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

  1. […] Waterloo directed by Sergei Bondartschuk (IT/ Soviet Union 1970) Rod Steiger, Christopher Plummer, Orson Welles (see my review) […]

  2. warmoviebuff says:

    I saw it a long time ago and its on my current list. I do remember I liked it and wondered why the critics were so unkind to it. It reminds me of “Gettysburg” and belongs with it in the top ten movies about battles.

    • I don’t know why the critics wouldn’t like it. It was the 70s and done by a Russian film director? It didn’t come to my mind to compare it to Gettysburg. The filming is quite different. Gettysburg shows more close-ups as far as I remember, whereas in Waterloo you see the battlefield from afar which makes it easier to follow and see the battle formations. I found Gettysburg very boring. Like a documentary. But I loved Waterloo.

  3. Guy Savage says:

    I haven’t seen this. I’ll see if I can track it down as a rental. Thanks.

    • You are welcome. I would be interested to read what you think of it. After watching it I thought I should read Les Misérables but it seems impossible to get an unabridged copy in French.

      • warmoviebuff says:

        How about The Charterhouse of Parma? I haven’t read it but I believe it is set in the battle. Might be your cup of tea.

      • I absolutely don’t like Stendhal. One of my worst reading experiences ever.

      • Guy Savage says:

        I am halfway through it and enjoying it very much. Not a perfect film by any means–Wellington doing far too much hmmph-ing and Napoleon has the most awful lines (he comes close to saying woe is me in a few spots). I turned on the subtitles as the sound varies and they are very typically soviet bad translations. But it is still an awesome spectacle a la Bondarchuk.

      • Glad to hear it. No, it isn’t perfect but I liked it a lot. I found it visually amazing. There are some bad lines and some clumsy interior monologue type thing but I could forgive it in this case.

  4. Chef Jeff says:

    I saw this movie overseas in Paris, in French and enjoyed it very much. I know the basic plot lines very well and could follow the dialogue in Russian and most of the sub-titles as well. Then I saw it Spanish later that year and finally, after moving back to the U.S., in English. I now own a copy and enjoy it perhaps twice a year. You are correct that the epic views and battle formations are clearly superb! I often think back to an earlier film “War and Peace” where scenes of the battle are laid out before our eyes. It is both horrifying and gripping; one feels compelled to run away but strangely glued to the spot, rather how I imagine I would feel if I were there.

    In a few places the plot is left to those who know something about the battle, and at the end, and I do not know if this happened or not, the scene of the remnants of the Old Guard troops gathering in defiance and then being fed to the cannon fire is very dramatic. If true, it is a very sad commentary of war and loyalty to a lost cause. All-in-all, a movie that ranks in the top 10 for me.

    • I think I would like to own a copy as well and would watch it regularly. I’m glad someone else thinks as well about it. It deserves to be watched and re-watched more. I only saw it in English. The battle formations are very impressive. I couldn’t blame anyone who would feel like running.
      I had a feeling it was very accurate, maybe the main characters were slightly overdrawn fro dramatic reasons but according to what I read about Naploéon that’s pretty much how he was and the contrats between two men couldn’t be much bigger.
      There are a few very tragic moments.
      I have never seen War and Peace but maybe I should do so. I can also recommend Le Colonel Chabert although the battle is in the background, it still captures its horror and the time very well.

      • Chef Jeff says:

        While Napoleon was at the end of his career by the time of Waterloo, he was still a brilliant man in many respects. In his earlier years he could dictate to several scribes at the same time and keep all the information straight. Wellington was, of course, the darling of the British but I do not believe he was Napoleon’s superior in battle. If he had met The Corsican Lion a decade earlier, I think the battle may well have been different. Just the same, Wellington’s Penninsular Campaign was a well-fought one. But until Waterloo, he had yet to prove himself in such a large and dangerous battle against one who in my opinion was the finest military strategist and tactician.

        Of course, to the victor goes the spoils and the honorable mention in history, but I rather side with Napoleon as he was in the earlier years of his career. I think that Britain was still too class conscious and rigid, whereas France, and especially the Army, allowed promotion through the ranks and produced perhaps some of the finest generals of all time.

  5. I agree with you, he was briliant. I think however that the movie wanted to underline how different their characters were. I think Napoleon was a very emotional man but genius nonetheless. Although he lost, it seems to me he is far more often mentioned among the greatest of all times whereas Wellington is mentioned as his oponent. But that is maybe as biased view, after all I’m French and nit British and grew up with tales of Napoléon.
    What you say about class consciousness is very true. Someone like Napoléon wouldn’t have climbed the ranks of the British Army.

  6. […] Waterloo (1970) Russian/Italian movie on Napoleon’s great defeat. (Here is my review) […]

  7. […] Waterloo (1970) Russian/Italian movie on Napoleon’s great defeat. (Here is my review) […]

  8. […] I enjoyed the final battle and seeing the battle formations, it reminded me a bit of Waterloo. […]

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