Waterloo (1970) “Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won”

Waterloo was more than just a movie for me. Watching it meant jumping head first into childhood memories.

“Waterloo, Waterloo, morne plaine…” No, this isn’t the French version of the AbbA song. I am afraid the words are not bound to tell you much. I can still hear my father’s voice drone this part of  Victor Hugo’s famous poem L’Expiation (an endless poem by the way) on Sunday mornings. I said it in my last post, I went through a bit of an obsession with Napoléon as a child and guess I deserved a little punishment and therefore frequently had to listen to the long and never-ending recitation of that poem. Sorry for this little digression… Back to my review.

I haven’t seen this movie before and I must say it was high time. It is a worthy candidate for a place among my Top 20. I loved every minute of it (with the exception of the animal stunts. Being reminded that this a Russian production and the well-being of horses might not have been high on the agenda did NOT help. It is funny how all of a sudden one likes the idea of CGI. I never thought I would ever write such a sacrilegious thing.)

As the title indicates, this is not a Napoléon biopic. It doesn’t show the great man’s life, only a fatal and tragic part of it, the battle of Waterloo. Maybe the best known of all the French battles (apart from Austerlitz) in France.

The movie starts with what has become in French the synonym for something long, endless and wearisome, namely “Les adieux de Fontainebleau” or “The Goodbyes at Fontainebleau” in which Napoléon, before being exiled to Elba,  says goodbye to his troops. He states in the movie that he deplores that he can not say goodby to each and every one of them still it is said that it took hours. After having been defeated on the battlefield he was forced to abdicate and go into exile to the island of Elba.

Rod Steiger manages masterfully to show how emotional Napoléon was. This man was driven by strong emotions and passions. And it seems that the troops loved him for this display of feelings.

He stayed at Elba some ten moths and then returned to Paris where Louis XVIII (Orson Welles) had taken back the throne. The moment when he meets the troops is another highlight in this movie. He wins them back easily and becomes emperor once more.

After this episode he heads the troops and marches towards Belgium to engage the troops of Wellington.

Before the movie takes us to the battlefield it briefly stops in a ballroom in Belgium where Wellington (Christopher Plummer) and his men are introduced.

Two thirds of this movie are dedicated to the battle of Waterloo. I think it is incredibly well done. I liked those costumes and the way we could see the battle formations. There was such a huge difference whether cavalry charged against cavalry or against infantry. The moment when the French cavalry attacks the British infantry is horrible. The horses are shot down one by one. The square battle formations of the infantry made it impossible to win for the attacking cavalry. Like this the horses could be shot down from every angle.

At moments, while I watched this and saw the tactics the two men applied, how they overlooked the battlefield, sent troops from here to there, removed them from somewhere else, I was reminded of chess.

The two great men, Napoléon and Wellington are shown as complete opposites. Naploéon goes through every possible emotional change while Wellington stays poised and self-possessed. While one is of very humble origins, the other is an aristocrat through and through.

We all know the outcome of the battle and when it is over, not even Wellington is unmoved and he says the famous words:

Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won.

I really enjoyed Waterloo. I liked the costumes, the uniforms, the battle formations, Wellington’s poise, Napoléon’s sadness, the composition of the British regiment, the Irish troops with their rosaries and the Scottish with the bagpipes.

I would recommend this movie to every one who is interested in French and British history and the Napoleonic Wars, who likes costumes and has an interest in miltary tactics of the time.

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