I recently saw Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo (1970). This is probably the definitive movie depiction of the battle of Waterloo. The story of its production itself is impressive: a vast field in Ukraine bulldozed to recreate the topography of the historical site in Belgium, an underground irrigation system installed to mimic the muddy conditions at the battle, 15,000 members of the Soviet army trained for several months in Napoleonic-era rifle drills, 2,000 horsemen brought in from all across Russia. Any modern creation would rely heavily on CGI for the battle scenes but there’s something to be said for seeing an actual army on the screen. There’s reading about how terrifying it was to see the army raised by levee en masse marching at you and then there’s seeing a vast sea of men marching in lockstep for real.
I’m not a big war nerd but it’s obvious how careful the movie was to get the general idea of the battle across. The effects of weather, morale, the ploys in combat and the counters and risky gambles all get a showing, which is quite a difference from the typical Hollywood battle where armies just charge at each other and the side with braver guys win.
But surprisingly, I actually enjoyed the movie more in the first half before the battle started. It starts with Napoleon’s first defeat and surrender, then it covers the Hundred Days of his return and the lead-up to the titular battle. It also devotes almost equal time to Wellington’s doings on the other side and takes pains to be quite neutral and not show one side to be the heroes of the story.
However, the movie was a commercial flop and I think I can see why. The battle is definitely trying to be very historically realistic but it kind of feels too cerebral, or perhaps not visceral enough. Of course, the movie technology of 1970 wasn’t up to faking large groups of men being blown to smithereens, but this leads to lots of explosions on screen with men mostly being unhurt unless the story calls for a character to die from shrapnel. This is probably something CGI could have helped with if this movie was being made today. In any case, it’s the Waterloo nerds that would get the most out of this movie and casual viewers may start getting antsy when the battle starts to feel like it’s dragging – I know I did, and I was watching at home when I could pause when I wanted a break.
Anyway, overall I liked the movie. Apparently there was an even longer version made with one of the related battles included between the Prussians and two of Napoleon’s marshals, but god knows how interminably long the movie would have ended up if it had been kept in.
Also, a helpful person on Reddit added the original historical soundtrack to the movie.