A regiment of at least a thousand redcoat soldiers forms on a hill in the distance. It arranges itself in lines, maneuvering into position. Cannons deploy. Sergeants and officers command their troops, and a tense silence presages forthcoming bloodshed. There are too many extras to count, all uniformed in Napoleonic attire. This must be the largest army ever assembled in cinema
Then the camera pans to the left. Another hill is revealed. Even more soldiers. It keeps going. More. Then even more, and more. Soon it becomes clear that the first regiment was not even one tenth of the overall force: there are at least a dozen more.
There are so many extras in this single take that one might assume them CGI at first glance.
But they aren’t. We can be sure of this: the movie was released in 1970. It’s called Waterloo (dir. Sergei Bondarchuk).
In my previous post, I argued that it is a sense of authenticity, rather than realism, that gives power to historical dramatizations. Authenticity can be created in a variety of ways that aren’t necessarily bound to historically accurate clothing, speech patterns, or chronology.
It must be said, however, that realism is also a tool for building authenticity. No better example exists for this than Waterloo. Without any question it is the most realistic historical film ever made.
In this joint Soviet-Italian production, starring Rod Steiger as Napoleon Bonaparte and Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington, we witness Napoleon’s final Hundred Days in power after his return from Elban exile in 1815. We see the events leading up to the eponymous battle from both British and French perspectives. Writer-director Bondarchuk refuses to take sides and depicts all as it really occurred, with only minor adjustments to fit the events of Waterloo into a single digestible narrative.
Steiger and Plummer give immaculate performances. Both portraying the most significant military leaders of the 19th Century, they both emanate charisma, offering the force of personality required for a great general while still providing tender moments of vulnerability in private. It is rare for a film to capture historical people so well and with such nuance. That Waterloo does it twice is truly remarkable.
But there’s so much more. The battle scenes—which constitute the entire second half of the film—are realistic. The costumes are accurate. And the scale is incomprehensible. Bondarchuk and producer Dino De Laurentiis recruited fifteen thousand extras from the Red Army to play the infantry of both sides, in addition to dozens of circus riders and a few thousand cavalrymen. See it to believe it.
For fanatics of the Napoleonic Wars, it is hard to imagine any other film capturing what it might have been like at the Battle of Waterloo so well. No one would try using so many extras these days—there’s no Red Army to coopt for free anymore—and CGI will never look as real as Marshal Ney and his horse rounding a ridge with two thousand armored cuirassiers behind.
There’s another reason why no one will make a movie like Waterloo again, though: it was a flop. A disastrous flop. Critics hated it (and still do). Audiences were ambivalent. Maybe this should be no surprise. There’s no sex, there’s no leather, there’s no editorializing. There is only history as it really was, as best as we can discern it. At the end of the battle, the once-verdant field now pockmarked with cannonballs and strewn with thousands of corpses, there is no celebration of the British victory. There is no concise thematic message or conclusive moral for the viewer to take away, other than an illustration of the tragedy for everyone involved.
For the vast majority of people who care little for Napoleon’s neuroses, for the Iron Duke’s witticisms, for period accurate French carabinier helmets and for the truthful depiction of British soldiers maneuvering into square formation, Waterloo’s historicity adds little. Its complete failure to resonate with anyone besides those already invested in the subject matter is a testament to the primacy of historical authenticity over realism in commercial cinema. At the end of the day, it’s the people who count. A realistic chronology of the past, with a faithful recreation of time and place, can do more to build up barriers between us and the past than knock them down. For the average viewer, there’s no point in putting a cuirassier in the correct armor. He just as well might be wearing leather.
Today Waterloo is orphaned, available only on YouTube, forgotten by mostly everyone. Watch it here.