Making elaborate historical epics is often a lose-lose scenario. Not only do these films require such enormous budgets that a high degree of financial risk is involved, but the slightest deviations from historical facts can invoke the ire of experts. All it takes is a few highly vocal naysayers to endanger the success of a massive commercial enterprise. And here’s the kicker—even when filmmakers strive to get most of the important details right, there’s a hazard of losing the mainstream audience, because nobody buys a ticket on a Friday night to experience the equivalent of dry textbook. Given these realities, it’s no surprise that film history is filled with middling movies along the lines of Waterloo. Easily one of the most expensive films ever made at the time of its original release (costing a reported $35 million), Waterloo failed at the box office, received zero Oscar nominations, and subsequently slid into quasi-obscurity. Ironic, then, that the picture depicts one of history’s most infamous military defeats.
Set in 1815, the picture begins with French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (Rod Steiger) being driven from power after enemy forces reduce his domain from all of Europe to just a small part of France. Napoleon accepts defeat bitterly, and then returns from exile less than a year later with a small army of 1,000 loyal soldiers. His attempt to regain power infuriates leaders across Europe during a period referred to by historians as “The Hundred Days.” This period culminates in the Battle of Waterloo, where British commander Arthur Wellesley (Christopher Plummer), otherwise known as the Duke of Wellington, pulverizes Napoleon’s insurgent forces. Nearly half the movie’s running time comprises the battle itself, including preparations, preliminary fights, and the ultimate clash.
Produced by Dino de Laurentiis in one of his more dignified moments, Waterloo features truly awesome production values. According to the lore surrounding the film, 17,000 Russian soldiers were used as extras during principal photography in the Ukraine (subbing for Waterloo’s real location in Belgium). Wide vistas during fight scenes are spectacular, with columns of men trailing to the horizon, and it’s exhausting just to imagine how much work went into costuming, organizing, and training this many people. Cowriter/director Sergi Bondarchuk and his collaborators strove for accuracy in the areas of formations, techniques, uniforms, weapons, and such—so, from a technical standpoint, the combat scenes are nearly unassailable.
However, the movie’s dramatic scenes are not as effective. Juicy story threads regarding the shifting allegiances of France’s Field Marshal Ney (Dan O’Herlihy) and the political machinations of French King Louis XVIII (Orson Welles) are undernourished, while a silly romantic subplot involving a British officer adds nothing to the narrative. The filmmakers try to parallel the psychological states of Napoleon and Wellington, but the gimmick never quite works; while Steiger contributes a characteristically overripe performance (envision lots of howling in pain), Plummer is chilly and remote. That said, the debonair Plummer is at his best when delivering such absurdly aristocratic lines as, “Commanders in battle have something better to do than shoot at each other.”
Ultimately, Waterloo is an unsatisfactory hybrid. It’s not elevated enough to reach the level of cinematic literature (read: David Lean), and yet it’s too educational and mechanical to qualify as pulp entertainment. Even acknowledging that history buffs will find more to enjoy here than general audiences, it seems fair to say that Waterloo’s shortcomings are as prominent as its virtues.