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DVD cover
Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis
Written by H. A. L. Craig
Sergei Bondarchuk
Vittorio Bonicelli
Starring Rod Steiger
Christopher Plummer
Orson Welles
Jack Hawkins
Virginia McKenna
Dan O'Herlihy
Serghej Zakhariadze
Ian Ogilvy
Music by Nino Rota
Wilfred Josephs
Cinematography Armando Nannuzzi
Distributed by Columbia Pictures (non-USA)
Paramount Pictures (USA)
Release date(s) 1970
Running time 134 / 123 min.
Country  Italy
Soviet Union
Language Russian
Budget app. 35,000,000 USD
Preceded by War and Peace

Waterloo (Russian: Ватерлоо) is a 1970 Soviet-Italian film directed by Sergei Bondarchuk and produced by Dino De Laurentiis. It was the story of the preliminary events and the Battle of Waterloo, and was famous for its lavish battle scenes, which film maker Peter Jackson used as inspiration for the battle scenes of his popular The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. After it was made, the film failed to get box office receipts: later on TV and Video, it attracted an audience.

It starred Rod Steiger (portraying Napoleon Bonaparte) and Christopher Plummer (portraying the Duke of Wellington) with cameos by Orson Welles (Louis XVIII of France). Other stars included Jack Hawkins as General Picton, Virginia McKenna as the Duchess of Richmond and Dan O'Herlihy as Marshal Ney, whom he closely resembled.

The film includes some 15,000 Soviet foot soldiers as extras and 2,000 cavalrymen, some of which were Cossack horsemen ("it was said that, during its making, director Sergei Bondarchuk was in command of the seventh largest army in the world"[1]). Fifty circus stunt riders were used to perform the dangerous horse falls. These numbers brought an epic quality to the battle scenes. This is particularly true of the panning aerial shots of Marshal Ney's cavalry charging up and over the escarpment to break like a wave around the British squares. The slow motion section of the charge of the Scots Greys is a tribute to the painting "Scotland Forever!" by Lady Butler in Leeds City Art Gallery.



The film opens on Château de Fontainebleau in 1814. Paris is besieged by the Austrians and her allies. Napoleon Bonaparte (Steiger) is urged by his marshals to abdicate but he refuses, defiant. Upon hearing the surrender of his last army under Auguste Marmont he realises that finally all is lost and accepts the abdication pleas of his marshallate. He is banished to Elba, an island in the Mediterranean with a small army of 1,000 - Ney (O'Herlihy) calls it an honourable exile.

After a tearful farewell to the Old Guard, he is carted away. 10 months later he escapes from Elba and sails back to France. Ney, now under the allegiance of the restored Bourbon king (Welles) is asked to capture him at Grenoble. Ney agrees, eager to earn the respect of the court, who just the day before insulted his "low birth" wife by addressing her as "Madame" despite her title. He declares he'll bring Napoleon back to Paris "in an iron cage", which Louis XVIII says to himself is an exaggerated expression and an overreaction, typical for a militarist.

The two men meet on the road from Grenoble. Napoleon, sensing the mood of Ney's troops, goes forward unarmed and asks them if they really want to fire at him.

Instead they greet him with cries of "Vive l'Empereur!". Ney is instantly swayed and marches with him and his former soldiers. They return to Paris to a warm welcome by the people. King Louis has fled and the Hundred Days has begun.

Napoleon appoints Louis' former Minister of War, Marshal Soult Chief of Staff and he corresponds to the families of the deceased during the war and plans a campaign for the defence of France. He realises he will be attacked but genuinely offers peace to his enemies, who, once more, ignore his communiques and declare war.

Prussia and the United Kingdom's forces manoeuvre to counter Napoleon's expected thrust. The armies are not well coordinated and separate - to the joy of Napoleon who prepares to place his army between them and defeat one followed by the other.

Attention is now drawn to Wellington (Plummer), who attends the Duchess of Richmond's ball, where Picton and other generals are present. One of his soldiers is engaged to her daughter, and the Duchess begs they keep him away from the battlefield so her daughter won't "wear black before she wears white". The young officer declares he will bring back a cuirassier's helmet. Picton overhears and points out that if he ever meets a cuirassier, he'll be lucky to escape with his life, never mind a helmet.

The ball is interrupted by General Müffling (John Savident), who announces that Napoleon has crossed the Belgian border at Charleroi, much to Wellington's displeasure. He realises that Napoleon has got between himself and Blücher's Prussians and is on the road to Brussels. Hastily looking at his map, he decides that they will meet at Waterloo.

The soldiers are now on their way to Waterloo. Attention then turns to Marschall Blücher (Sergo Zaqariadze) who is seventy-two years of age and yet he commands the Prussian army and re-buffs advice by General Gneisenau to retreat. Wellington has done so, but Ney joins Napoleon rather than preventing their consolidation, which has not occurred yet. Wellington arrives at Waterloo, and asks Blücher to join him in the battle but Müffling wants a new horse to reach him. Wellington is not amused. Before this, an Irish soldier plunders a pig understandably for food. Looting is a capital offence but when Wellington catches him the looter claims the pig got lost and he was trying to find her relatives! Wellington tells de Lancey:

I do not know what they do to the enemy, but by God, they frighten me!

The Duke inspects his troops before battle.

Napoleon is in pain because of trouble with his stomach but when he is asked whether he wants the doctor, he refuses and following a few minutes, he orders his generals out of his outpost after going through tactics. A storm is raging outside with heavy rain pouring down.

The day of the battle dawns bright and dry and Napoleon invites his generals to breakfast. They hear the ringing of the local church bell and are initially surprised, until de la Bedoyère mentions that the pastor intends to go ahead with the sermon, despite the looming battle.

Napoleon is in a happy mood compared to the night before but now the commander of artillery brings bad news. The rains of the previous night have made it impossible to manoeuvre the French guns. The battle must be delayed until the ground dries. Napoleon, who agrees with Ney that they had fought with muddy boots previously, alone among his generals realises that each delay brings the Prussians closer. He is annoyed and leaves his breakfast to look at the battlefield.

The armies move into position opposite each other. Both commanders take turns to ride amongst their troops. Ponsonby marvels at the precision of the French formations, while Wellington refuses permission to an artillery officer to fire long range shot at Napoleon himself. "Leaders of armies have better things to do than fire at each other!"

The battle starts shortly after 11.30am with cannon fire from the French. Napoleon then sends a diversionary infantry attack against Wellington's right flank - the Chateau of Hougoumont - with the view to stretch the Allied line and to "see the quality of this English aristocrat [Wellington]". Wellington ignores this attack and keeps his line firm.

Napoleon sends the corps of d'Erlon up the ridge where Wellington's men are sheltering from the French guns. As they crest the rise they are locked in fierce fighting but are repulsed by British cavalry. Picton's troops plug a gap in the line but a French musket ball goes through his hat and enters his head, killing him. Meanwhile the British cavalry have chased the French all the way back to their lines but have become disorganised and blown. Napoleon sends his Polish lancers to attack them and William Ponsonby is killed after his horse gets stuck in mud.

As the battle proceeds Wellington re-organises his lines, moving them a few yards further back, so they are out of the reach of the French artillery. Ney sees the movement and believes they are retreating, so orders the French cavalry to advance on them. The Allied units form infantry squares to repel the massed cavalry attacks. A soldier by the name of Tomlinson (Oleg Vidov) loses his mind and wanders from his square and shouts out "How can we fight each other?". He is later seen dead. Richard Hay rallies the faltering squares, urging his men to "think of England" before he is struck by a musket ball and killed, much to the upset to Wellington, a good friend.

The attacks are repulsed and the French have no fresh troops left, yet Napoleon can see that the cavalry attacks have weakened the Allied line. He determines that the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte is the key to the battlefield and orders its capture. After fierce fighting, a French flag flies above it and Napoleon asks Soult to tell Paris that the battle and the war has been won.

Napoleon now sends forward the Imperial Guard to smash the failing allied line. Wellington is desperate. He asks for "night... or Blücher!" but Maitland's Guards Division is on the reverse of the slope, lying down unseen in the grass, waiting for the French. Wellington calls out to him "Maitland - now is your time!". The Guards stand up and at point-blank range fire volley after volley at the French column.

At the same time the Prussians burst onto the battlefield with Blücher's warning he will shoot any man he sees with pity for the French, and the Imperial Guard withdraws defeated, amid great consternation. French morale collapses and a general retreat begins, as Wellington gives the signal for a general advance.

The Imperial Guard forms squares to ward off the advancing allies as the French retreat quickly turns into a rout. To save their lives a British officer offers surrender terms to Pierre Cambronne (Yevgeny Samoilov), who replies with the famous "mot de Cambronne". Meanwhile, and a rare departure from real-life events, the British have brought up artillery under their flag of truce and now blast the French square, killing most in it.

In reality, as once the battle has been won, Blücher and Wellington met to signal the defeat of Napoleon, which is not seen in the film.[2]. Wellington is not cheered by his victory. As he surveys the battle scene he laments that "all my friends are dead!". When he sees that looters are already robbing the dead (they are scared off by gun fire) he remarks that "Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won".

Meanwhile Napoleon, surrounded by Ney, de la Bedoyère and his marshals, is seen leaving the battlefield in his coach, knowing that this time his days as Emperor really have ended.


Columbia Pictures took the unusual step of publishing a 28-page, full-colour pictorial guide when it released Waterloo in 1970. According to the guidebook, Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis had difficulty finding financial backers for the massive undertaking until he finally began talks with the Russians in the late 1960s and reached agreement with the Mosfilm organization. Final costs were over £12 million (UK) (equivalent to about US $38.3 million in 1970), making Waterloo, for its time, one of the most expensive movies ever made. Had the movie been filmed in the West, costs might have been as much as three times this. Mosfilm contributed more than £4 million of the costs, nearly 16,000 soldiers of the Soviet Army, a full brigade of Soviet cavalry, and a host of engineers and labourers to prepare the battlefield in the rolling farmland outside Uzhhorod, Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union).

To recreate the battlefield authentically, the Russians bulldozed away two hills, laid five miles of roads, transplanted 5,000 trees, sowed fields of rye, barley and wildflowers and reconstructed four historic buildings. To create the mud, more than six miles of underground irrigation piping was specially laid. Most of the battle scenes were filmed using five Panavision cameras simultaneously — from ground level, from 100 foot towers, from a helicopter, and from an overhead railway built right across the location.

Actual filming was accomplished over 28 weeks, which included 16 days of delay (principally due to bad weather). Many of the battle scenes were filmed in the summer of 1969 in often sweltering heat. In addition to the battlefield in Ukraine, filming also took place on location in Caserta, Italy, while interior scenes were filmed on the large De Laurentiis Studios lot in Rome. A massive quantity of period props were built by E. Rancati and hundreds of pairs of footwear were supplied by Pompei.[3]

Months before the cameras started filming, the 16,000 Soviet Army soldiers began training to learn 1815 drill and battle formations, as well as the use of sabres, bayonets and handling cannons. A selected 2,000 additional men were also taught to load and fire muskets. This army lived in a large encampment next to the battlefield. Each day after breakfast, they marched to a large wardrobe building, donned their French, British or Prussian uniforms and fifteen minutes later were in position. The soldiers were commanded by officers who took orders from director Sergei Bondarchuk by walkie-talkie. To assist in the direction of this huge, multi-national undertaking, the Russian director had four interpreters permanently at his side: one each for English, Italian, French and Serbo-Croatian.

Trivia and Mistakes

While the film portrayed the events of the 'Hundred Days' quite faithfully, including some allusions to and scenes from the Battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras, there were a few mistakes, presumably made for artistic purposes, and some characters act as ciphers for others. In the opening scene, where the Marshals are attempting to persuade Napoleon to abdicate, Marshal Soult is present: in 1814, Soult was commanding the defense of Toulouse against Wellington's Army.

During the scene where Napoleon is dictating letters for various people (mothers, enemy statesmen and his wife), one is for Josephine. However, by this time, Josephine had died (May 1814) and they, as a couple, never bore any children. This is likely a letter to his second wife (Marie Louise of Austria) concerning their son, Napoleon Francis. Immediately after this, at the Duchess of Richmond's ball (which itself was held in something more like a barn than the magnificent ballroom depicted [4]), there is an entirely fictional romantic subplot with Lord Richard Hay and one of the Duchess' daughters: none went by the name of 'Sarah', nor did any engage anyone by the name of Hay. At the ball itself, the style of dance and music is of the romantic period (with some baroque) while the events of the film are from the classical period.

More importantly, the movie depicts one of the battle's most decisive elements, the arrival of the Prussian army, rather superficially as they arrive to win the battle in short order: distant columns of Prussians are observed by the general staff of both armies, arriving on the battlefield at the very end of the day to change the outcome with a single blow. In reality, Prussians intervened in the battle and engaged the French in increasing strength.

Unlike the Prussians in the movie, arriving at the right flank of the French force, General Bulow's IV Corps attacked at the rear-right of the French lines at the village of Plancenoit. Napoleon first sent his reserve corps (under General Lobau) and then some elements of his Guard to engage and delay these Prussians, while maintaining his front line: these clashes in and around the village of Plancenoit were crucial to the battle. After a couple of hours, another Prussian corps arrived on the battlefield to link with the British army, sealing the fate of the French force.

William Ponsonby, before leading the British cavalry charge, tells Uxbridge that his father had been killed in battle by lancers, not least because he had been riding an inferior horse: in fact his father had been a politician who died of natural causes back in England[5], and he is simply foretelling his own fate in the battle.

The Duke of Gordon is depicted as leading his Gordon Highlanders into battle; in fact, the Duke was not present and the Lieutenant Colonel of the regiment, John Cameron of Fassifern, had been killed at the battle of Quatre Bras on 16th June[6].

There is also a discrepancy regarding the apparent ages of several officers. The majority of the French officers are portrayed as grizzled veterans in their fifties or older. However, while they were all indeed veterans, many of them were quite young: none of the senior officers portrayed were more than fifty years of age with the oldest being Grouchy (b.1766), with Drouot and Gerard still in their thirties.


Further reading


  1. ^ J G H Corrigan Waterloo (A reviews)
  2. ^ A picture exists of Christopher Plummer talking to Sergo Zaqariadze, both as their respective roles
  3. ^
  4. ^ Foulkes, Nick (2006). Dancing into Battle: A Social History of the Battle of Waterloo. Weidenfeld & Nicholson. p. 138. ISBN 0297850784. 
  5. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  6. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography


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