Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Waterloo (1970)

"My God, Sir! I've lost my leg!"

"My God, Sir! So you have!"

There are three striking things about this superb film: Rod Steiger's electrifying, extraordinarily charismatic and career-defining performance as Napoleon, the incredible scope and accuracy of the battle scenes, and the fact that it was made in Brezhnev's Soviet Union with an international cast. That just seems bizarre.

Still, it's an extraordinary piece of cinema and one of the most accurate historical find ever made; even the dialogue is mostly documented from real life and I recognised a few of Wellington's. The only inaccuracies I could spot were the constant references to "Belgium" (not a country until 1830) and the slight musical reference to the modern German national anthem as Blucher's Prussians arrive to save the day. This is anachronistic; the tune existed at the time but it's lyrics were a paean to Emperor Franz of Austria, hardly a friend of Prussia. The Habsburgs were hardly friends of pan-German nationalism, which in any case wouldn't really become a thing until after the revolutions of 1848. Anyway, the film...

 Steiger steals the show as Napoleon, a charismatic genius refusing to give in to the failing health of his body, but Christopher Plummer also deserves high praise for his unflappable and blunt Wellington, refusing permission to have Napoleon assassinated ahead of the battle as such things are Simply Not Done. The opening scenes are extraordinary, though: Napoleon rants and raves like Hitler in Downfall before finally abdicating, only to escape from Elba with but 1,000 troops and suede power again through sheer magnetic charisma. It's eyebrow-raising here to see a somewhat corpulent Orson Welles in a cameo as Louis XVIII.

This is a true epic in scope, both thematically and visually. If you haven't seen it.. sorry for the spoiler, but Napoleon loses. Sorry.

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