Tag: Napoleonic era

Waterloo (1970)

Rod Steiger chews the scenery as Napoleon in this epic restaging of Waterloo

Director: Sergei Bondarchuk

Cast: Rod Steiger (Napoleon Bonaparte), Christopher Plummer (Duke of Wellington), Orson Welles (Louis XVIII), Jack Hawkins (Lt-General Thomas Picton), Virginia McKenna (Duchess of Richmond), Dan O’Herlihy (Marshal Michel Ney), Rupert Davies (Colonel Gordon), Philippe Forquet (Brigadier-General Bédoyère), Ian Ogilvy (Colonel De Lancey)

In 1970 there was no CGI. Want to stage a battle scene? Well you’re going to have to use real people, rather than populating your screen with pixel soldiers. I’ve always had a fondness for epic films of this era, where you look at the screen and know everything is real. And one of the best examples of this battle-heavy genre is this 1970’s chronicle of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Because in 1970 the only way to recapture the battle on camera was effectively to re-fight it with a cast of tens of thousands of extras and horses, across a film set the size of the original battlefield. Can you imagine anyone attempting that today?

An international co-production, the film throws together an eccentric hodgepodge of actors. No more than you would expect of a film co-financed by Italy and the Soviet Union, shot in English, directed by a Ukrainian (with a team of four translators) with a lead actor from New York and the cast stuffed with dubbed actors from across Europe. In fact the slight air of Euro-tackiness about the film is one of the things I sort of love about it.

Rod Steiger as Napoleon delivers the sort of OTT performance he loved to give, capturing the self-aggrandising, larger-than-life nature of the Emperor while frequently chewing the scenery and oscillating between whispers and shouting. It’s perhaps no more than you would expect when playing a man whose entire life was a stage-managed performance of dangerous charisma. It does though make a nice contrast with Christopher Plummer who, perhaps aware of who he was working with, goes for an archly low-key, even wry touch, as the more austere Wellington.

The film covers the time period of Napoleon’s Hundred Days, from his arrival from Elba to the final defeat at Waterloo (with a neat prologue showing an exhausted Napoleon accepting he must abdicate and head into exile in 1814). Much of the first half hour is a showpiece for Steiger’s bombastic Napoleon. Few other characters get a look in (Welles cashes another of his cheques for one-scene cameos, as a bloated Louis XVIII fleeing into exile). To be honest, much of the first half of the film is a slightly stodgy (more-or-less) faithful trot through historical events leading to the battle.

But this is really to set the table for the film’s central appeal, which is that astonishing recreation of the battle itself. Shot in the Ukraine, the Soviet Union (as their part of the deal) effectively recreated the landscape of Waterloo, bulldozing hills, planting thousands of trees, sowing fields and laying over six miles of drainage to help create the muddy fields. On top of which, the USSR threw in 17,000 troops to serve as extras (insanely impressive, even considering it’s only a fraction of the nearly 191,000 troops involved at various stages in the battle).

Marshalling all this was Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk. Used to commanding film sets like this – he had previously directed a four-part version of War and Peace, where similar number of Soviet troops had recreated Austerlitz and Borodino – Bondarchuk certainly knows how to show the money is all on screen. Aerial shots and long tracking shots take in regiments of soldiers taking up position. Cavalry charges of hundreds of horses are brilliantly shot. The French cavalry charge against the British infantry squares is stunning in its scale and size. Everywhere you look, wide-angled shots demonstrate the depth of extras, the vast scope of the battle and the huge numbers of soldiers marching across screen. If nothing else it’s a superb marshalling of resources.

Bondarchuk brings a number of stylistic flourishes from his War and Peace to the film here. Sadly many of these choices have dated badly – and even at the time, looked a little silly. Interior monologues are demonstrated with close-ups and the sound of actors whispering over the soundtrack (although Bondarchuk also mixes this up with a prowling Napoleon addressing the camera directly). The film loves crash-zooms and fast wipes – one crash zoom generates giggles as it zooms in on Napoleon as he turns fast to face the camera after particularly bad news. Bondarchuk at times drains out the noise of the battle to focus on small details, most notably in the British cavalry charge. It gives moments of the film an odd dreamy film, particularly striking because most of it is so baked in realism.

To be honest the film is workmanlike, rather than inspired, with all the focus on marshalling the thousands of extras. There are moments of character for both Napoleon and Wellington – flashes of doubt, insecurity, fear are mixed in with supreme confidence. The film also hits a neat line in the horrors of war. The camera tracks along the mangled bodies after the battle, while at the peak of the clash a British soldier has a mental collapse, breaking from his square to bemoan “Why are we killing each other?” Not exactly subtle, but it works.

But the film’s main appeal is that scope – and its breath taking. The film itself is more to look at than think about, but with the detail of its recreation of the battle makes it a must for any Napoleonic history buff. Peter Jackson has said his own cavalry charges in Lord of the Rings were inspired by this film – the difference being Jackson’s horses were CGI, while Bondarchuk literally charged hundreds of horses direct at the camera. And you won’t see scope like that anywhere else.

And that’s partly because the film was a bomb, putting an end to such huge scale films as this and also leading to Stanley Kubrick’s plans for a Napoleon biopic being cancelled. Perhaps the worst part of its legacy.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Russell Crowe captains in the marvellous Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Director: Peter Weir

Cast: Russell Crowe (Captain Jack Aubrey), Paul Bettany (Dr Stephen Maturin), James D’Arcy (First Lt Thomas Pullings), Robert Pugh (Master John Allen), Max Pirkis (Midshipman Lord William Blakeney), Max Benitz (Midshipman Peter Myles Calamy), Lee Ingleby (Midshipman Hollom), Richard McCabe (Mr Higgins), David Threlfall (Preserved Killick), Billy Boyd (Barret Bonden), Bryan Dick (Joseph Nagle), Joseph Morgan (William Warley), George Innes (Joe Plaice), Mark Lewis Jones (Mr Hogg)

There’s a reason so much of our everyday language comes from naval terms. There was a time when Britannia ruled the waves: and for almost as long we’ve had a history of stories of great fictional sailors. If your archetype is Hornblower, then following close behind is Patrick O’Brian’s 21-novel sequence following the career of Captain Jack Aubrey and his surgeon/spy friend and colleague Stephen Maturin. There have been many, many attempts to bring this series to the screen, but you could never have expected that the eventual film would be as triumphant as this. I saw this film on my birthday years ago – the same day I was thrown a surprise birthday party – and I enjoyed it so much that just seeing that would have been treat enough, even without the surprise party (which was also marvellous).

It adapts elements from several O’Brian books – principally elements of the first, Master and Commander,and the tenth, The Far Side of the World, (hence the unwieldy title). The film throws us into the mid-point of Aubrey’s (Russell Crowe) career, with the captain of the Surprise tasked with protecting British interests in the Southern oceans from the onslaught of the French ship Acheron during the Napoleonic wars. Early skirmishes find Aubrey and the Surprise on the back foot, out-matched and out-gunned by the more modern, sleeker, more powerful French ship (quickly known as “the Ghost” by the crew, stunned at her ability to catch the Surprise on the hop). As well as following Aubrey’s struggle to best the Acheron, the film also explores the complex relationships on board during the dangerous mission, and specifically Aubrey’s close friendship with Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), ship’s surgeon, naturalist, sceptic and his confident.

Peter Weir’s film is, I’ll say it here, a masterpiece of both boys-own adventure and action, but also of the intriguingly warm and human relationships (and also the stresses and strains) that come when you throw a group of nearly two hundred men in close confines together for months at a time. It’s also a masterclass in authentic world creation. You can see in seconds the time, effort, research and imagination that have gone into recreating the world, the rules and the structure of the ship and its crew – and it has paid off in spades. There is not a foot put wrong, either in the recreation of the ship described in the books (the early shots of the film, the camera panning through the decks of the ship, capture everything from the geography of the ship to the names of the individual cannons) or the world of the navy. 

Weir’s film is technically superb. The photography is beautiful, the sound and editing totally immersive. Weir understands the detail counts for nothing, if the actual action of sailing, the dramatization of man’s struggle with the wind and water, isn’t engrossing. Not a single sequence in the film that shows the ship at sea – struggling with wind, tides, storms, fog and mist – falls flat. You feel like you are there, being buffeted by wind and rain, living every beat of the dangers the men face from the elements. The professionalism and skill of the sailors is brilliantly captured by the actors – who practically lived as sailors for the months of filming – and, with the music superbly worked to complement the adversity the sailors overcome, the scenes of naval skill are brilliantly done. I love them – it almost makes me want to become a sailor (almost). 

Master and Commander also works as a superb study of men, and brilliantly brings to life the two heroes from the book. Russell Crowe is wonderful as Aubrey, the film expertly using his charisma. Aubrey is a natural leader who adjusts and adapts his style to meet the needs of the men he deals with. He’ll share pun-filled gags at the dining table about his personal encounters with Nelson – but follow it up with a sincere anecdote of Nelson’s patriotism when he sees that something else is needed to avoid disappointing a young midshipman. With some men he’ll take a firm line, with others he will try words of encouragement. He’s an inventive and flexible thinker, able to adapt his plans and ways of working to meet new challenges and shows no pride or rigidity in his planning.

We also find out much about him from his genuine, heartfelt friendship with Stephen Maturin, his intellectual surgeon. Embodied damn-near perfectly by Paul Bettany, in one of those performances that feels like the character has literally walked from the pages of the book. Maturin and Aubrey’s friendship gives the film its heart. Genuinely close, with the one often teasing the other (usually around naval rules and regulations, around which Maturin displays a playful lack of understanding) they also speak freely to each other, and with honesty. When Maturin feels Aubrey is pushing the crew too hard in his obsession to best the Archeron he will speak up; when Aubrey feels the need to remind Maturin that a promised naturalist trip to the Galapagos will need to be cancelled due to the demands of war (“We do not have time for your damn hobbies sir!”) he feels no reluctance to say so. It’s a friendship that bobs and weaves through the tensions that come from almost permanent contact, but it’s a true, very strong bond that sees both men going to great lengths in the film to make sacrifices of the things they hold dearest for the sake of each other. 

And we see a lot of how they think in their shared mentorship of young midshipman (barely a teenager) Lord Blakeney, played with a superb assurance by Max Pirkis. From Aubrey, Blakeney learns the confidence, authority and flexibility needed for command. From Maturin he learns the intellectual curiosity and humanity that broadens and widens his horizons. It’s a reflection that, as a team, the two men make one marvellous man. 

Weir’s film also shows that the pressures of command and responsibility, worn so lightly (it seems at times) by Aubrey, can also crush men. As if in contrast to Blakeney’s growing confidence, the film also throws in Midshipman Hollom (played with tragic weakness by Lee Ingleby), a man approaching his thirties who has missed all the opportunities to become the man he would want to be. Nervous, weak, eager to please but insecure and uncertain of himself – exactly the qualities that automatically alienate sailors yearning to put their faith and trust into a leader – Hollom is a man who can listen to everything Aubrey has to say about becoming a leader, but has not the strength of character to implement it. And, strikingly, the film also shows that this weakness alienates not only the men who look to him for leadership, but also his companions and even (to a degree) Aubrey himself. In a single storyline, the weaknesses and dangers of this self-contained world (and the impact it can have on people) are superbly captured.

The film works alongside all this because its sense of adventure, of derring-do, of gripping, fist pumping bravery, skill and excitement of high-seas adventure grip the audience completely. There has never been a better film made about naval warfare or ships at sea (and there probably never will be). Mix that in with a superb story of personal relationships and men under pressure at sea (and the cast is uniformly brilliant), with sacrifice and also good fellowship at every turn, and you’ve got a simply faultless film. Master and Commander failed to launch a new franchise – and that has to be one of the greatest losses to film history that I can imagine. Weir’s direction is simply superb, Crowe and Bettany are perfect and the film is a brilliant adventure. I could watch it every day and never get tired of it.