The film “Waterloo” came out in 1970 when I was fifteen years old and I went to see this film on 2nd December 1970 at the Odeon Theatre in Leicester Square, London. (Price of a ticket, just 16/- or 80 pence)
Waterloo was a joint Soviet-Italian film directed by Sergei Bondarchuk and was produced by Dino De Laurentiis.
The film is all about the build up of the events to the battle and the Battle of Waterloo its-self. As the credits are still rolling we see Napoleons ship making his return to France and this is where the film really starts, with the build-up to one of the most famous battles in our history.
The film had quite a few famous actors playing the biggest parts with Rod Steiger as Emperor Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. Orson Welles played King Louis XVIII of France while Virginia McKenna played Charlotte Lennox, The Duchess of Richmond.
In uniform we had Jack Hawkins as Sir Thomas Picton, although at the time he had throat cancer and could not speak properly, so his part was voiced over when final editing was done to the film. Terence Alexander played the Earl of Uxbridge; Ian Ogilvy was De Lancey and Michael Wilding as Sir William Ponsonby.
Waterloo was originally over 4 hours long with an intermission half way through the film. The film begins with Napoleon in the Chateau de Fontainebleau in 1814 with Paris is besieged by the Austrian army. Napoleon is urged by his marshals to abdicate. He first refuses, but upon hearing of the surrender of his last army under Auguste Marmont with 30,000 men he realizes there is no hope and agrees. Napoleon is then banished to the island of Elba with a personal guard of 1,000 men, but he then manages to escape back to France in March 1815.
The first battle we see is a quick look at the battle at Quarte-Bras and then Ligny with the Prussians against the French and if I can remember correctly that we then see the British Army falling back to Waterloo after the battle for Quarte-Bras. Most of the film is taken up with the famous battle itself and what great battle scenes. I have seen many war films on the big screen but not as big as this. The number of men involved and the splendid colours of all the uniforms with their flags flying and the drums and bugles playing, we are then thrown into the world of war with Napoleons grand battery starting the bombardment, the screen is then filled with smoke and the shouts of dying men as the cannons find their targets. The film shows the hard fighting and defence around the two farmhouses of Hougourmont and La Haye Sainte. I will not do a blow by blow account of the battle or the film as you can see this for yourself.
With all its faults, I did and still do enjoy looking at the film although the film has been cut down to just 123 minutes for TV and that time has been transferred to Video’s and now DVD which is a great shame as the cut version does jump about the battlefield a bit. I think that it may be because, as I can remember, a lot of limbs where flying off when attacks started through cannon balls and cavalry attacks hacking the infantry to bits. The cut down version does not even show Wellington meeting up with Blucher after the battle which I think is an important part of the film.
The film was shown world-wide so there must be a copy of the full version of the film somewhere in the world? There has never been anything like it since to take away the great effort in making the film “Waterloo”.
Some film’s in the 70’s produced a colour booklet with their first showing and Waterloo was no exception. Columbia Pictures published a 28-page full-colour guide to the film which cost me about £2 and like my ticket, I still own. The booklet had many pictures of the battle scenes and how the film came to be made in Russia.
It states that to recreate the battlefield authentically, the Russians bulldozed away two hills, laid over five miles of roads, transplanted 5,000 trees, sowed fields of rye, barley and wildflowers and building the four historic buildings. To create the muddy fields more than six miles of underground irrigation pipes were specially laid.
The filming took just 28 weeks, which included 16 days of delay, due to bad weather. Most of the battle scenes were filmed a year earlier in the summer months in sweltering heat.
Before filming 16,000 Soviet troops, including 14,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry troops were used and in addition there were 50 circus stunt riders from around the world. It was said that the director Sergei Bondarchuk was in command of the seventh largest army in the world.
With these troops they had to be trained in 1815 drill and battle formations as well as using sabres, bayonets and handling the cannons. 2,000 of the men were taught to load and fire muskets.
It was a family night out for me and after the film we even went and had a Wimpy meal after the showing at Leicester Square. (No McDonalds in them days)
This is the film that put me firmly into the wargaming world. Before the film “Waterloo” hit the big screen, Airfix had already started making the Waterloo series back in 1969 starting with the Highlanders and French Cuirassiers sets. No other plastic company made any Napoleonic sets then. More sets were to follow but then in 1979 it all came to an abrupt end, which was a great shame but today many plastic companies are making Napoleonic figures and may they continue to do so.