When I was in my early teens, a group of mates and I got into wargaming. These were the dark, pre-Internet days, and whereas now we might have contented ourselves with chatrooms and interactive Football Manager, back then there was nothing much to do but purchase hundreds of miniature lead soldiers and plough them into each other. Well, there was football, and indeed American Football, but on only so many occasions could we risk the delights of Redcar’s Dog Crap Stadium in order to indulge. After spending hours taking painstaking efforts to paint the models, designing fields with little bushes, buildings, roads, etc, it was time for a game, and nothing did for us more than the campaigns of the Napoleonic era.
As anyone who’s wasted their lives in such practices will know, this period offers the most promise for gamers. The alternatives were ancient battles (too pitched), World War One (waiting in trenches until someone was bored enough to attack) and made-up nonsense involving fantasy wars set in the future. Who knew what that was all about? The real appeal of Napoleonic gaming was that it was a strategist’s dream. Wars were fought via single battles that involved vast armies, and whoever emerged victorious tended to claim enormous advantages. There were rarely any atrocities committed against civilians. Guerilla warfare existed only in the anti-British Americas. All in all, it came across as a more elegant style of conflict, war waged by gentlemen, if you will.
As this was a clash between the great powers of the day - France, Austria, Russia, Britain and Prussia - there was no great disparity in the technical levels of each army. All were roughly up to speed when it came to the mix of infantry, cavalry and artillery, and though all sides had areas in which they claimed superiority and weakness the real decisive element was in the tactical minds of the field generals. For many years, Napoleon himself held the upper hand. A superb military thinker, his great skill was in speed. As the Duke of Wellington once observed, he moved his cannons as quickly as pistols, and it was for this specific reason that he caught the attention of French leaders during the revolution and rose through the ranks. However, Wellington was no shirk either. For most of the Napoleonic wars, he spent his time fighting through Spain, slowly freeing the Iberian Peninsula from the grip of the French. It wasn’t until Waterloo itself that Wellington confronted Napoleon in battle and met the ultimate test of his own intelligence.
In our games, I was always the French, and unlike Bonaparte, I was no student of Caesar. Thinking about it, I reckon my opponents - who knew the rules - cheated when it required them to do so. Most battles ended in stalemate as everything tended to be decided by early cavalry battles. Whoever won these mass fights held an immense upper hand as horsemen were so superior to infantry. That was according to the instructions, at least, which I never bothered reading because of the sheer disinterest attached to poring through 100+ pages of dice-throwing guidelines and so on.
The other thing about wargaming was a heightened interest in all things to do with this period. As an historian anyway, I was bound to be hooked by the adventures of ‘Boney’, and though we didn’t study any of this stuff at school (the curriculum jumped us on from colonial times to the dull-as-dishwater Industrial Revolution) there was a wealth of information to hand. Our library had books covering it in some detail, whether my fancy was for a general overview of his life and campaigns, or an appraisal of each of his marshalls (of whom the best was the bald-headed Davout, and not Ney, whom revisionists have dismissed rather aptly as a swashbuckler whose brains weren’t always in his head).
One Bank Holiday Easter Monday, at the height of our interest, the Beeb screened Waterloo, an old movie about the great battle that ended Napoleon’s threat for good. On the other side was Spartacus, and spoilt for choice as I was I taped the former and watched the latter. Suffice it to say the video wore out after repeated viewings. To me at the time, it was the ideal film, framed around the panorama of a major confrontation and looking for all the world as it might have done during the real thing. But later, I learned that Waterloo was nothing less than one of the major cinematic flops of all time. It cost something like $25m to make (putting that figure into context, Star Wars, which was released seven years later, had a production budget of $11m), and won back a fraction of that at the box office.
Does that make it a bad movie? Well, that depends on who you talk to. Ardent wargamers would argue that it takes too many liberties with what happened, though you would need to be a true connoisseur to know that the British soldiers’ packs didn’t look right, or that the Scots Greys weren’t involved on the day to the extent they were on screen. The criticisms of its accuracy are nitpicking rather than substantive. Sure, certain aspects of the truth have been twisted for dramatic effect, but not in such a way to make them unbelievable, and as it happens the story told is much closer to the events than most recreations would come close to achieving. Certainly, the characterisations of Wellington (Christopher Plummer) and Napoleon (Rod Steiger) are uncannily good, whilst the filmmakers’ efforts to create soldiers’ costumes that look the part deserve some recognition.
In fact, the real reasons behind its failure are much easier to swallow. Though war movies were big business at the time, it was depictions of the Second World War that sold tickets because many viewers still remembered the era and identified with it. How could the same be true for a battle that took place 145 years ago, one that didn’t involve any Americans? The Napoleonic wars might have been fascinating to the odd person, but in general they appeared to have little relevance, a sideshow in the general sweep of history. Besides which, tastes in the industry were for more modern, urban and gritty tales. Waterloo, with its elegant glance at a time long past, meant less than nothing. Which is a shame, as it’s a cracking film for the most part.
Our tale begins in 1814. Napoleon is on the brink of abdicating the French throne as allied armies close in on Paris. Defeated, exhausted and looking quite ill, he tells his marshalls off (especially Ney, who comes in for a fair few bollockings as the tale progresses) for suggesting he ratify the ‘resignation’, and then signs it anyway. After saying an emotional goodbye to his loyal soldiers, the French Old Guard, he departs for exile on the island of Elba. Louis XVIII is crowned king, and a continent prepares to settle down.
Or does it? Within a year, Napoleon has returned, invading France with his personal guard of 1,000 men. Louis dispatches Ney to finish him off, but the army rallies to their old Emperor, as does the marshall. Having told Louis he’d bring Napoleon before him ‘in an iron cage’, he’s back by his former master’s side, preparing to overthrow the unpopular new regime. This is achieved in lightning time. The next thing we see, Bonaparte is preparing once again for war against the allies, who declared hostilities against him as soon as they found he was back in power. Only the British and Prussians can realistically deal with the problem though. Wellington is in Brussels, and the ageing General Blucher also turns around whilst in Belgium. Napoleon and his hastily assembled army make short work of the latter, effectively dividing the British and Prussians with a victory at Ligny, and then starts marching on the Belgian capital. It’s up to Wellington to stop him; the armies collide near the sleepy village of Waterloo.
What follows is a battle of epic proportions. It’s also one that depends on time. Napoleon needs to crush his enemy speedily before the Prussians can regroup and march to the field. In contrast, Wellington must hold his position and hope Blucher arrives in time to clean up. In preparation for the scrap, both camps mull over what’s about to happen, Welly worrying about his dependence on Prussia, Boney becoming ill and fretting over his ability to regain command over his failing powers. The rest is taken up by fifty minutes of intense fighting, including masses of artillery fire, cavalry charges, dying generals and the usual portents of doom. Without wanting to ruin it for anyone who doesn’t possibly know the outcome, I can say it’s an amazing visual experience, and the odd inaccuracy aside, it’s authentic and exciting enough to keep anyone on the edge of their seat. After all, as battles go, Waterloo was in the balance for a long time. It took an age to be decided. Right until the final, decisive moves, either side could have emerged as the victor.
The defects in this picture are few, but they do make a difference. My biggest complaint is that at just over two hours, it’s just too short. Certain aspects of the battle are rushed, as is a great deal of the exposition, leading to an experience that might not seem full enough to those who don’t know a lot about the events. By all accounts, a four-hour version is kicking around in the vaults, and it would be great to see this better explained edition hit the streets at some point. Without such a cut, Waterloo seems very uneven. We never really understand why the allies don’t give Napoleon another chance. All the ramifications of the battle’s events aren’t made sufficiently clear, and there isn’t enough of the fighting generally.
Waterloo was made in 1970 by Sergei Bondarchuk, who presided over a project funded with Italian and Russian money. Considering the pan-European basis of the movie, it’s for certain there’s going to be some actors involved who don’t speak English, and in places the dubbing is of a ‘Monkey’ standard i.e. bad. This is never more the case than with our own Jack Hawkins, who plays General Picton. By the time he was involved, Hawkins was extremely ill and had lost the use of his voice, so it had to be over-dubbed and never looks or indeed sounds right. And he provides one of the better turns. On the whole, it’s not a masterclass of acting, though the main protagonists do well with their parts. At times, people don’t appear to know where they need to stand or look, which adds to the confusing fun. And there are several instances where actors are shown riding fake horses, and look just like actors sitting on, er, fake horses. Very poor.
Finally, a word on the editing, which stinks generally. The early scenes leading up to the battle can be quite ponderous and irrelevant, particularly during a ball in Brussels, which is where we first meet Wellington. We also get to see his wife and niece, who appear in this one scene and then vanish, as though they have no place in the overall plot and were shoehorned in just to offer a brief glimpse of the occasional female in this men-only feature. Too much time is devoted to a group of Northern Irish soldiers fighting for Wellington. It would mean something if their tale was a squaddie’s eye view of what goes on, but this doesn’t lead anywhere either, save for the odd slice of comic relief. Once the serious fighting starts, they pretty much vanish from the action.
And yet, for all that the spectacle of the battle itself utterly outweighs any shortcomings. Bondarchuk hired the enormous Russian army to take the parts of the soldiers, and it shows. Considering Waterloo was fought between forces that possessed an approximate strength of 70,000 men each, the array of divisions has been re-enacted as faithfully as it ever could be. There are simply thousands of soldiers here, all dressed in the colour co-ordinated uniforms of the time, and to see them lined up is an astonishing sight. In one scene, Napoleon scans the opposition ranks. His telescope sweeps across battalion after battalion, and in this era when computer effects were still a distant dream, what we’re seeing surely is an army’s worth of extras. Indeed, as one source put it, whilst making the movie Bondarchuk was in control of the seventh largest fighting force in the world.
The fighting is no less worth your while. Each cohort advances to the sound of drums and its own individual tune (some of these faithfully recreated from real contemporary battle anthems). Opposing soldiers can hear their approach from hundreds of yards away, a truly frightening and ominous rumble of oncoming death. As the camera follows marching soldiers, you hear muskets being loaded, cannon fire, people urging others on, the rattle of distant shooting, and sometimes you see very little through the screen of gunpowder smoke, giving a vivid impression of what it might have been like to be there. Some of the work is breathtaking. A massive cavalry charge led by Ney looks like it served as an inspiration for the Rohirrin’s antics in The Return of the King. Thousands of horses are involved, pelting forward in formation, and yet it’s ultimately doomed as the skill of the British in countering such an attack helps to turn the course of the battle.
That aside, we have two quite brilliant performances from Steiger and Plummer to savour. The former was in his ’shouting a lot’ phase during this time, and it serves him well as he takes on the poisoned chalice role of Napoleon. He reflects the Emperor’s violent mood swings perfectly, capturing his magnetism and revulsion at once. By the time of Waterloo, Bonaparte was failing both in terms of health and his military powers. The resulting self-doubt is shown in various scenes by Steiger, who seems to be aware that whatever else happens, Waterloo will be his epitaph.
Christopher Plummer is possibly even better as the patrician Arthur Wellesley. In reality, Wellington was an utter snob, someone who regarded his soldiers as gin-toting scum, and though Plummer’s turn agrees with this he is altogether more charismatic. Reproducing faithfully much of what the Duke actually said on the day, he comes across as believable and somehow above it all. I’m not sure if Wellington was really so repulsed by what happened that he gave up leading armies as a result, but Plummer suggests this was exactly the case.
Elsewhere, we have a fine cameo by Orson Welles as Louis XVIII. By this point, Welles was grossly overweight, and thus ideally cast as the ‘fat king’, even though his screen time is less than five minutes. Daniel O’Herlihy plays Ney precisely as we imagined him, the sword-happy gobshite who was probably not bright enough to be a leading light amongst Napoleon’s marshalls. A troupe of posh-voiced British thesps make up Wellington’s generals, all from the upper echelons but willing to follow their commander into the jaws of death.
The costumes are authentic, and the props and locations look as though everyone involved got into a timewarp back to the early nineteenth century for the sake of getting it right. No expense was spared, and as a result Waterloo looks fantastic. It’s also quite unique, hinged as it is around one set-piece battle. If only the hopelessly uneven editing could be sorted out. The movie’s potential status as a misunderstood modern classic might be gained if a more coherent cut was available. Even so, I’ll still never get my wargaming figures out again - as I recall, I sold them for booze years ago.