Waterloo (1970)


Introduction

Waterloo is a 1970 epic period war film directed by Sergei Bondarchuk and produced by Dino De Laurentiis.

It depicts the story of the preliminary events and the Battle of Waterloo and is famous for its lavish battle scenes.

It was a co-production between the Soviet Union and Italy, and was filmed on location in Ukraine.

It stars Rod Steiger as Napoleon Bonaparte and Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington with a cameo by Orson Welles as Louis XVIII of France. Other stars include Jack Hawkins as General Thomas Picton, Virginia McKenna as the Duchess of Richmond and Dan O’Herlihy as Marshal Ney.

Outline

In 1814 French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, facing certain defeat at the hands of Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia (the Sixth coalition), abdicates at the demand of his marshals. He is banished to Elba with 1,000 men, but escapes and returns to France. Ney, now serving the monarchy of Louis XVIII of France, is tasked with recapturing him, but he and his army defect to Napoleon. King Louis flees, Napoleon triumphantly enters Paris, and the European powers declare war.

The Prussian von Muffling interrupts the Duchess of Richmond’s ball to warn the Duke of Wellington that Napoleon has invaded Belgium to defeat the Allied forces before they can unite. Realising that Napoleon has got between himself and the Prussians, Wellington decides to halt the French at Waterloo.

The French fight the British to a draw at Quatre-Bras, but defeat the Prussians at Ligny. Field Marshal Blücher rejects the advice of his Chief of Staff, General Gneisenau to retreat and instead moves north to Wavre to keep contact with Wellington. Napoleon, enraged that Ney has let Wellington withdraw to ground of his choosing, directs 30,000 men under Marshal Grouchy to pursue Blücher and keep the Prussians from rejoining the British, while he leads his remaining force against Wellington.

The battle of Waterloo, delayed to let the ground dry after the previous night’s storm, starts shortly after 11:30 am with cannon fire from the French. Napoleon launches a diversionary infantry attack on Wellington’s right flank, the Chateau of Hougoumont, but Wellington refuses to divert forces. Napoleon then attacks the allied left with d’Erlon’s infantry corps. General Picton, in civilian dress having lost his uniform when his mule was lost, successfully halts the attack but is killed. Ponsonby’s cavalry brigade, the renowned Union brigade, including the famous Royal Scots Greys, pursue the French, but go too far across the battlefield and become isolated from the rest of the Allied force, and are thus cut to pieces by Napoleon’s lancers. Ponsonby himself is killed.

Napoleon realises that troops spotted emerging from the woods to the east are Prussians (Blücher’s army), not French (Grouchy’s force), but keeps this from his army. He then suffers stomach pain and withdraws temporarily, leaving Marshal Ney in command. Ney, in his desperation to win before Prussian intervention, misinterprets a reorganisation of the Allied line as a retreat and leads a cavalry charge, which is repelled with heavy losses by allied infantry squares.

Napoleon returns and rebukes his marshals for letting Ney attack without infantry support. However he hopes that Wellington’s line has been worn down. The British strongpoint of La Haye Sainte falls, and Napoleon sends the Imperial Guard for the decisive blow. As they advance they are repulsed by Maitland’s Guards Division, who were lying unseen in the grass on the reverse of the slope. The repulse of the Guard devastates French morale, and the arrival of the Prussians makes matters certain. After refusing to surrender, the Imperial Guard squares are annihilated with point-blank artillery fire.

After the battle, Wellington wanders among the piles of dead, lamenting the cost of victory. At the same time Napoleon, who had declared that he would die with his men, is dragged by his marshals from the field and later departs in a carriage for Paris.

Trivia & Goofs

  • When filming Napoleon’s abdication speech, producer Dino De Laurentiis ordered the cameraman not to load a new reel of film in order to save costs. The film ran out before Rod Steiger had finished delivering this highly emotional speech. The actor was not pleased.
  • This historical war epic film was, at the time it was made, one of the most expensive pictures ever made.
  • The picture was a commercial failure at the theatrical box-office in 1970. Producer Dino De Laurentiis blamed the film’s poor performance on the picture’s lack of stars.
  • Soldiers of the Red Army were used as extras to portray the British army. They panicked repeatedly and scattered during the filming of some of the cavalry charges. Attempts to reassure them by marking the closest approach of the horses with white tape similarly failed, and the scene was cut.
  • Richard Burton was sought to play Napoléon Bonaparte which in the end was cast with Rod Steiger.
  • Actor Terence Alexander, who played Lord Uxbridge, stated that the former Russian intelligence organisation, the KGB, monitored non-Russian cast members throughout the production.
  • General Sir Thomas Picton (Jack Hawkins) is correctly shown dressed in a civilian coat and a top hat. He had travelled in haste to reach the army and had arrived ahead of most of his luggage – including his uniforms.
  • Christopher Plummer would later reprise his role as the Duke of Wellington in Witness to Yesterday: The Duke of Wellington (1974).
  • Footage of the film’s depiction of the Battle of Waterloo would later be used in The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (1981), which was presented and narrated by Orson Welles (King Louis XVIII).
  • When the Prussian troops appear, the music of “Deutschland ueber alles” can be heard. “Deutschland ueber alles” only became the national anthem of Germany in 1922. It was never used by Prussia.
  • Mountains can be seen in the background during the battle. There are no mountains in this part of Belgium.
  • The British cavalry charge shown was actually carried out by the Union Brigade, which comprised three regiments of dragoons, the Royal Dragoons, the Royal North British Dragoons (Scots Greys) and the Inniskilling Dragoons and the Houshold brigade of heavy dragoons.

Production & Filming Details

  • Director: Sergei Bondarchuk.
  • Producer: Dino De Laurentiis.
  • Writers: H.A.L. Craig, Sergei Bondarchuk, Vittorio Bonicelli and Mario Soldati (screenplay); H.A.L. Craig (story).
  • Music: Nino Rota and Wolfred Josephus.
  • Cinematography: Armando Nannuzzi.
  • Editor: Richard C. Meyer.
  • Production: Mosfilm and Dino de Laurentiis Cinematografica.
  • Distribution: Columbia Pictures (non-US) and Paramount Pictures (US).
  • Release Date: 26 October 1970 (UK).
  • Running time: 134 minutes.
  • Country: Italy, Soviet Union.
  • Language: English.

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