In one bloody day of death and slaughter – 18 June 1815 – a total of 52,000 men were killed in a battle that lasted 10 hours – The Battle of Waterloo. The events leading up to that battle and the massacre itself are the themes of this mammoth film.
Dino De Laurentiis decided to make Waterloo ten years before filming began, but not even his large production company could take on the mammoth project alone. Other film companies he approached were unwilling to accept such a huge gamble until he began talks with the Russians.
As a result, the Mosfilm organisation joined him in the vast undertaking. They contributed more than £4,000,000 of the costs, nearly 20,000 soldiers of the Red Army, a full brigade of Soviet cavalry, and vast numbers of engineers and labourers to prepare the location and facilities for 48 days of battle filming outside Uzhgorod in the Ukraine.
Costing over £12,000,000. Waterloo was, at the time, one of the most expensive films ever made. But had it been made in the West – without the Red Army’s assistance – it would have cost three times as much.
To recreate the battlefield authentically, the Russians bulldozed away two hills, deepened a valley, laid five miles of roads, transplanted 5,000 trees, sowed fields of barley, rye and wildflowers and reconstructed four historic buildings.
Months before filming commenced, 16,000 men of the Red Army began their training. They had to learn 1815 drill and battle formations, as well as the use of sabres, bayonets and the routine for handling cannon.
A selected 2,000 additional men were also taught to load and fire the early 19th-century muskets used at the Battle of Waterloo.
The crack Moscow Militia, cavalry renowned throughout the Soviet Union, portrayed the Scots Greys in their remarkable charge to glory and destruction. Day after day, they rehearsed each move for scenes in the film that are deeply memorable for their sweeping visual beauty.
Five Panavision cameras filmed the scene simultaneously – from trucks at ground level, from 100 ft towers, from a helicopter and from a railway built right across the location. Other cavalry scenes in the movie employed Soviet riders or Yugoslav stuntmen.
The Red Army men enjoyed their film work. During the making of the battle scenes, they lived in a huge encampment near the recreation of Waterloo, which Russian technicians had built on the rolling farmland outside Uzhgorod.
Each day, after an early breakfast, they marched to the film set, picked up their French, Allied or Prussian uniforms from the huge wardrobe building, and 15 minutes later, were in position with their units. They were commanded by officers who were given movement orders by Director Sergei Bondarchuk via walkie-talkie.
To communicate with actors and technicians during filming, the Director had four interpreters permanently at his side: one each for English, Italian, French and Yugoslav.
While the international cast and Red Army men were toiling in acres of mud (made by six miles of underground irrigation piping laid specially for the film), the camera crews often sweltered in the sun, with temperatures soaring to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Trees that had been planted for the film offered welcome, if sparse, shade.
Visitors to the battlefield location found it difficult to comprehend that the softly-spoken, tall, grey-haired man in the floppy hat and goloshes was, in fact, Sergei Bondarchuk, internationally famous director, idol of Russia’s stage and cinema, and a much-read philosopher.
He looked more like a farmer and worked without rest from dawn until late at night. One moment he would be climbing up a 100 ft tower to check a camera angle; the next, he would be discussing a finer point of Napoleon’s character with Rod Steiger – or swapping colourful jokes with the men of the Red Army.
Obviously at his best when dealing with complicated mass action sequences, Bondarchuk completed 28 weeks of filming on Waterloo with only 16 days’ delay – principally due to bad weather.
There are the inevitable historical inaccuracies, but considerably fewer than in films like Cromwell.
The incident during the night of 17/18 June when Wellington catches a soldier of the 27th Inniskillings with a looted pig in his knapsack could not have happened. Wellington spent that night writing orders in his main headquarters in Waterloo village, three miles away, and the 27th did not arrive anywhere near the battlefield until well into the morning of 18 June.
In any case, Wellington would not have promoted the man – his views on looting were well known.
At the beginning of the battle, Napoleon is seen pointing at Hougoumont Farm and ordering a diversionary attack there. Hougoumont tied up far more French troops than it should have, all day and to no avail, precisely because Napoleon could not see the farm from his command post and was unaware of what was happening there.
The famous charge of the Union and Household heavy cavalry brigades against d’Erlon’s French corps is exciting and dramatic – although it seems that only the Scots Greys took part – but they were certainly not galloping on the day.
The previous night’s rain had produced so much mud that no horse would have been capable of more than a slow canter, and that for a short distance only.
The same point applies to the French cavalry charges against the Allied right flank – wonderfully filmed and a choreographic and organisational triumph. In reality, by the time the French came over the Allied ridge, they were going at no more than a laboured trot.
The end result was a visually stunning film of absolutely epic proportions. Sadly it was a commercial flop at the box office. It deserved much better.
The finest line in the film is when the immutably deadpan Lord Uxbridge (Terence Alexander) falls foul of some grapeshot and declares to Wellington, “By God, Sir, I’ve lost my leg.” Wellington responds, “By God, Sir, so you have.”
It is a joy to confirm that those lines are historically accurate. The leg was buried in a nearby garden and became a tourist attraction.
Waterloo was produced at the same time as Stanley Kubrick was preparing a film on the life of Napoleon. When Waterloo failed at the box office, Kubrick’s backers bowed out, and his film was never made.
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington
King Louis XVIII
Gen. Sir Thomas Picton
Duchess of Richmond
Marshal Michel Ney
William De Lancey
Sir William Ponsonby
Marshal Gebhard Blucher
Vicomte Pierre Cambronne
Lord Richard Hay
Veronica De Laurentiis
Sir John Colborne