Waterloo is a huge, if little known epic dramatization of Napoleon’s last stand, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk. The scope and texture of Waterloo will be familiar to anyone who has seen the astounding battle scenes in Bondarchuk’s version of War and Peace. Waterloo is much shorter, but since it is about only a battle, there is every reason for the filmmakers to draw it out in detail, and to repeat what was most memorable about the earlier film. The characterizations of the Duke of Wellington (Christopher Plummer) and Napoleon (Rod Steiger) are ably written and performed, but the real star is the swirling reconstruction of the battle.
Effectively, Waterloo is two hours plus of moving battle paintings. As thousands of extras fight in precise formations, fires and explosions send clouds of smoke billowing across the landscape, and lines of cavalry charge at top speed, we are treated to practically a catalogue of rapturously extravagant painting conventions in movement. Made in 1970, and co-produced by the Soviet studio Mosfilm, this ecstatic visualization of the beauties of warfare nonetheless inevitably includes a bit of Vietnam-era anti-war rhetoric which, given the exquisite imagery, feels at best like hypocritical tokenism. You know, for example, that Wellington’s handsome young staff officer is doomed: he has to be killed so that the Duke (and we) will recognize the Terrible, Terrible Cost of Warfare. And when one of the British soldiers breaks down in the middle of the battle and asks “Why? Why? Why do we do this to one another?” (that’s almost a direct quote), the only answer can be “Because it’s so beautiful, of course.”
Such face-saving interjections have little to do with why we’re watching the movie and everything to do with justifying the spectacle that is the film’s raison d’être. That appeal exceeds rational explanation. When, for example, Bondarchuk evokes Lady Butler’s famous painting of the charge of the Scots Greys (above and left), the sheer kinesthetic energy, the unrestrained, corporeal thrill produced by the line of galloping horses, bright red uniforms and shining armor, obliterate any effort to describe or explain the experience.
This formal ecstasy is akin to the excitement of cheering your favorite sports team. (Indeed, one of the best examples of the experience is the chariot race in Wyler’s Ben Hur.) You can know rationally that there is no reason to be excited, that it is a contrivance, that you are responding as much to pure movement as anything else, but none of that matters. Our bodies take over our heads to instill the unadulterated joy of being alive, carrying all before it. Waterloo’s spectacular pleasure bursts the bounds of rational understanding, testifying to the power of visceral rapture. The film does not answer to literary notions of quality. Even less does it conform to dubious moralizing, but it is profound in ways beyond language, beyond empathy, beyond common sense.