The Limits of Glory. Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo.

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Occasional contributor Rob Girvan here, with a look at the Sergei Bondarchuk film which quashed Stanley Kubrick’s planned movie on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. 

Anyone who has in recent years picked up the massive tome that is Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon – The Greatest Movie Never Made will have spent weeks pouring over the designs, script and production notes of what is often called The Greatest Movie Never Made. Indeed, the scope of pre-production work Kubrick undertook leaves most films in the dust. His attention to detail, from the style of the uniforms, to questioning the strategies of Napoleon, are laid out in fascinating detail in what is one of the great film books ever published. For film fans it is a bittersweet read – an intimate insight into the mind of one of the masters of cinema, but at the same time a film which will never become reality.

One of the central explanations given for why it failed to take off was the crushing box office failure of Waterloo (1970), which swam in the same waters as Kubrick’s proposed film. Since then, the Bondarchuk film has had a cross the bear by film fans, almost as if it swindled us all out of a potential masterpiece.

And yet, a closer look at the film suggests that while no all Great Movie, Waterloo contains a lot which is commendable, and even on occasion, awe inspiring.

The film functions as an epilogue of sorts to Sergei Bondarchuk’s massive adaptation of War and Peace. The backdrop to that film was the invasion of Napoleon into Russia, and the subsequent retreat and conflict. Waterloo picks the story up following the defeat of the French Emperor, his exile and return, which culminated in the aforementioned battle in 1815.

While not quite as huge an undertaking as War and Peace (1966-1967), Waterloo is a film of such scale that it is unlikely it could be achieved today without digital support. Produced by the legendary Dino De Laurentiis and costing some £12 million, it was one of the most expensive films ever made for its time. Shot in the Ukraine, the film had the aid of the Red Army, which provided some 16,000 soldiers to play extras, along with a full unit of cavalry.

Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace.
Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace.

Production involved tearing down hills, moving thousands of trees, and building miles of new road. Filming lasted a massive 28 weeks, with the bulk of time spent recreating the battle. The extras were placed in a camp nearby to the battlefield, and were coordinated by the director with the help of four interpreters.

When released the film, while successful in the UK (and the subject of a rather funny pastiche on Dad’s Army), failed to recoup its costs. Beyond killing the Kubrick film, Waterloo was the last gasp of the old style epics which had been so successful only a few years previously. Young people were chasing after the fresh cinema, which spoke to their lives and experiences. What care did they have for actors hamming it up in costumes, when Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda were driving across America on their bikes?

Waterloo has spent most of its post-release period regulated to being sold by cheap VHS companies, and currently has a pretty poor quality DVD. Rumours abound of a much longer cut of the film, which at present has a runtime of 128mins.

Looking at Waterloo now, it is clear there are flaws. The sound design can make some dialogue hard to understand, the battles can be difficult to follow, and there is little real character development to talk about.

But it retains a power. It is a big film filled with small moments. Its key strengths lie in the two central performances. Rod Steiger plays Napoleon BIG. He waves his hands, shouts, cries and cuts the ham thickly. But it is a role which demands a big performance. Napoleon by all accounts was a man who understood the importance of a performance, especially in front of his troops. He is always watchable. In contrast to the fire of Steiger, Christopher Plummer plays his battlefield rival the Duke of Wellington with a cool intellect. Plummer delivers a fantastic performance as the aristocratic general who held a degree of contempt for the men who served under him. But he also brings a dry sense of humour and wit. It is a shame that this role has been overlooked by critics as it is one of his very best.

Waterloo is peppered with many more big names dropping in for the odd cameo. Most notably Orson Welles turns up for a couple of scenes playing the French king Louis XVIII. Bloated and mumbling, Welles seems ready built to portray the befuddled ruler.

However the film isn’t called Napoleon, or Wellington. It is called Waterloo and the battle is the main star of the film. Lasting for over half of the films running time, it is a remarkable feat. Bondarchuk drowns the screen with extras. Using multiple cameras, including a helicopter, audiences are left awestruck at the scale of the endeavour.

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In one memorable moment which would likely make even Cameron or Jackson gasp, thousands or horses charge in-between squares of British troops. As the helicopter recording the scene pulls back, the battlefield never seems to end. All of it was shot in camera, and all those soldiers really were on those fields. Never will the likes of that be recorded on camera again. One wonders how the much mooted Spielberg Napoleon miniseries will take on the battle.

Despite the pomp and ceremony, the director is keen to make the battle not too thrilling, A beautiful slow motion sequence, when a force of Scot’s Greys on horseback charge the French lines, is undercut with their massacre shot at normal speed. In a nod to the anti-war movement, a British solider, clearly suffering from shell shock, walks out into the middle of the field of war and continually cries out “why” until stray a bullet kills him.

Waterloo doesn’t end on a moment of triumph, but of Wellington walking across the field of bodies, as people pick at the uniforms of the soldiers looking for valuables. As Plummer says, “Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won.”

This is a film which deserves a re-master, and a return to the big screen. Failing that, a Blu Ray release would be most welcome. Kubrick may have met his personal Waterloo against this film, but Waterloo in no way does itself, or the story of Napoleon a disservice. As 2015 and the 200th anniversary of the battle approaches, it is time to give Waterloo a second chance.

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