Could a modern day filmmaker do Waterloo justice?

My last post concerned contemporary Britain’s position as a difficult partner within the European Union. But historically, while Britain might have considered herself apart, she was not so aloof. For several centuries, Britain was immersed in maintaining the European balance of power, and with it the shifting alliances that were made to prevent one nation achieving hegemony over Europe. One of the refreshing aspects of tomorrow’s 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo has been the acknowledgement of the international character of the army of the Seventh Coalition. The commemorations and recollections in print and on television – those that I have encountered – have been far more intellectually interesting and faithful to history than those of the World Wars of the 20th century, which are becoming more politicised as they become ever more dishonest. There were more German speakers than English speakers in the Duke of Wellington’s Anglo-allied army alone, with troops from the Netherlands, Hanover, Brunswick and Nassau. And of the 36% who were British, Irish soldiers were disproportionately represented. Wellington himself was of Anglo-Irish stock, and was born in Dublin.

While Waterloo heralded an extended period of relative peace in Europe, the significance of the battle remains a matter of debate. A diminished figure after a failed invasion of Russia in 1812 and defeat at Leipzig in 1813, Napoleon would have had to contend with Russian and Austrian armies that were lurking in wait should his attack on the Allies have been successful. Though some argue that a successful campaign in Belgium could have caused the coalition to waver and leave Napoleon able to consolidate power at home. I am no historian, and cannot offer any authoritative opinion, but certainly Waterloo offers a rich seam of debate.

One is a little surprised that a feature film about the battle hasn’t been produced since Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo in 1970, which starred Rod Steiger as Napoleon. While a reasonably estimable piece of cinema, it is not good enough to be considered definitively unsurpassable. Bondarchuk’s greatest achievement with the film derives from his ability to call upon and marshal the resources of the Soviet Army, just as he had previously done in his 1966 film adaptation of War and Peace. With 16,000 soldiers of the Soviet Army and a full Soviet cavalry brigade, and visibility increasingly hampered by the smoke of battle, the effect on screen is to convey a genuine Napoleonic battlefield. Its release is part of the reason Stanley Kubrick’s planned film about Napoleon was abandoned, and its approach seems a fitting way to commit a pitched battle to film.

Where Bondarchuk’s film is also impressive is its fidelity to historical sources, and in the efforts to rendering the battlefield itself, which he shot in Ukraine. It is also loyal to its quotable historical figures, and does its best to shoehorn their most famous lines into the script, while many scenes are configured to resemble famous paintings of the battle. The casting is mostly commendable as well. Steiger’s Napoleon is melancholy and curiously introspective, Christopher Plummer’s Wellington a mixture of cool, arrogant determination and suave levity.

Whilst it was otherwise a ridiculous movie, Saving Private Ryan set a new standard for presenting close-quarters combat. In Waterloo, the French attacks on Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte lack the visceral energy and close-up detail that modern films depicting war can achieve. A better job is done with the ill-fated charge of Ponsonby’s Scots Greys cavalry brigade. More dramatic again is the panoramic view of the allied infantry squares that repelled Ney’s cavalry charge, and the repulsing of the final French assault of the Imperial Guard by the volleys of point blank fire delivered by Maitland’s 1st Foot Guards, the latter a scene I can remember from the first time I saw the film as an 8 year old. The Prussian involvement in the battle is generally not given justice. Blücher’s intervention is made to seem more sudden than what was in fact a gradual presence amassing on Napoleon’s right flank, and the bitter fighting at Plancenoit, a village that changed hands several times during the day, doesn’t figure. Perhaps it does in the film’s rumoured 4 hour cut.

Given that the film also suffers from some poor dubbing and occasionally slack editing, the residing impression is that it could be improved upon. That said, were Waterloo to be dramatised today, it would most likely be heavily reliant on CGI, and might not be satisfied with presenting a straightforward large-scale depiction of the day’s events. That would arguably be a more filmic approach, but might not be satisfying for the history buff. Bondarchuk’s film might be the best we’ll ever have.

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