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 dates
  • 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. Facing certain defeat, Napoleon's marshals gather and demand that he abdicate. At first Napoleon violently refuses, but after hearing of the surrender of his last army he agrees.

He is banished to the island of Elba with a personal guard of 1000 men, but manages to escape and returns to France. Ney (O'Herlihy), now serving the monarchy of the restored Bourbon king (Welles), is tasked with recapturing him. The two French armies meet, but the royal army and Marshal Ney immediately defect to Napoleon. King Louis is forced to flee as Napoleon triumphantly enters Paris. In response, the European powers immediately declare war.

Napoleon invades Belgium to quickly defeat the Allied forces piecemeal before they can unite. Meanwhile, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (Plummer), 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 forces. Hastily looking at his map, he decides to attempt to halt the French at Waterloo.

The French swiftly defeat the British and Prussian armies at Quatre-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 let Wellington escape, divides his army in two. He directs 30,000 men under Grouchy to pursue Blucher and keep the Prussians from rejoining the British, while he leads his remaining force against Wellington.

The night before the battle a storm rages with heavy rain pouring down. Napoleon suffers severe stomach pain, but refuses to call a doctor. Müffling arrives again to inform Wellington that Grouchy's army is pursuing the Prussians, and that Blücher will have an opportunity to link up with Wellington the next day. Dawn finally arrives and Napoleon's condition improves, but his mood sours when told the rain has soaked the battlefield and the French cannon cannot be moved. The battle is delayed in an attempt to let the ground dry.

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—the Chateau of Hougoumont—with the view to weaken the Allied line, but Wellington refuses to commit extra forces and keeps his line firm.

Napoleon then sends his main infantry assault against the allied center. d'Erlon's corps advance up the ridge and break through the British 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 are then repulsed 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 lancers cuts them to pieces, and Ponsonby himself is killed when his horse sinks in the mud and he is caught by pursuing lancers.

As the battle proceeds, troops are spotted emerging onto the battlefield from the woods to the east, and it is unclear at first whether they are French (Grouchy's force) or Prussians (Blücher's army). 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 orders and leads a massed cavalry charge. The allied units form infantry squares and the attacks are repelled with heavy losses. In the course of the battle Lord Hay is killed as he rallies the British troops.

Napoleon returns and angrily rebukes his marshals for allowing Ney to attack without infantry support. However he sees the battle has worn down the Allied line, and hopes that Wellington can no longer mount an effective resistance. The British garrison at the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte falls, and Napoleon dispatches the Imperial Guard to smash the remaining force.

As the Imperial Guard advance over the hill, they meet head on with Maitland's Guards Division on the reverse of the slope, lying down unseen in the grass. At Wellington's command they rise up and fire point-blank 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, and the Imperial Guard forms squares in a last stand. Napoleon declares he will die with his men, but he is dragged by his marshals from the field. After refusing to surrender, the Imperial guard is blasted with artillery at close range and annihilated.

After the battle, Wellington wanders the field among the piles of dead, lamenting the cost of victory. Meanwhile, Napoleon departs in a carriage for Paris.


In credits order.

Uncredited roles[2]


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.

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.

Historical inaccuracies[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 [3]), there is an entirely fictional romantic sub-plot with Lord Hay and one of the Duchess' daughters.

As Wellington awaits Napoleon's assault at Waterloo, his men start singing "Boney was a Warrior." This song is a sea chanty written no earlier than the 1820's, and so could not have been sung in 1815. [4]

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 receive 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.

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. ^ Corrigan, Major J G H, Waterloo (review), Channel 4, archived from the original on 27 March 2009 
  2. ^ "Internet Movie Database entry". IMDb. 29 October 1970. Retrieved 13 September 2014. 
  3. ^ Foulkes, Nick (2006). Dancing into Battle: A Social History of the Battle of Waterloo. Weidenfeld &Nicholson. p. 138. ISBN 0-297-85078-4. 
  4. ^ http://www.songfacts.com/detail.php?id=22254
  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]