Waterloo (1970 film)

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British DVD cover
Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis
Written by
  • H. A. L. Craig
  • Sergei Bondarchuk
  • Vittorio Bonicelli
Music by
Cinematography Armando Nannuzzi
Distributed by
Release date(s)
  • 1970 (1970)
Running time 134 / 123 min.
Country Italy
Soviet Union
Language Russian
Budget app. 35,000,000 USD

Waterloo (Russian: Ватерлоо) is a 1970 Soviet-Italian film directed by Sergei Bondarchuk and produced by Dino De Laurentiis. It depicts the story of the preliminary events and the Battle of Waterloo, and is famous for its lavish battle scenes.

It stars Rod Steiger as Napoleon Bonaparte and Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington with a cameo by Orson Welles as Louis XVIII of France. Other stars include Jack Hawkins as General Thomas Picton, Virginia McKenna as the Duchess of Richmond and Dan O'Herlihy as Marshal Ney.

The film includes some 15,000 Soviet foot soldiers and 2,000 cavalrymen as extras—it was said that, during its making, director Sergei Bondarchuk was in command of the seventh largest army in the world.[1] Fifty circus stunt riders were used to perform the dangerous horse falls. These numbers brought an epic quality to the battle scenes.


In 1814, after 20 years of military glory Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emperor of France, faces defeat at hands of the sixth coalition, the forces of Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia. In an attempt to save Paris from a supposed Russian retribution, Napoleon's marshals demand that he abdicates. Napoleon is initially hostile to the idea, but after hearing of the surrender of his last army he agrees.

However, he soon escapes his exile on the island of Elba and lands in France with 1000 men. The restored Bourbon King, Louis XVIII orders Napoleons former Marshal, Michel Ney to intercept him before he reaches Paris. However, upon sighting their former emperor, the soldiers (and later Ney himself) renounce Louis and rejoin Napoleon. In a matter of days Napoleon arrives in Paris to jubilant crowds and Louis is forced to flee for his life. However, despite his repeated requests for peace, the European powers immediately declare war.

Napoleon invades Belgium to quickly defeat the forces of Britain and Prussia, along with their allies in Western Europe piecemeal before they can unite. Attention now turns to the British, as Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, the commander of the British forces, attends the Duchess of Richmond's ball. One young officer, Lord Hay is engaged to her daughter, and the Duchess begs Wellington to keep him away from the battlefield. The ball is interrupted by the Prussian commander von Müffling (John Savident), who announces that Napoleon has crossed the border. Wellington realizes that Napoleon has got between himself and the Prussian army. The ball is immediately called off and Wellington decides to attempt a stand at the vital crossroads of Quatre-Bras, whilst at the same time openly admiring Napoleon's genius.

The French swiftly defeat the British and Prussian armies at Quarte-Bras and Ligny, respectively. Field Marshal Blücher, the commander of the Prussian army, goes against the advice of his staff to retreat and instead moves north to Wavre so as to maintain contact with Wellington. Napoleon, enraged that Ney has reported back instead of pursuing Wellington, divides his army in two. He send 30,000 men under Grouchy to pursue Blucher and keep the Prussians from rejoining the British. Napoleon then leads the rest of the French army against Wellington, who has fallen back to Waterloo.

Both armies take up positions during the night, as a heavy storm rages. Müffling arrives again, to inform Wellington that the Prussians are being followed by Grouchy, but there are no forces between Blucher and Wellington, which could allow the two allied armies to link up the following day. Napoleon, after an angry rebuke at his staff for Grouchy's apparent delay at the pursuit, is struck with severe stomach pain and falls asleep.

The next morning, his condition has improved, but his optimism is shattered when he is informed that the rain has made the ground too soft for the French cannon. The attack is delayed. The French armies advance onto the field, nonetheless and the battle starts shortly after 11.30 am with cannon fire from the French. Napoleon then sends a diversionary infantry attack against Wellington's right flank, where the British have turned the farmhouse of Hougoumont into a fort. However Wellington does not take the bait and refuses to weaken the center to support his flank.

Napoleon then sends his main infantry assault against the allied center. d'Erlon's corps advance up the ridge on which the British army is waiting and break through the line. Wellington orders General Picton to plug the gap, who successfully halts the French assault, though at the cost of his own life. The French corps are then repulsed entirely by Ponsonby's cavalry brigade; the renowned Scots Greys. Overconfident they charge the retreating French, and quickly become isolated from the rest of the Allied force. A swift counter-attack by Napoleon's Polish lancers cuts them to pieces, and Ponsonby himself is killed when his horse sinks in the mud and is caught by pursuing lancers.

As the battle proceeds, troops are spotted emerging onto the battlefield from the woods on the east - it is unclear at first whether they are French (Grouchy's force) or Prussians (Blücher's army), though Napoleon soon realizes they are Prussians, but keeps this from his army. He then suffers another bout of stomach pain and withdraws temporarily from the battlefield, leaving Marshal Ney in command. A reorganization of the Allied line is misinterpreted as a retreat by Ney, who then orders and personally leads a massed cavalry charge. Too late he realizes his mistake and the cavalry collide head on with the allied units, who have formed infantry squares. The attacks are repulsed, but the British suffer heavy losses, and despite Wellington's efforts, Lord Hay is killed as he rallies the men.

Napoleon returns and angrily rebukes his marshals for allowing Ney to attack without infantry support. However he sees the battle has worn down the British to the point where Wellington can no longer mount an effective resistance. The British garrison at the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte falls and Wellington's line wavers. The Imperial Guard is dispatched to smash the remaining force. Too late, Napoleon is informed that the Prussians have arrived, led by Blücher himself.

Wellington abandons his left flank, knowing it will soon be secured by the Prussians and concentrates all his forces in the face of the incoming guard. As the Imperial Guard advance over the hill, they meet head on with Maitland's troops on the other side, lying down unseen in the grass. At Wellington's command they rise up and fire lethal volleys at point-blank range into the French columns, forcing them back. The repulse of the Imperial guard devastates French morale, and the arrival of the Prussians finishes any chance the French had. Wellington ecstatically orders the entire Allied army to advance to finish them off, and the Imperial Guard forms squares in a last stand. Napoleon declares he will die with his men, but his marshals literally force him to withdraw. After refusing to surrender, the Imperial guard is blasted with artillery at close range and annihilated.

After the battle Wellington morosely wanders the field among the piles of dead, lamenting, "Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won". Meanwhile, Napoleon departs in a carriage for Paris, knowing that this time his days as emperor finally have come to an end.


Columbia Pictures published a 28-page, full-colour pictorial guide when it released Waterloo in 1970. According to the guidebook, Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis had difficulty finding financial backers for the massive undertaking until he finally began talks with the Russians in the late 1960s and reached agreement with the Mosfilm organization. Final costs were over £12 million (UK) (equivalent to about US $38.3 million in 1970), making Waterloo, for its time, one of the most expensive movies ever made. Had the movie been filmed in the West, costs might have been as much as three times this. Mosfilm contributed more than £4 million of the costs, nearly 16,000 soldiers of the Soviet Army, a full brigade of Soviet cavalry, and a host of engineers and labourers to prepare the battlefield in the rolling farmland outside Uzhhorod, Ukraine (then part of the Soviet Union).

To recreate the battlefield authentically, the Russians bulldozed away two hills, laid five miles of roads, transplanted 5,000 trees, sowed fields of rye, barley and wildflowers and reconstructed four historic buildings. To create the mud, more than six miles of underground irrigation piping was specially laid. Most of the battle scenes were filmed using five Panavision cameras simultaneously—from ground level, from 100 foot towers, from a helicopter, and from an overhead railway built right across the location.

Actual filming was accomplished over 28 weeks, which included 16 days of delay (principally due to bad weather). Many of the battle scenes were filmed in the summer of 1969 in often sweltering heat. In addition to the battlefield in Ukraine, filming also took place on location in Caserta, Italy, while interior scenes were filmed on the large De Laurentiis Studios lot in Rome. A massive quantity of period props were built by E. Rancati and hundreds of pairs of footwear were supplied by Pompei.[2]

Months before the cameras started filming, the 16,000 Soviet Army soldiers began training to learn 1815 drill and battle formations, as well as the use of sabres, bayonets and handling cannon. A selected 2,000 additional men were also taught to load and fire muskets. This army lived in a large encampment next to the battlefield. Each day after breakfast, they marched to a large wardrobe building, donned their French, British or Prussian uniforms and fifteen minutes later were in position. The soldiers were commanded by officers who took orders from director Sergei Bondarchuk by walkie-talkie. To assist in the direction of this huge, multi-national undertaking, the Russian director had four interpreters permanently at his side: one each for English, Italian, French and Serbo-Croatian.


In credits order.

Uncredited roles[3]

Trivia and mistakes[edit]

While the film portrayed the events of the "Hundred Days" quite faithfully, including some allusions to and scenes from the Battle of Ligny and of Quatre Bras, there were a few mistakes, presumably made for artistic purposes, and some characters act as ciphers for others. In the opening scene, where the marshals are attempting to persuade Napoleon to abdicate, Marshal Soult is present: in 1814, Soult was commanding the defence of Toulouse against Wellington's Army.

At the Duchess of Richmond's ball (which itself was held in something more like a barn than the magnificent ballroom depicted [4]), there is an entirely fictional romantic sub-plot with Lord Hay and one of the Duchess' daughters.

More importantly, the movie depicts one of the battle's most decisive elements, the arrival of the Prussian army, rather superficially as they arrive to win the battle in short order: distant columns of Prussians are observed by the general staff of both armies, arriving on the battlefield at the very end of the day to change the outcome with a single blow. In reality, Prussians intervened in the battle and engaged the French in increasing strength.

Unlike the Prussians in the movie, arriving at the right flank of the French force, General Bülow's 4th corps attacked at the rear-right of the French lines at the village of Plancenoit. Napoleon sent first his reserve corps (under General Lobau) and then the Second Foot Grenadiers, the second-most-senior corps of his Imperial Guard, to engage and delay these Prussians while maintaining his front line; these clashes in and around the village of Plancenoit were crucial to the battle; around 7:30 PM, another Prussian corps under Marshal Blücher arrived on the battlefield to link with the British army on the grounds of the inn La Belle Alliance, sealing the fate of the French force.

William Ponsonby, before leading the British cavalry charge, tells Uxbridge that Ponsonby's father had been killed in battle by lancers, not least because he had been riding an inferior horse: in fact his father had been a politician who died of natural causes back in England,[5] and he is simply foretelling his own fate in the battle.

The Duke of Gordon is depicted as leading his Gordon Highlanders into battle, and is described by the Duchess of Richmond as "uncle": in fact, he is a conflate character, representing the contributions of several members of the House of Gordon. The Duke at the time, the founder and colonel of the regiment, was the Duchess of Richmond's father, and he saw no active service overseas during the Napoleonic Wars; his son and the Duchess's brother, the Marquis of Huntly (later the 5th Duke) was a distinguished general, but held no command in the campaign, although anecdotal evidence suggests that he arrived during the aftermath of the battle; the senior representative of the family at the battle was in fact the Duchess's own twenty-three-year-old son, the Earl of March, who would eventually become the 5th Duke's heir in 1836, and who served as a major and an aide de camp to the Duke of Wellington; another branch of the family was represented by another ADC, Colonel Sir Alexander Gordon, aged twenty-eight or twenty-nine, the brother of the Earl of Aberdeen; in reality, both were young men similar in age and duty to Lord Hay. The field commander of the Gordon regiment during the campaign, Lieutenant Colonel, John Cameron of Fassiefern, had been killed at the battle of Quatre Bras on 16 June.[6] The acting commander of the regiment during the battle appears to have been Major Donald MacDonald of Dalchosnie.


The film was the fifth most popular "reserve ticket" movie at the British box office in 1971.[7] However it failed to recoup its cost. This, in part, led director Stanley Kubrick to abandon a film he was preparing on Napoleon. Post release saw the film gain popularity and received numerous positive reviews for its battle depiction. The film is rumoured to have originally been 4 hours long as shown in the Soviet Union. Several historical characters listed in the credits do not actually appear in the film, they are said to have been in scenes cut before release.[8] In this 'extended version', the chronology of Waterloo is said to have been much more detailed as well as more in depth coverage of the Battle of Ligny. However no extended version has ever been released. The film won two Bafta awards in 1971 (Best art direction and best costume design) and was nominated for a third (best cinematography.) The film was also novelized by Frederick E. Smith, with the content based on the screenplay.


  1. ^ J G H Corrigan Waterloo (A reviews)[dead link]
  2. ^ Waterloo (1970/I) – Company credits
  3. ^ Internet Movie Database entry
  4. ^ Foulkes, Nick (2006). Dancing into Battle: A Social History of the Battle of Waterloo. Weidenfeld &Nicholson. p. 138. ISBN 0-297-85078-4. 
  5. ^ Jupp, P. J. (2004). "William Brabazon Ponsonby (1744–1806)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/22506. 
  6. ^ Chichester, H. M.; Sweetman, John (reviewer) (2004). "Cameron, John (1771–1815)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/4446. 
  7. ^ Peter Waymark. "Richard Burton top draw in British cinemas." Times [London, England] 30 Dec. 1971: 2. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 11 July 2012.
  8. ^ Evans, Alun (2000) Brassey's Guide to War Films Potomac Books Inc

External links[edit]