In spite of the Cold War during the 1960s, Hollywood took notice of Sergei Bondarchuk's Oscar-winning adaptation of Tolstoy's War and Peace, and with the coordination and persistence of veteran producer and film impresario Dino De Laurentiis, Bondarchuk became involved in the rare Euro-Soviet co-production of Waterloo, with Paramount handling North American distribution, and Columbia handling the film throughout non-Soviet Europe.
At the time, Hollywood studios were competing with a dwindling market share and an increasingly fickle youth market by making monster musicals (Star!), bloated, star-studded westerns (How the West Was Won, Custer), soapy Biblical epics (The Greatest Story Ever Told, The King of Kings), historical epics (Cleopatra, El Cid, Fall of the Roman Empire) and war films, but by the mid-sixties, these monstrous productions failed to become the winning lottery tickets the studios needed to save themselves from near bankruptcy and embarrassment.
That isn't to say the super-productions were lousy; over the years, some have become rather admirable for their production values, but their greatest flaws were the frequently bloated running times, weak scripts, and clichés that have aged very badly in the intervening years.
The epic war genre was given a tremendous boost when The Longest Day and The Great Escape proved quality, scope, and length could make a classic, but later efforts such as The Blue Max, The Battle of Britain and The Battle of the Bulge either failed to become blockbusters. In the case of Battle of Britain, it earned so much negative press for cost-overruns and production woes that it became a target for fanged critics; hungry for some verbose, public pillorying.
(A lesser production, but one tangential to sixties war epics, is The Charge of the Light Brigade. Here director Tony Richardson tried to straddle the line of being epic and anti-war by depicting class divisions, hypocrisies, and the nihilism of War, but the murky film suffered further when it was heavily cut down from a longer version.)
The escalating production costs and star salaries perhaps mandated co-producing with European partners, and the decade closed with the release of the nearly 3-hour Yugoslavian epic, The Battle of Neretva, which earned a Best Foreign Film Oscar, but was (surprise) radically cut down in various territories, losing, in some cases, about an hour of footage (and coherence).
Waterloo was more fortunate in receiving lesser trims for its U.S. and European releases, and the production gathered some familiar colleagues of De Laurentiis: screenwriter H.A.L. (Harry) Craig, who had written the 1968 WWII film, Anzio, and composer Nino Rota, who had scored De Laurentiis' 1954 version of War and Peace (which Paramount also distributed).
Unlike the '54 War and Peace, De Laurentiis went for a Panavision 'scope ratio and true stereo sound, and Chinese DVD label Castaway Pictures preserves the 2.35:1 ratio in a clean (albeit non-anamorphic) transfer, taken from a very good print. There's little damage, scratches, blemishes, or colour imbalance, and while a single layer disc, the compression is subtle, considering the film's length and dense onscreen action.
Bondarchuk's masterful use of sound effects evokes the aural terror of the battlefield, and a key highlight is a fluttering effect that accompanies the multitude of cannonballs as they scrape the sky before descending in an explosive hailstorm on the soldiers.
(The print also contains a long end crawl/playout, which has Rota 's score playing for just under a minute after the final credit has appeared, and black leader takes over. The film, however, begins after the opening logos - perhaps a signal that the DVD may be a bit grey in terms of an authorized release - so Rota 's score is abruptly joined as the opening prologue text has already started to crawl up the screen.)
Like the Battle of Britain, the years have been a bit kinder to this super-production, largely because the battle scenes and soldiers (most courtesy of the Soviet Army) are real, and are jaw-dropping for their detail and kinetic action. Waterloo contains some of the best battle scenes every choreographed and captured on film, and Bondarchuk's penchant for poetic long takes, with complex focal points and snake-like movements, reveal a level of craftsmanship that technicians had to achieve in a pre-digital effects era.
A prime example has a French cavalryman followed from a zoom lens as he rides past soldiers on a hilltop. Cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi has the camera follow, pull back, and reveal the Duke of Wellington (Christopher Plummer, fresh from Battle of Britain) tracing the same rider through his telescope. Bondarchuk has the camera pull farther back as the rider descends down the hill, and stops when Wellington and his executive clique are perfectly framed, with the French visible in the far distance.
One of the most amazing sequences - the blue French cavalry swirling around red British infantry on a plain - has aerial views to keep us aware of the British, French, and German positions, with cameras later swooping through clouds, and over firing canons and battle chaos in several passes. Perhaps taking a cue from The Longest Day's sky-bound angles, Bondarchuk brackets the observations and decision made by the battle's historical figures - Napoleon, Wellington , and Prussian Bucher - with carefully positioned views, so we're never lost or confused as to the battle progress, and status of the victors and big-time losers.
Not unlike Battle of Britain, the characters are too iconic, although writer George MacDonald Fraser lauded the screenwriters in his book The Hollywood History of the World for larding scenes with many actual and attributed quotes. The British still come off as starchy, effete and spoiled; the Germans as blood-thirsty Huns; and the French as a nation still starry-eyed for Napoleon when the alternative during the imperialist's exile in Elba was puffy, poofy King Louis XXVIII.
Sometimes they're overt caricatures, but Rod Steiger's performance is less inflamed than expected; his peculiar delivery and gesticulatory tirades are unbridled, but he does evoke a man with a monstrous ego capable of greatness, and becoming awfully testy after a magnificent defeat.
Virginia McKenna (Born Free) has a small role as the snotty Duchess of Richmond, Jack Hawkins (badly dubbed, this time) plays the harsh General Sir Thomas Picton, Michael Wilding is briefly seen as Sir William Ponsonby, and Conqueror Worm alumni Rupert Davis and Ian Ogilvy have small parts as well.
The best role, by far, is Marshal Michel Ney: he maintains the more intriguing character arc, and actor Dan O'Herlihy savors every transitional moment as Ney drifts from a Napoleon loyalist to King Louis associate, and back, thereby allowing the audience to experience the mania and brilliance of Napoleon. In that regard, Ney is the only sanguine historical figure in Waterloo.
War fans will relish the production values, and historical fans will find Bondarchuk's film less histrionic than its mythic status as a major, bloated dud. Perhaps one of the major Hollywood distributors might revisit the film in a proper special edition DVD, with elucidating production featurettes, archival goodies, and an informative commentary track from assorted historians, film fans, and such.
Producer De Laurentiis stayed away from such mammoth productions during the 1970s, while screenwriter H.A.L. Craig later wrote Moustapha Akkad's epic diptych, The Message (aka Mohammed, Messenger of God) in 1976, and Lion of the Desert (Omar Mukhtar: Lion of the Desert), in 1981. In 1979, Rota scored De Laurentiis' remake of the disaster epic, Hurricane.
Bondarchuk continued to direct historical works, including 10 Days That Shook the World (1982), Boris Godunov (1986), and the still-unreleased Quiet Flows the Don, with Rupert Everett. Supporting actor Rupert Davies later appeared in the 12-hour, 1972 BBC TV mini-series of War and Peace as Count Rostov (perhaps proof that Tolstoy's key work is both weirdly cyclical in the film/TV realm, and will never be held back by a limited running time).
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan