Depicting history on film has never been easy. In all cases the history is simplified and events compressed, while historical personalities are often combined or eliminated entirely. This is perfectly understandable given the needs of cramming information into a two, perhaps three hour film, while maintaining some sort of dramatic continuity and structure. Generally speaking, while the political and social currents are painted in broad strokes, costume, make-up and especially art direction can vividly recreate in glorious detail an era, if only on a visual level. The attitudes and speech of the performers play an important part here as well for nothing will destroy the audience's willing suspension of belief in a period recreation faster than a performance or vocal intonation that seem anachronistic. Do these films succeed as cinema? "JFK" and "Lawrence of Arabia" are both great films because they succeed as works of cinema first, however inaccurate or debatable the history they depict. History's depiction in cinema must take a back seat to film ascetics given the limitation of the medium in allowing for examination of an individual or event with anything approaching depth or scope. Sergei Bondarchuk's "Waterloo" (1970) was his follow-up to his previous, equally spectacular "War and Peace" (1968). Both films recreate the Napoleonic Age on a visual level to a degree of detail that has never been equaled. While the earlier film was based on the celebrated novel of Tolstoy, "Waterloo" concerns itself with the events leading up to the confrontation between Emperor Napoleon I and Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. Any film dealing with the out-sized figure of Napoleon Bonaparte must confront the problem of a super abundance of source material, the adapting of which would be daunting to a modern mini-series, let alone a film running a little over two hours in length. Obviously simplification is a necessity. Indeed the film opens with a brief written prologue summing up the events of the past twenty years leading up to the battle. Yet "Waterloo" is unique in that virtually all the dialogue is taken from historical sources. Very little is made up, and Bondarchuk with co-scriptwriters H.A.L. Craig and Vittorio Bonicelli fashioned a story that is lucid and taut while remaining remarkably accurate to the actual event. Bondarchuk was an absolute master of logistics, perhaps the greatest. and "Waterloo" places on display his considerable talents. With an eye for detail he and his technicians reconstructed the entire battlefield, complete with chateaus and farmhouses. In addition they installed beneath the earth a watering system allowing them to soak the various fields of wheat and barley as needed. Given the use of a Russian army division of 20,000 men to represent the French, English and Prussian armies, he deployed them-in costume-complete with all the necessary Napoleonic ordinance to recreate the most famous battle in history. And all of this was achieved without the use of CGI and digital effects. It was all done live and the result is incredible; an actual Napoleonic battle recreated on a full scale. With columns of smoke and fire, charging horses, thousands of troops in brilliant uniforms marching in formation, the film as caught by cinematographer Armando Nannuzz has a horrific grandeur. The stirring score by Nino Rota uses music from the period as well as actual martial tunes played by Napoleon's Old Guard as they marched into battle. All the set pieces of the battle are lovingly recreated; the assault on the Hougoumount, the charge of the Scots Greys, the forming of the British army into squares, the final stand of the Old Guard. Bondarchuk also wisely focuses on the personalities of the two protagonists. He is well served by both Rod Steiger as Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as Wellington. Steiger is earthy and passionate, a brilliant charismatic leader racing against the rapid decaying of his faculties. Plummer is arrogant, aloof, a disdainful English aristocrat, "Scum. Nothing but gutter trash and scum!" And he is referring to his own troops. They are surrounded by a great supporting cast. Happily the film is well served here as well. Dan O'Herlihy as Marshal Ney does a superb job of suggesting a man struggling desperately with some inner conflict. As his British counterpart, Jack Hawkins plays the hard-bitten General Sir Thomas Picton. He is an aristocrat more at home on the battlefield than on the ballroom dance floor. Orson Welles does an effective cameo as the fat, gouty, ineffectual Louis XVIII. Welles does a remarkable job in his few minutes of screen time by actually making the fleeing Bourbon King sympathetic rather than buffoonish. Virginia McKenna does a delicious turn as the worldly Duchess of Richmond in a stunning ballroom sequence that sets Byron's poem, "The Eve of Waterloo" to it cinematic equivalent. The film was long rumored to run over four hours in the Russian version, and at times it does have the feel of a film that has been cut, but recently the film's Associate Producer and Editor Richard C. Meyer has confirmed that the longest known version ran 132 minutes and that the "four hour" version was merely a rough cut never meant for distribution. A quick look at the complete cast list, however suggests otherwise as many never made it to the released film.
Action / Biography / Drama / History / War
Action / Biography / Drama / History / War
Facing the decline of everything he has worked to obtain, conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte and his army confront the British at the Battle of Waterloo.
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September 23, 2019