Should we ever see the return of the war epic, I imagine tales such as Waterloo will not be told. I say this because the few films to come out in the past two decades when retelling stories of old war victories are, let’s face it, not the best. Longitude was an achingly dull experience, and Peterloo seems to have fallen on deaf ears. There is no market for the Patton or The Battle of the Bulge of this generation. Although there is an endearing love of War and Peace and that area of general decadence, to see it on the big screen now would be a genuine surprise. We must rely on the work of old until someone dares make it the new and now. Waterloo, then, is a serviceable, engaging epic to signal the final days of this acclaimed genre.
Waterloo is glamorous and opines its thoughts on very little. The presentation of a great biopic can state its history with interest and equal malignment for its subjects. Rod Steiger’s performance as Napoleon Bonaparte is commanding and tired. This portrayal shows a leader fuelled by the ego and his talents. “France will follow me to the stars” Bonaparte states as he finds himself on the backfoot, dealing with his defeat against the Sixth Coalition. Steiger gives an impassioned performance throughout, but it is his initial refusal to abdicate, the repetitive shouts of “not, not, not” that stick in the mind so pertinently. Between these fits of rage, director Sergey Bondarchuk showcases Napoleon in quiet, disgruntled musings as he thinks of his next move and the impact it will have on him and the country he leads.
We should expect nothing but greatness from Bondarchuk’s direction. It is the exemplary worldbuilding and costume design that he deploys here, the grand scale of it all, which is so endearing and engaging. Waterloo coasts along rather nicely with exceptionally magnificent scenes that capture the scope and density of these battles. That elaborate density does not stop when the soldiers lay down their weapons. Even the dances, returns and smaller moments are packed with intensity. The introduction of The Duke of Wellington (Christopher Plummer) is drafted with hymns, crowds and a stark utilisation of how a camera can capture a crowded, bustling life. While the war genre may be criticised for its somewhat ugly relationship with a love and disgusted fascination with war, Bondarchuk and his cast, including Orson Welles and Jack Hawkins, present a film that elevates itself far above a mere war picture. It is steeped in the politics and ethics of the time and adapts it with excellent efficiency.
There are burning trees and ruined men. Napoleon is in over his head, and as his ego eats away at his conscious ability to make decisions, Wellington and his British forces force the hand, and this is shown with expectedly great moments. Bondarchuk has confidence in Steiger’s leading performance, but also in that of Gianni Garko. His work here as Drouot is surprising, not because he is a poor actor, but because his career up to this point had been consistent appearances in spaghetti westerns. His attachment to the Sartana branch of those pistol-whipping westerns is endearing but makes him a fascinating choice for the French officer. He does not fail to disappoint, nor does Waterloo as a whole.
For my generation, I imagine the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte is screeched out in drunken clubs as ABBA barrel through cracked speakers. Still, if that is how Waterloo is to be remembered, so be it. For the history nerds among us, this Bondarchuk epic has the necessary grandiose scale and all the effective merits of a competent historical biopic. It is fun and thoroughly interesting, paced well to include the abdication and subsequent return of Napoleon. They capture the respect the French military had for him, and how this respect resulted in a catastrophic defeat. Make no mistake, I am no expert on French history, but Waterloo included me without questioning my knowledge or challenging the few basic facts I cling to when asked about my history A-Level.