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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Sink the Bismarck! (1960) A British Movie About One of the Most Crucial Moments in British History

The British black and white movie Sink the Bismarck! tells the true account of one of the most difficult moments during WWII. The new German battleship the Bismarck was the biggest and most powerful battleship to ever cruise the sea. A frightening enemy that had to be stopped before it could break loose and reach the Atlantic. The war on the North Atlantic was at its height and so were the British losses at sea.

Sink the Bismarck! switches back and forth between scenes in the war room and scenes at sea. As a narrator states at the beginning of the movie, the war is fought at sea but the decisions are made in the war room. The scenes taking place in the war room resemble many others that are depicted in British movies but they are much more psychological. The filmmakers decided to focus closely on Captain Shepard who has been promoted and is in charge of the navy on land and on his assistant, Anne Davis, a young woman whose fiancé died at the beginning of the war. Shepard himself is grieving for his wife and one of his sons. He is shown as hard and rigid in the beginning but he changes considerably over the course of the movie. The people around him, although annoyed by his harshness, still know that he has to take some of the most difficult decisions that have to be taken during the war.

The most tragic moment in the movie is certainly when the biggest British battleship, The Hood, is sunk within minutes of attacking The Bismarck. It explodes in front of the eyes of the rest of the British fleet which is close by.

After this has happened Churchill gives one of his famous speeches and utters the memorable words “Sink the Bismarck!”.

We all know what course history has taken so it is not too much of a spoiler to say that the British navy, together with the assistance of the pilots of aircraft carrier Ark Royal, did manage to sink the huge German fortress. Quite a tragic moment even for the British. No one really cheered. There is something eerie about naval combat; many people die when a ship is finally sunk but the ships themselves are lost as well and they often look like gigantic wounded animals dying a violent death.

All this said, it’s a fine movie. The characters we see in the war room are well-developed, the tragedy of the initial defeat of the British navy is palpable, the huge burden that lasted on those who take decisions can be felt and the utter senselessness of war is symbolized in the sinking of those huge ships. I couldn’t help admire the German engineers at one point, the Bismarck was an astonishingly powerful ship. But I also admired those people in charge in the British war rooms. They worked day and night, hardly ever slept and were dedicated to the last. 4/5