Monday, 11 May 2009

No. 124 : Waterloo



Here’s a real epic of a film that’s probably passed you by. I was surprised the film had never come up on my horizon given that it cost millions and had a top notch cast. I’m not alone however as the IMDb has less than 2,000 votes for a film that had a claim to be the most expensive ever made when it came out in 1970. We’ll get to the reasons for the film’s apparent anonymity later but first let’s do a quick plot summary.

Of course you’ve heard of The battle of Waterloo and quite possibly you’ve been through the battlefield if you’ve ever flown Ryanair to Brussels. I thought I had a good idea of what went on, but the film does a good job of illuminating a subject that may have been condensed down to ‘Wellington beat Napoleon’ in many people’s minds.

The film opens with Rod Steiger’s Napoleon in a hard place. His campaigns have ended in failure and his generals ask that he surrenders. We can hear his inner thoughts and eventually he agrees to sign the declaration and be exiled to Elba. Within a year however he escapes and returns to France with a thousand men and an ambition to reconquer Europe. Elsewhere the Duke of Wellington (Christopher Plummer) is enjoying the high life and entertaining Virginia McKellar.

Napoleon is met by a French army charged with returning him to Paris in a cage but they are quickly persuaded to join his quest by his shouty oration and shiny boots. As his army swells he becomes a threat to the British and Prussians and they resolve to beat his fledgling army before it becomes too great a threat. As the armies mass at Waterloo we get an insight into the tactics and inner thoughts of the battlefield commanders.

The last hour of the film deals almost exclusively with the battle and, although the result is a foregone conclusion if you ever picked up a history book, the closeness and viciousness of the confrontation immerse you in the battle and sways your loyalties throughout.

This film has some of the best battle scenes I‘ve seen with their scale and detail defying belief. Apparently the Russian military was roped in to provide the army as well as circus horse riders who earn their Roubles with some spectacular falls. The overhead shots show the marvellous scale of the battle with literally hundreds of horsemen attacking thousands of troops formed in battle squares. Even at a distance you can make out every smoking gun and falling rider and the number ‘that must have hurt’ moments are immeasurable.

What the film lacks however is a soul. As a battle re-enactment it is peerless but apart from that there isn’t too much happening. Wellington is pretty faceless with no reaction given when one General announces that his leg has been shot off. He is also close to Ian ‘The Saint’ Ogilvy but barely bats an eye when he gets blown up. The single female on show is hardly seen and for the most part this is a Boys’ Own adventure.

On the French side Rod Steiger does a good job with Napoleon, a part which must be hard to make your own. We don’t get much of a sense of his motivation and the charisma he’d have needed to lead thousands of men to their deaths is lacking. His tormented inner monologue gives us some sense of the man but for the most part you’re wondering how he got the job. For your money you also get a whale of an Orson Welles appearance but given he has two minutes of screen time I imagine his presence was more important on the poster than on the screen.

It is a good film and one I enjoyed but if the script had as much energy as the battle scenes this would be up there with the David Lean classics.

Best Bit : An hour of good honest bloodshed
‘W’ Rating 15/23

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