directing sporadically, upholding his reputation for making movies on a grand scale with a fiery temper to match. His other notable success was Boris Godunov (1986), an award-winner at Cannes, but his last work, the epic (what else?) literary adaptation Quiet Flows the Don starring Rupert Everett was completed in 1993 but premiered on television in 2006, twelve years after his death. His son Fyodor Bondarchuk is also a popular actor-director with similar blockbuster ambitions as evidenced by his grandiose science fiction epic The Inhabited Island (2009).
In retrospect it is easy to see why Waterloo bombed. For all its grandeur and pageantry, the drama is too remote to lure casual viewers. Bondarchuk flirts with satire during the grand ball organised by the Duchess of Richmond (Virginia McKenna - playing surprisingly well against type), where demure young society ladies survey the ranks of handsome soldiers like stallions being put out to stud (“Mama, you’ve picked all the nice, big ones”), and shoehorns a throwaway romantic/tragic subplot about a naïve young officer engaged to the Duchess’ daughter. But the real drama takes place inside the heads of two antagonists who never meet face-to-face. This is foremost a battle movie wherein Bondarchuk follows each manoeuvre and counter-manoeuvre from a godlike height while voiceovers show each man trying to outthink the other.
Rod Steiger was criticised at the time for being overwrought but is actually spot-on. Steiger dominates some 15,000 foot soldiers and 2,000 cavalrymen drawn from the real Soviet army (an observer remarked Bondarchuk “was in command of the seventh largest army in the world”) through sheer presence alone. How else can anyone play Napoleon Bonaparte? With each furrowed brow and sweaty grimace, he conveys the ecstasy of victory and the agony of defeat. However, for all his efforts, the show is stolen by Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington. A complex figure, haughty and arrogant, who disdains Bonaparte for his lower class origins yet recognises his worth on the battlefield. A man who abhors war yet displays casual indifference to those working class foot soldiers he sends out to die.
Of the supporting players: Jack Hawkins exits early as General Picton (his vocals dubbed owing to his suffering throat cancer), Dan O’Herlihy closely resembles the real Marshal Ney (Napoleon’s trusted right-hand), and Ian Ogilvy has a nice scene where his demise is met with almost comical British reserve. Lookout for spaghetti western leading man, Gianni Garko (star of the Sartana movies and countless others) in a small role as French artillery commander Antoine Drouot.
What you’re most likely to notice are the lavish battle scenes, jaw-dropping in scale and choreographed with the aid of some fifty circus stunt riders to perform the dangerous horse falls. Bondarchuk’s panning aerial shots following Marshal Ney’s cavalry charge and a slow-motion charge by the Scots Greys (a tribute to the famous painting “Scotland Forever!” by Lady Butler) are awesome examples of pre-digital technology filmmaking. When one, young, long-haired soldier (Oleg Vitov) breaks down lamenting “why do we fight each other?”, the film belatedly reaches for some kind of statement possibly tapping then-trendy, hippie sentiments of peace, love and all that. But for the most part, the film is devoid of any real social, or emotional core and comes across like the world’s most impressive game of toy soldiers. Music by Abba. Only joking, it’s by the great Nino Rota.