Since it was my birthday yesterday, I hope you, my dear readers, will indulge me this little review. I have discussed in various other posts how I came to love history. To briefly recap, my dad would tell me about Napoleon’s campaigns. I also loved films from an early age, which should be fairly obvious. So if you had a budding interest in l’Empereur and film like me, the movie you turned to was Waterloo (1970). I was blessed with being able to travel to Belgium and the site where, in 1815, perhaps the most famous battle of all time was fought. We went for the 200th anniversary reenactment, and it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream of mine. Viewing the 1970 cinematic masterpiece is the next best thing.
Watching Waterloo does take a little background knowledge, though the film provides a little in its opening crawl. Basically, Napoleon (Rod Steiger), once master of all Europe, was in a bit of a pickle. Hey, kids, never invade Russia. Thus when he makes this mistake, he is driven back to gates of Paris by the combined forces of pretty much every country you can think of in Europe. The chief among these are the British, led by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (Christopher Plummer). Together, they force Napoleon to abdicate and he is taken to Elba. This is not to be permanent for a short time later he returns to France and reclaims rule over it. You would think the boogeyman had just been released for those same countries as before declare war not on France but on the person of Napoleon. The French Emperor has a slight advantage early on, though, as the total might of all the nations opposing him has yet to coalesce as one. The two closest are the Prussians, led by Field Marshall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher (Sergo Zakariadze) (who, by the way, once thought he was about to give birth to an elephant) and the British. Neither did they completely trust each other, though Wellington and Blücher seem to get along. Still, Napoleon seizes the opportunity to march north into Belgium to defeat each side in turn. However, the defeated stay in contact with each other, and this is going to prove crucial later. Anyway, we finally get to the big showdown between Wellington and Napoleon at the little Belgian town of Waterloo. I will not describe every maneuver to you, though rest assured that the level of accuracy in their depictions is superb. The key moment comes when, late in the day, sensing one last blow will finish off the British, Napoleon leads out his feared Old Guard for an attack. Unfortunately for the French, this is also the moment when the Prussians enter the battle, and their presence turns what is about to be a close victory into a total defeat. As the situation collapses around him, Napoleon is left wondering where is Marshall Grouchy (Charles Millot), the commander Napoleon had tasked with preventing the Prussians from doing exactly what they did. Wellington is left the master of a wrecked battlefield, and Napoleon slinks off in despair. It was the last either of them would see of war.
Watching modern war films and then Waterloo, you see that the former pales in comparison to the latter. For all the wonders of computer generated images (CGI), they never seem to be able to match the scope of this 1970 epic. As strange as it might seem, the only film that I can think of that comes close to what Waterloo accomplishes is Avengers: Endgame. Still, the superhero movie has a plasticity that gives away its fakeness, no matter how fun is the final battle. In Waterloo, each soldier you see in every shot is a real person, wearing a real costume, and in a real place. They were able to do this by turning to the Soviet Union, quite the feat given that this was smack in the middle of the Cold War. In turn, the Russians financed a quarter of the film’s budget, and loaned over 20,000 soldiers, not including cavalry. The result is pure, military history bliss. I thought it was pretty neat when I was a kid. When I learned that it is all real (though not quite to scale as there were close to 300,000 soldiers between all sides involved), it made it breath-taking.
There is not much to say about Waterloo from a faith perspective. There is one shot of a British soldier holding a Rosary before a French attack. There is also a scene where another British soldier wanders into the middle of the battle crying out his despair over why we have to kill each other. Unfortunately, the man is ran though by a French cavalryman soon thereafter. Yet his message is a good one to remember as a Christian. Warfare is never good. I spent many days studying battles from throughout the centuries. At one time, I almost entered the military. I thought there was glory in it. I was a fool. While I honor our service men and women, I pray that they do not have to be put into such life and death situations. Life is always worth it.