The Duke of Wellington may have believed that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Napoleon was sure that the French General Staff had failed him. Sergei Bondarchuk has another idea. Though the English and French exchanged considerable fire and shed small oceans of blood, they had very little to do with the outcome. The beau stratagem was performed by old General Blücher and his vindictive Prussians. They and they alone are responsible for the outcome in Waterloo, or, as its subtitle might read, History Revised for Anglophobes.
Russian Director Bondarchuk took a brief, withering look at Napoleon swallowed by the long Moscow winter in War and Peace. But that was on home grounds. This time, on western European turf, he rather favors the little Corsican with properly heroic proportions. But he gives the British aristocracy only the back of his hand. Every man Jack of them is portrayed as an arbitrary prig, none more so than Wellington (Christopher Plummer). Yet even these lead soldiers give more credible performances than Rod Steiger in his oppressive, self-congratulatory Napoleon. Scene after marching scene, every familiar Steigerian trick passes in review: the pop eyes, the mouth like a gunny sack with the strings drawn, and below all, the voice that CLIMBS TO A BELLOW AND THEN falls to a portentous whisper.
In War and Peace, Bondarchuk found himself at home with war and inept with peace. In Waterloo, he again directs less than he deploys. Psychological insight is conveyed by closeups of the stars' eyes, interminable crosscuts from the Duke of Wellington to Napoleon Bonaparte and fatuous "voiceover" soliloquies, like Napoleon's: "This Englishman has two qualities that I admirecaution, and above all courage."
But once the battle begins, the centuries are sheared away and the red-and bluecoats are recalled with harrowing accuracy. The serried ranks of French overflow the British positions. The infantry companies form huge squares, firing at an enemy that seems, like dragon's teeth, to sow new fighters as the old ones tumble. And mud undoes both sides. Aerial cameras traverse the horizon, catching cannon and cavalry as they give the battle almost Tolstoyan sweep and power.
Eagle's View. It is, unfortunately, a fleeting triumph. Almost too late for Wellington but none too soon for the viewer, the Prussians, all teeth and bayonets, burst from the woods to end the battle. As they do, the score blares a Haydn anthem. The theme, Bondarchuk is well aware, became the melody for Deutschland über Alles. The subtlety of that touch matches H.A.L. Craig's screenplay and Steiger's Napoleon.
Waterloo is not without its educational value, though even that would have been enhanced by a clearer map than the one Wellington uses; the youthful student or amateur will at least learn the elementary strategies of the period and enjoy an eagle's view of the battle that changed Europe's life. As for the golden history and legend, they lie buried beneath this delayed replay of a primer on strategy.