The mammoth scale of Rod Steiger’s 1970 film puts it right up there with the classic epic Hollywood productions. Over 15,000 Russian troops were used as extras in a film that was, rather surprisingly, financed by the old Soviet Communist regime. Two hills were demolished to landscape the location where it was filmed and more than six miles of underground piping laid to recreate the battle’s crucial mud. This was film making on a grand scale – and all the more impressive for being done in the pre-CGI era. Those hordes of troops are real people, not computer graphics.
All of which means that the battle scenes when they come – roughly halfway into the movie – are immense, dazzling and dramatic. They’re rightly famous amongst battle scenes on film and provide a rousing and moving finale for the film.
They focus very tightly in on Wellington and Napoleon at Waterloo itself. The preceding battles at Quatre Bras and Ligny, which are a key part of the Waterloo campaign and without which Waterloo itself cannot really be understood, barely feature – nor, perhaps more understandably, does the parallel fight on the day of Waterloo at Wavre.
As a result, the full story of the Dutch and Prussian contributions, not to mention the major roles played by French command confusion over whose troops should be where and doing what, get only lightly touched on in the film. Whilst therefore skimping on explaining what happened and why during the campaign, Waterloo concentrates on the big dramatic action of the day itself and on Napoleon’s personality, expertly played by Rod Steiger.
Those are both so good that the omissions do not undermine the film. It is sweeping and grand, and whilst it may leave things unexplained and unexplored due to its narrow focus, what it does depict is also broadly historically accurate, especially given the state of historical knowledge at the time.
Fans of good typography should, however, brace themselves for some dreadful word spacing right at the start of the film.
The story of the making of the film is itself remarkable – and, alas, untold on the DVD which has no ‘making of’ extras. For extras the DVD has just the trailer and some brief text-only profiles of the actors. It’s a shame that there isn’t even a short documentary about the historical background nor even subtitles.
If you like this, you might also be interested in Tim Clayton’s excellent book on Waterloo.
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