Saturday, August 16, 2008


(Movie Review)

I saw this movie in my video store, and I thought it would be a good way to learn some history. (The old couch potato’s method of studying).

There are a still a lot of gaps in my knowledge of history, and the period of the Napoleonic Wars is one of those gaps.
And actually I felt like I did learn a lot from this movie.

This 1970 movie opens with what looks like the end. Napoleon’s lost the Russian campaign, and Paris is now surrounded by a coalition of British, Prussian, Russian, and Austrian armies. Napoleon is forced to abdicate, agree to exile in Elba, and the Royal family is restored to the French throne. (Louis XVIII is played by Orson Welles, who appears to be well into his fat and grumpy years by this time).

But 10 months later, Napoleon escapes from Elba, and returns to France. Louis XVIII sends an army out to capture him, but the troops refuse to fire on Napoleon, and join up with him. Then Napoleon is once again Emperor of France, and Louis XVIII has to flee.

All this takes place within the first 20 minutes or so of the movie as but a prologue. The rest of the movie deals with the build up to, and the fighting of, the Battle of Waterloo, at which Napoleon fights his last great battle against the combined forces of the British (led by the Duke of Wellington) and the Prussians.

I don’t know enough to critique this movie, but it certainly felt like it was trying very hard to be accurate. As the armies clash, lose and gain ground over the field of Waterloo, the subtitles mention the time of the day this is going on, and identify which part of the battlefield the action is on. This gives the movie a very historical feel.
It reminded me of that “Gettysburg” (W) epic movie that came out about 15 years ago.

The big problem with “Waterloo” is that the director seems to have been too ambitious for his own good. You get the impression watching this movie that he wanted to create the “Citizen Kane” of war movies. Something that would sweep the academy awards and be analyzed over and over again in film schools.

But there’s a thin line between greatness and pretentiousness. A lot of the more inventive camera shots or angles just struck me as a director trying too hard. For example when Napoleon is confronted by Louis XVIII’s army after returning to France, he walks out slowly to talk to them with his hands held out. The camera zooms in and stays on his hand as he walks, then continues the close up as Napoleon puts his hand behind his back.
And there were a lot more creative shots like this. Maybe I’m just a bit of philistine about these things. I’m sure a film school student would have appreciated it more. But it struck me as pointless.

Also there’s a lot of overacting going on. At times you get the impression the actors think they’re on the stage acting out a Shakespeare play. An actor will start talking quietly, and then abruptly start shouting dramatically with their arms raised out in front of them, and then abruptly lower their voice again for dramatic effect.

Plus this is a long movie. Not quite “Lord of the Rings” long, but over 2 hours (long at the time). And a lot of the length of the movie seems to come from things like long zooming in shots, or dramatic silence between characters, or just a lot of other artsy things that could probably have been left on the cutting room floor.

When the Battle of Waterloo finally begins, the battle scenes are exciting, but they’re nothing special either. Obviously in the 1970s they couldn't compete with all the computer graphic battles of Hollywood today, but even by the standards of the times it seems a bit lacking. I remember watching “Spartacus” as a kid, for example, and those battle scenes can still hold their own against anything Hollywood has today.
(Granted the purpose of the two movies was different. “Spartacus” was intended as pure entertainment, “Waterloo” seems to be striving more for historical accuracy, for example showing which cavalry charge took place when and under what circumstances.)

Probably because this movie was made during the height of anti-war feeling during Vietnam, there are a few scenes which seem inserted just to placate the anti-war crowd. The most obvious of which is when a young British soldier suddenly loses his cool during a battle, breaks out of formation, wanders around during the French cavalry charge shouting out repeatedly, “Why are we killing each other? We don’t even know each other. Why must we kill each other?”

Now, given my pacifist politics, I have no problem with anti-war messages in movies. But this was a bit too cheesy even for me. Plus, it didn't really fit with the rest of the movie, and felt like it had just been tacked on.
(Still, at the same time you do have to feel nostalgic for the days when Hollywood couldn't make a big war film without trying to acknowledge public opposition to war. Things sure have changed.)

Reading the wikipedia article, it appears this is actually a Russian film. Which is strange because it's all done in English with American and British actors (even the French characters speak English) but I guess it was a foreign film that was aiming for a larger audience. This perhaps explains why the battle scenes can't quite compete with Hollywood. (That's what I get for writing the review first, and doing my research second). It may also explain the different style of direction.
Also this review here points out a lot of the historical inaccuracies in the film.

Update Update March 15, 2016
This video review here is much more interesting and much more informative than anything I would ever write.  Watch this instead of reading my review.

Link of the Day
4,000 U.S. Deaths and a Handful of Images

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