1970s, Action-Adventure, Historical, War

Waterloo (1970)

Director: Sergei Bondarchuk
Screenwriters: Sergei Bondarchuk, Vittorio Bonicelli, H.A.L. Craig

By Roderick Heath

In Memoriam: Christopher Plummer 1929-2021

Shrugged off by critics and moviegoers when it was released in 1970, Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo is nonetheless one of those white elephants of cinema history that today demands a certain awe. A movie where the making of it was damn near as epic an event as the history it depicts, it’s also one of those rare instances where a mega-budget production and genuine directorial vision coincide. Waterloo began life with the ever-ambitious Italian producer Dino de Laurentiis wanting to make a film about the legendary clash that drew a curtain on Napoleon Bonaparte’s military career and an age of European history, originally hiring John Huston to direct it. But De Laurentiis had difficulty raising the necessary budget for such a monumental undertaking, even at a time when large-scale international co-productions were becoming fairly common. When he did eventually find production partners it came from an unusual direction. The Soviet Union’s state film production company Mosfilm agreed to join forces with De Laurentiis, helping stage the battle scenes in Uzhhorod, Ukraine, and supplying the largest number of extras ever assembled for a film. 17,000 Red Army soldiers played the clashing forces, whilst army engineers laboured to alter a stretch of Ukrainian farmland into a better approximation of the Belgian farmland that served as the battlefield. The film finished up rivalling in costs what was then the most expensive film ever made, 1963’s Cleopatra.

Waterloo’s eventual director Bondarchuk was a Ukrainian actor who had been a popular and lauded leading man in Soviet cinema from the 1940s, and established himself as a talented filmmaker with his feature directing debut, Fate of a Man (1959). Bondarchuk was and remains best known outside Russia for both directing and starring in a colossal seven-hour adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, released in instalments through 1965-7. That work was realised through vast amounts of money and resources poured into it by the Soviet government in its determination to outdo the 1956 King Vidor version and make waves on the international cinema scene. The immense vision of that film saw Bondarchuk prove himself a master of handling colossal surveys of manpower and infrastructure, as well sufficiently intelligent and fine in touch to put across the human drama as well, although given the running time Tolstoy’s drama was surprisingly often muted in favour of sheer spectacle. Waterloo allowed Bondarchuk to at least provide a kind of historical sequel. Waterloo’s script was chiefly credited to the Irish former journalist and critic H.A.L. Craig, who had worked for De Laurentiis before including for the odd, interesting war film Anzio (1968), although others including Bondarchuk made contributions at different points in development.

Making a film about one of the most legendary and pivotal moments in history and two of its most powerful personalities in Napoleon Bonaparte and Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, is one of those challenges cinema’s maximalist creative talents can hardly resist but rarely get to tackle. Indeed, at the time of its release Stanley Kubrick was deeply involved in developing his own film about Napoleon, only for Waterloo’s box office failure to help foil it. To play the leads De Laurentiis hired two actors it’s hard to imagine being more different in performing style and screen presence whilst still being major stars and regarded talents. The Method-trained Rod Steiger, just passing the zenith of his movie career after winning an Oscar for In The Heat of The Night (1967) and gravitating increasingly to appearing in European films, was hired to play Napoleon, and the Shakespearean-schooled Christopher Plummer as Wellington. Steiger’s Napoleon dominates the film initially, offered as a tragic antihero pushed again and again to try and recapture lost glory. The opening scene finds Napoleon’s Marshals, including Ney (Dan O’Herlihy), Soult (Ivo Garrani), and Grouchy (Charles Millot), stalking their way purposefully through the corridors of a palace where Napoleon is trying to conduct his final, desperate resistance against the invading allied armies, their boots rapping on the tiles like a drumbeat of portent.

Bondarchuk’s genuine creative touch as a director is plain from this moment, deftly diagramming the game of tense confrontation that unfolds between the Emperor and his Marshals, matched to Steiger’s performance with its fast alternations of affect. Napoleon moves with speed through brief flare-ups of his old fighting pith, world-weary exasperation, tight-wound contempt, and eruptions of violent declamation. “You know what the throne is, Ney?” he laughingly asks the Marshal when the cavalry leader tells him he has to give it up, “The throne is an over-decorated piece of furniture. It’s what’s behind the throne that counts.” Claiming it’s his genius and will that has put them all where they are, he starts mocking the Marshals: “You all stand before me waving a piece of paper, crying ‘abdicate, abdicate’,” before bellowing with window-rattling vehemence, “I will not!” over and over, exposing all at once his genuine, force-of-nature strength of will and streak of childish tantrum-throwing. As he settles in a chair by a fireplace an officer enters and whispers to him, and Bondarchuk moves in for an intimate, shadowy close-up of Napoleon’s eyes as his voice questions in a whisper, “All his men?” Clearly he’s just been delivered awful news that finally deflates the will he so loudly espouses, and he silently stands, signs his abdication and walks out. The officer explains that another Marshal has just surrendered with the last of his armies, “his last hope.” The Marshals all suddenly turn as if stung and see Napoleon looking back through the doors at them with glowering resentment mixed with bone-deep pain and defeat.

Napoleon heads out into the courtyard where the members of his old Imperial Guard are at attention, and he gives a final, grand bit of theatre to them as he calls them “My children…my sons!” and wipes away his tears on the regimental flag. Finally he climbs into his carriage and rolls away to exile on Elba, seen as a hazy blotch of land in the distance under the opening credits. Soon titles inform us Napoleon escapes the island and lands on the mainland with a thousand men. The restored Bourbon king, Louis XVIII, played in a brief but effective cameo by Orson Welles, is presented as a languid, balloon-bodied humpty-dumpty in fancy clothes, barely stirred by the news his arch-enemy has escaped. After Ney, who like most of the other Marshals has kept his rank in the restoration, promises to bring his former master back “in an iron cage,” Louis mutters in quiet disdain: “How they exaggerate, all these – these soldiers…Nobody asked for that.” Ney sets out with an army division to intercept Napoleon but when the two forces square off, Napoleon, with a calculated but also genuine show of bravery, waves down his own men and marches up to Ney and his, offering himself as target. After a silent, jittery stand-off, one soldier feints, breaking the spell, and Napoleon is joyously swept up by his former soldiers. Ney throws down his sword to Napoleon, who gives it back to him and, after a few needling comments, accepts him again as his penitent disciple.

Soon enough Napoleon, vowing to displace “that fat King,” is swept into the Tuileries Palace after Louis flees it by a mob of Parisians, and he sets to work with what seems to be all his old energy and brilliance. And yet the Napoleon Steiger provides is not the romantic young culture hero of Jacques-Louis David’s paintings, if he ever existed, or even Abel Gance’s, but a middle-aged, portly, sickening man whose one great weapon is his multivalent brain, which might not be coupled to true instincts anymore. Bondarchuk includes a lengthy scene of Napoleon dictating several letters at once to various secretaries, segueing from subject to subject with breakneck speed but with a certain commonality of argument accruing, as he angrily ripostes to one letter from a prince accusing him of usurping the crown that he found it in a gutter and the people put it on his head, whilst also consoling the mother of a soldier accidentally killed and his begging his wife, now returned to her native Austria, to return his young son to him.

Napoleon’s last spur to regaining his former grandeur and fighting battles, the film suggests as it unfolds, it his desire to leave something more to his son than simply an onerous last name. As he asks one of his men late in the film what they’ll say about him in the future, the officer replies, “They will say you extended the limits of glory.” “Is that what I’m going to leave my son?” Napoleon queries, “The limits of glory?” This quest keeps driving him on even as he perceives, “My body is dying…but my brain is still good.” Soon Napoleon learns that the heads of his allied enemies have declared personal war on him despite his overtures for peace. He knows by this point who his first two adversaries are likely to be: Wellington, the English general whose name has a totemic import for his Marshals because he steadily skinned them in Spain and Portugal, a measure of inspired dread Napoleon registers but dismisses, and the Prussian Field Marshal Blücher (Sergo Zakariadze), whose armies are poised in Belgium. Receiving news that the two armies have separated whilst in the bath, Napoleon moves swiftly to take advantage.

Plummer’s Wellington is finally, first glimpsed entering the famous ball thrown by the Duchess of Richmond (Virginia McKenna) in Brussels that finished up becoming the scene for the General and his senior officers learning of Napoleon’s hard and fast drive in their direction. Contrasting the fleshy, brilliant, but going-to-seed Napoleon, Wellington seems a man exactly in his prime, every inch the aristocratic warrior and an accomplished social animal, charming the Duchess and amusing her daughter Sarah (Susan Wood) with the most hyperbolic stories of Bony as a monster who drinks blood. He soon however revels one trait in common with Napoleon in possessing a pithy, unsentimental wit in regards to the business of being powerful. He describes to the Duchess his men as “Scum. Nothing but beggars and scoundrels, all of them. Gin is the spirit of their patriotism,” and only murmuring “Umm-hmm,” when the Duchess asks whether he still expects them to die for him. Wellington’s crew of stalwart warriors, most of them veterans of his long Peninsula War campaigns, are present, including the Duchess’s uncle the Duke of Gordon (Rupert Davies), commander of the famous Highland regiment, Wellington’s second-in-command the Earl of Uxbridge (Terence Alexander), quartermaster Colonel De Lancey (Ian Ogilvy), archetypal young cavalier Lord Hay (Peter Davies), and Sir William Ponsonby (Michael Wilding), commander of the Scots Greys cavalry division.

And there’s the eccentric, hard-bitten infantry commander Thomas Picton (Jack Hawkins), who presents a figure well out of place amongst all the dashing young officers and their ladies. Picton gruffly schools Lord Hay, who tries to impress Sarah by promising to bring her back a cuirassier’s breastplate, with the promise he’ll learn how to fight from the French, only to earn some sharp teasing right back from Sarah. Her mother confesses to being “a little bit of a Bonapartist” in her admiration for Napoleon’s vigour. Meanwhile, in a clever bit of directing, Bondarchuk depicts Wellington’s thoughts turning out into the stormy night beyond the gilt-framed windows in his attempts to mentally anticipate Napoleon’s moves, only for images of Napoleon’s army on the movie to resolve out of the murk. Bondarchuk turns the ball sequence into a dreamy moment of high romanticism, as Hay and Susan and De Lancey and his wife Magdalene (Veronica De Laurentiis) make splendid couples amidst the many on the dance floor. The ballroom is a space of appropriate splendour with its manifold candles, chandeliers, and mirrored walls, rather more baroquely beautiful than the actual scene of the ball, but underscoring Bondarchuk’s offering of this as a pure moment of period idealisation, the cavalier dream enjoying a brief flower before hell opens up again, grazing a Jane Austen world of glittering young things honouring Eros before the inevitable orgy of Thanatos.

Bondarchuk offers a slow-motion image of Hay and Susan with expressions of stricken intensity, candle flames in the foreground reaching into the frame encapsulating the brief burning spell of life in the moment even as fate has literally come calling, in the form of Müffling (John Savident), Blücher’s envoy. The dirty, harried Müffling, who the Duchess spots and comments, “That man will spoil the dancing,” arrives to tell Wellington that Napoleon is on the move and has already seized a strategic advantage. The dance goes on whilst Wellington and his generals retire to another room to quickly forge a strategy, Wellington quickly deducing the basic shape of what must now happen. Napoleon hits and drives back Blücher’s force from the crossroads of Quatre Bras, but Blücher expertly manages to keep his army together and says he can come when Wellington begs for the Prussians to rendezvous with him outside the town of Waterloo, as he means to stand and fight with his army, a blend of British, Dutch, and German soldiers.

Many great military conflicts of history can be awkward affairs to coherently and cohesively capture on film, but Waterloo quite literally had everything required for great storytelling. The inherent drama of Müffling’s arrival during the ball, shattering the frivolity with news of something imminent and awesome. The two polar-opposite yet gravity-locked military heroes squaring off. The race against time that helps decide the battle. Component skirmishes filled with enough drama to serve as films in themselves, like the defence of the farmhouse Hougoumont, the grand but doomed cavalry charges by both sides, and the collapse of the French Imperial Guard. Moreover, Waterloo became hopelessly wound in with nationalistic legend and culture in Britain, France, and beyond. One of the more niggling aspects of Waterloo as a film is a common one amongst the international co-productions from the era: for an event so strongly rooted in such culturally specific legend, the smaller roles are discomfortingly crammed with Italian and Russian actors who needed to be awkwardly dubbed, sapping it, at least for an Anglophonic audience, of the kind of emblematic chauvinistic power that, say, Zulu (1964) achieved. But that said, it’s keen to the cultural apparatus and memory in play throughout.

Casting Steiger and Welles, and O’Herlihy who does a kind of clipped American accent, is a gesture that almost gives a certain clever cohesion to the French side of things, trying to suggest the brash energy of the revolutionary French by equating it with the American version. But the supporting players filling out his Marshals and officers have a hodgepodge of accents. On the British side, Hawkins had been severely limited through an operation for throat cancer that left his once-mellifluous voice a hoarse croak, and was usually dubbed by other actors in his later roles: here the post-synched voice often barely matches his lips. A small price to pay, perhaps, for a film that also displays many of the best qualities of the filmmaking in its era, with the fearsome attention to detail and mise-en-scene that distinguished both the Italian and Russian film industries on display. Everything has a uniquely palpable immediacy, a grittiness, even before we get to the monumental battle scenes. Even the posh revelry of the ball has an earthy lustre.

The scale of the recreation of the battle is an awe-inspiring apex of pre-CGI staging in cinema, and moreover Bondarchuk wields it with an actual sense of artistic purpose, unlike some lesser battle movies, like the endless B-roll footage of historical recreationists tramping around farmland filling out the back half of Gettysburg (1991). As the two armies square off Bondarchuk films Wellington’s forces from Napoleon’s point of view in a breathtaking survey. The staging of scenes like Napoleon’s riotous return to the halls of power in Paris, borne aloft by a joyous crowd, aim to capture the overflowing liveliness of historical genre painting, and indeed Bondarchuk recreates many such paintings throughout. Bondarchuk’s melancholy romanticism in the ball room is later mirrored in the most astoundingly epic fashion as he shoots the famous charge of the Scots Greys cavalry, recreating the painting Scotland Forever! and adopting a languorous, dreamlike slow-motion as the great steeds pound across muddy ground, Nino Rota’s score offering a sonorous pastiche of the ballroom music, turning the thunderous charge into another wistful waltz for what is both the climax of and the doom of a warrior creed and way.

Before the battle begins, however, Wellington and Napoleon spend a long, dark, rainy night pensively failing to rest as they reside in farmhouses on opposite sides of the prospective battlefield, Napoleon trying urgently to understand why Wellington has taken up position in a place that looks poor to his eye, whilst Wellington has already explained to his people why the position is actually ideal, having seen it a year earlier and kept it in mind. Bonaparte suffers a bout of illness that causes concern in his Marshals, whilst Wellington is driven to distraction by the question of whether Blücher can give aid to his outnumbered force, with Blücher himself being chased by a detached portion of the French army under Grouchy. Certainly because it helps amplify the drama, the film rolls with disputed reports from some witnesses that Napoleon was debilitated at points throughout the campaign and at crucial points of the battle by attacks of severe pain – he almost certainly was already ill with the stomach cancer that would kill him six years later – as well as constantly suggested foreboding that wars with his most customary habits of decisive energy and resolve, his confident belief that he has no equal and so can only be undone by his own weaknesses.

Steiger hardly seems at first glance like obvious casting as a stocky American playing the eternally energetic Corsican-born Emperor. And yet he gives one of his best screen performances, revelling in playing a character that perfectly suits his galvanic, sometimes borderline hambone acting style, moving with musical skill between the poles of Napoleon overboiling character. Plummer, on the other hand, seems very obviously cast, and also gives one of his best performances, expertly flicking off Wellington’s turns of wit and finding the vulnerable streak and the ticking intelligence under the Iron Duke’s veneer of haughty confidence. Compared to Napoleon’s mercurial talents Wellington is taciturn in command and circumspect about revealing any limitations, commenting, “If I thought my hair knew what my brain was thinking, I’d shave it off and wear a wig.” Notably, where the film grants access to Napoleon’s thinking through a voiceover that explicates his thought processes, Wellington remains sealed off until the very end, although he’s obviously rattled as he keeps losing friends during the fight. When Gordon offers him some of the beans he’s munching on for energy with the assurance they’re good, Wellington responds with peerless honesty in being confounded, “If there is one thing about which I know positively nothing, it is agriculture,” a line that always cracks me up specifically because of Plummer’s delivery. Or when he barks at a buglist to stop uselessly blowing his horn in an attempt to call back the Scots Greys, only to then console him, “You’ll strain yourself.”

The two generals are offered as avatars of radically different societies, the once-revolutionary Napoleon who now reclines amidst the captured grandeur of a deposed nobility speaking sniffily of “this English aristocrat” whist the once-penurious Wellington, reborn a crisply tasteful man of import, comments of his foe, “On a field of battle his hat is worth fifty thousand men, but he’s not a gentleman.” He disdains the sight of Napoleon riding by on his famous white horse, noting sceptically, “I don’t need a white horse to puff me up, by god.” When one of his men asks permission to try taking him out with a cannon shot, an appalled Wellington responds, “Certainly not!…Commanders of armies have better things to do than to fire at each-other.” As an Irishman Craig’s script naturally focuses on a selection of the rankers of the Enniskillen regiment as representative shitkickers amidst the great horde under Wellington, as the also-Irish-born Duke notes “I hang and flog more of them than the rest of the army put together.” When he encounters one of the Irish privates, O’Connor (Donal Donnelly), having just stolen a piglet from a farmhouse for food, Wellington eventually laughs at O’Connor’s desperate attempts at explaining himself, claiming to me merely seeking the unfortunate piglet’s home.

Rather than punishing O’Connor, Wellington has him promoted to Corporal because he knows “how to defend a hopeless position,” an amusing vignette if one somewhat contrary to Wellington’s famously stern approach to preventing pillaging. O’Connor adapts to rank uneasily as he sneaks a look into an officer’s shaving mirror to make sure his new stripes are sewn correctly, much to the officer’s annoyance. Bondarchuk also reserves an amused eye for the rituals of the two squared-off armies as the English soldiers begin singing a mocking song about how “Bony fought the Roo-shee-ans!” whilst Wellington and his officers drink a toast to “Today’s fox” in reading for a hunt. The British soldiers, like Picton who insists on dressing like a well-dressed man-about-town rather than a soldier, have a quality of individualism that is an odd strength and proves fateful compared to the way Napoleon’s people hero-worship their singular leader. Wellington is inclined to indulge everything that “wastes time” to give Blücher a chance to reach them, whilst Napoleon and his Marshals realise the ground, left muddy from the previous night’s downpour, has to dry before they can move their cannons and manoeuvre effectively.

Both the strength of Waterloo as a film and some of its frustrating aspects are connected. The film was reportedly heavily edited before release, excising a great amount of material. But concentrating on Napoleon and Wellington and perceiving the sturm-und-drang of the battle as a manifestation of their warring personalities was a good idea, contrasting the usual sprawl of historical epics with their mix of fiction and fact, helping it to play out as tightly focused and realistic, almost to the point of sometimes resembling a docudrama, less like Gone With The Wind (1939) or Doctor Zhivago (1960) and more like a far more expensive and expansive version of what directors like Peter Watkins and Gillo Pontecorvo were making around the same time. Apart from the sidelong glances at the Enniskillen and vignettes during the ball, there’s no distraction by subplots and romances. It takes the idea of portraying inherently dramatic history as for the most part sufficient in itself. Craig’s script draws a lot of dialogue directly from the real people if from the expanse of their careers rather than the specific moment, like Napoleon commenting, “Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake,” whilst watching Wellington’s army form. Apart from a few dashes of historical licence – Hay, portrayed in the film as the essence of doomed youth, was killed two days before the battle, and the version of Gordon in the film is a composite of several members of the family – it’s also closely attuned to historical fact for the most part.

This however does to a certain extent limit the film’s capacity to dramatise some of the battle’s vignettes, like the struggle over Hougoumont, which is seen as a selection of random shots of attack and defence. The film does make space for Ponsonby sharing snuff with Uxbridge and reminiscing about the sorry circumstances of his father’s death at the hands of French Lancers, before suffering exactly the same fate himself when the charge of the Scots Greys becomes a route and Ponsonby is caught in the mud. Ponsonby manages to hand on his watch to one of his men with the order to take it to his son, only for the other horseman to also be caught and killed. Bondarchuk zeroes in on the watch with its painted case still in the dead man’s grasp in a muddy pool, a potent little image of delicate civilisation amidst the filth and carnage of war, a lost token of a genteel world about to be swept away. Ponsonby’s story about his father is fictional, but it helps create an odd sense of time stuck in a loop in the foreshadowng, an evocation of war as unending, claiming generation upon generation. This touch works better than a more emphatic sop to the antiwar feelings of a 1970 youth audience later in the film, as a flaxen-haired young soldier, Tomlinson (Oleg Vidov), who O’Connor’s taken under his wing, suddenly freaks out during the attack on the Allied army by Ney’s cavalry and wanders out amidst the galloping horses and gunfire screaming, “We’ve never seen each-other – how can we kill each-other?”

Whilst this touch is a bit much, Bondarchuk still makes it work for him when he films Ney’s charge, which the volatile cavalry leader unleashes whilst Napoleon is having a bout of pain and Ney assumes Wellington is retreating when he’s just trying to shelter his men from artillery. The Allied soldiers form into defensive squares, leaving the cavalry reeling about them, a stand-off that quickly degenerates into a madcap bloodbath. This sequence is filmed in astounding aerial shots, picking out the ragged geometry of the defences and the squiggles of the charging horsemen as seen from a godlike perspective, contrasted with the hellish furore on ground level, in a sequence of truly gobsmacking effect. Tomlinson’s protesting cries echo on the soundtrack as the camera speeds over the battle, Rota’s sadly elegant violin theme on sound underscoring the constant refrain of Bondarchuk’s vision of the battle as a dance of death. There’s virtually nothing like this sequence anywhere else in cinema, and the film’s acknowledged impact on the way Peter Jackson shot the battle sequences in his Tolkien adaptations is plain. Bondarchuk weaves in moments of effective battlefield horror, like Picton getting struck by a shard of shrapnel through his signature top hat and slowly falling dead from his horse, and Wellington watching helplessly as De Lancey is also struck by shrapnel, his back grotesquely torn, and collapses whilst the wind and smoke drives down upon him and his fellows. Hay is cut down crying to the soldiers he stands with to “Think of England, men!”, perhaps the closest the film comes to nudging the more overtly cynical attitude of something like Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968).

There’s also a nice bit of humour as Gordon’s Highlanders are sent into battle, bagpipes blasting and kilts flicking about their knees, provoking Napoleon, watching them through a telescope, to query, “Has Wellington nothing to offer me but these Amazons?” The later scenes of the battle gain an increasingly apocalyptic edge as Bondarchuk has a strong wind arise and the scene become a stygian place of whipping smoke and dust, like some distant spiritual anticipation of the atomic bomb is being unleashed. Napoleon bellows frantic commands to his men through the din, whilst the Prussian columns appear on the horizon, forcing Napoleon to try and win the battle as quickly as possible, and for a moment seems to have the battle in his grasp as he captures one of the farmhouses anchoring Wellington’s position. Perhaps understandably for a Soviet artist who had lived through World War II, Bondarchuk offers the not-so-faint suggestion throughout the film that with both Napoleon and Wellington granted their measure of sympathy, the real villains as the Prussians, who of course represent the rising power of the Germanic states. Whenever Blücher and his army are seen Rota menacingly plays “Deutschland Über Alles” anachronistically on the soundtrack, and when he finally gets his force close enough to strike, Blücher bellows: “No pity! I’ll shoot any man who has pity in him!” “I made one mistake in my life,” Napoleon comments, “I should’ve burnt Berlin.”

Only here does Bondarchuk really lose grip on the illustrative sense of the battle’s ebb and flow in his desire to portray the French collapse as a chaotic rush, and loses the potential impact of the battle’s famous climactic moment, the breaking of the Imperial Guard, which had never before run from the field, in an ambush by the British Foot Guards. Still, Bondarchuk notably continues his theme of modern warfare nesting inside the seemingly more heroically idealised historical brand as he dubs in the sound of machine gun fire when the Guards fire on their French enemies, ripping them to pieces, who, with enemies front and behind, finally crack and flee. The anecdote of Uxbridge getting his leg blown off, a vignette that became part of the odd folklore attached to the battle, allows another great moment for Plummer as the Duke registers his friend’s injury with both a note of shock and distress whilst also maintaining a veneer of the kind of English understatement and stoicism that became mythical. As the French collapse with two armies suddenly closing a vice on them, one of Wellignton’s aides comments, “We’re doing murder, your grace.” The battle ends with the nobly pathetic sight of the last French survivors, cornered and bedraggled, refusing to surrender – “Merde!” an officer shouts in response to the English entreaty to lay down arms – and so are blown to smithereens by cannons.

Bondarchuk offers a coda that suggests the influence of the post-battle scenes of Alexander Nevsky (1938) as, far from offering a sense of triumph, he has Wellington ride across the battlefield surveying the entirely inglorious results. Thousands of bodies, including Tomlinson, lie sprawled on the ground, picked over by thieves in the dying murk of the day, the limits of glory well and truly defined. Wellington’s later comment that the saddest thing other than a battle lost is a battle won is heard in voiceover, before the Duke rides off towards his future, one which will bring him to no more battlefields. Meanwhile the bloodied, mad-looking Ney watches as a gutted and dazed Napoleon flails in the rain, allowing the Marshal a flourish of poetic force as his thoughts are heard, making reckoning of his commander’s fate: “They’ll chain you, like Prometheus, to a rock, where the memory of your own greatness will gnaw you.” Napoleon climbs into his carriage and rides off into the gathering murk and rain, a final note surprisingly anticipatory of the very end of Apocalypse Now (1979), a film which can be seen as the end-of-the-1970s-zeitgeist bookend to Waterloo’s vision of warfare and titanic ego devolving into the mud. Waterloo is an imperfect film certainly, but it has flashes of real greatness, and demands more regard.

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1930s, Action-Adventure, British cinema

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

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Director: Harold Young

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

By Roderick Heath

The true romantic adventure film is a rare breed. Not an action film where a romance is grafted on as a momentary distraction from stunts and gunfights, a romantic adventure film generates excitement not just by posing danger to the characters’ bodies, but also to their innermost selves and their relationships. The Scarlet Pimpernel, a true romantic adventure film, was produced by Alexander Korda at a time when he and Alfred Hitchcock were the key drivers of British cinema in the early sound era. Korda’s productions, with their determinedly classy, yet peculiarly minimalist, intimate style, gained initial success with The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), buoyed by Charles Laughton’s Oscar-winning turn as the rapacious monarch. This and other productions tried to make virtues out of some of the perceived faults in the British industry, with its reliance on a theatrical tradition and cramped budgets, and exploited Britishness for its own sake whilst also bringing a noticeably tart perspective on that Britishness that perhaps only an immigrant like Korda could. At its best in films like Henry VIII, Rembrandt (1936), and The Scarlet Pimpernel, Korda’s house style interrogated assumptions about cinematic structuring that were quickly becoming truisms under Hollywood’s influence. With a gentle sense of dramaturgy, and intricate, dramatically encoded sequences playing out in a fashion moulded after historical tableaux plays, Korda’s films shared a spirit in common with those of William Wyler and Jean Renoir and anticipated Andre Bazin’s theories of mise-en-scène over montage. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a peculiar by-product: an adventure film without set-piece derring-do, and hardly even a gunshot—and it’s one of the most exciting films ever made.

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The Scarlet Pimpernel is based on Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s literary hero, an English aristocrat who rescues the innocent victims of the Reign of Terror that accompanied the French Revolution. Orczy was herself actually Hungarian, but had married into the English aristocracy. Her first Pimpernel book debuted in 1905, and she was still alive and churning out books about her hero when this film was made. Orczy’s creation was and is fascinating and deeply consequential for pop culture, as she can in many ways be said to have invented a crucial type of modern hero: the man of action defying oppressive forces with disguises and cunning whilst maintaining a secret identity that masks his true nature. Simultaneously, whilst she stopped short of creating a proper female action hero, Orczy clearly invested a telling amount of interest and energy in creating Marguerite, Blakeney’s beautiful, intelligent, resourceful, yet initially morally questionable French wife who evolved throughout Orczy’s cycle into one of Percy’s agents. The Scarlet Pimpernel is built as much around the central romantic tangles and tortures the couple put each other through—an extended and fascinating metaphor for the problems of identity of many a couple actually settling down to the problem of really living together—as it is about period gallivanting and historical fancy.

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Orczy had constructed that historical fancy around the plausible wish fulfilment of saving innocents from the worst excesses of a political movement. As the 20th century progressed, this fantasy was to become increasingly urgent, and when Korda’s production was released, geopolitical overtones vibrated through the whole affair. Leslie Howard would play an updated version of the hero he plays here in Pimpernel Smith (1941), and in doing so, reputedly inspire Raoul Wallenberg’s efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust. In the 1934 film, the sensation that something evil is happening just over the horizon, played out in icy diplomatic niceties and by men utilising proto-Cold War techniques, is nonetheless palpable, and the period French Revolution setting starts to sound more and more contemporary as Percy condemns men who “use high-sounding principles an excuse for the most bestial cruelty.”

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Indeed, The Scarlet Pimpernel, made five years before WWII started, feels more than a little like the first WWII movie, offering as it does a template of flight, disguise, and infiltration that any number of spy adventure melodramas in the coming years would. It even lays out a template for the kinds of patriotic encomium such films would often see, as when Percy recites the “this England” speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II. The coolness of the Korda style, at odds with the kind of florid historical filmmaking becoming popular in Hollywood that would soon flower in the second coming of the swashbuckler, builds and emphasises tension in an entirely different fashion to what one expects. As witty and defiant as Percy can be, there’s no campy winking at the audience in the fashion of Errol Flynn’s films, and the absence of a music score, already by 1934 an unusual lack, emphasises the sombre, subtle pitch of the drama. The film begins with a discursive sequence of soldiers parading under the window of the Prince of Wales (Nigel Bruce). The Prince’s bluff and hearty charm seems for much of the movie as disconnected as the rest of his countrymen from the international reality, his soldiers marching prettily but not actually doing anything.

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The Prince confesses his pride in the fact that the Scarlet Pimpernel, rapidly becoming famous for his escapades, is English. In Paris, the situation the Pimpernel is fighting against is coldly depicted as victim after victim is sent to the guillotine in an assembly line of slaughter, and a neat dissolve from the guillotine itself to the Revolutionary logo of Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality packs ironic punch. A priest (Bramwell Fletcher, of The Mummy “He went for a little walk!” fame), actually one of the Pimpernel’s agents, gets an earful of bloodlust from a barber, before visiting a prison where families of the fallen nobility cringe in the cellar as a revolutionary official announces: “Madame Guillotine has fresh meat today.” The fake priest delivers a message in a bible to the family of the Count de Tournay (O. B. Clarence), his wife (Mabel Terry-Lewis) and daughter Suzanne (Joan Gardner). De Tournay, the former ambassador to Britain, is introduced playing cards with his fellows and contemplating with hard-won wisdom that his class has been “sheltered all our lives,” establishing him as a nice aristocrat fit to be rescued. As victims are called up to the tumbrel, rapid vignettes of grace under pressure include one aristocratic woman placing aside her book and adjusting her gloves with seemly calm, whilst outside the baying crowd awaits. Wife and daughter are dragged away to their deaths, torn from the Count, who is held back to be taken to Robespierre.

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But the Pimpernel’s promise to the De Tournays is good, as the crowd is distracted by a man on the rooftops shouting royalist slogans, a first sign of the depths of Percy’s cleverness in using the crowd’s own inchoate passion against it. As they pursue the rooftop agitator, Percy is able to swoop in and spirit away the family. The Pimpernel himself is disguised as an aged hag transporting her plague-ridden son out of the city, successfully bluffing his way past a guard who has already been seen capturing an aristocrat trying to escape and congratulating himself on his ability to sniff out his quarries. Moments after the Pimpernel gets out, a squad of mounted soldiers arrives to inform the guard he just let the Pimpernel escape, but the soldiers, under Sir Andrew Ffoulkes (Anthony Bushell), are themselves members of the Pimpernel’s band, and they escort the De Tournays across the Channel to safety. Meanwhile, Percy loses his hag’s guise, after a moment of deadpan transformative humour as Percy takes some snuff from his gold box whilst still in full ratty regalia, and then maintains the most businesslike of attitudes as he strips off the drag. He’s alerted by his operative Armand St. Just (Walter Rilla) that they have to return to rescue the Count and that a new, dangerous enemy has been set after them, Citizen Chauvelin (Raymond Massey), the Republic’s envoy to England. Armand also happens to be the brother of Percy’s wife, the former actress Marguerite (Merle Oberon), who is regarded as a traitor and murderer in French aristocratic circles because of her apparent role in the execution of the Marquis Saint Cyr and his family, the first aristocratic clan to go to the guillotine.

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The remainder of the narrative revolves around a peculiar question: is Percy’s wife one of the people he despises? Is he operating out of guilt for her actions? Marguerite is first mentioned in a tavern conversation between Ffoulkes and the De Tournays, as they tell him about her evil acts, and he states with defensive pride that “Everyone in London knows Lady Blakeney.” Marguerite is introduced thus, like her husband, first through gossip and second-hand perception, an accumulation of legends that address only one apparent side of their natures. She is first glimpsed properly having her portrait painted by George Romney (Melville Cooper), supervising her conversion into a perfectly aestheticized image as Romney would do for Emma Hamilton. Percy studies the work twice, once in full fop character and then again more like himself, and finds it frustratingly lacking, as he attempts to discover the true woman behind the various images of her. As the husband wears a mask of false identity, he is questioning whether his wife does, too.

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When Armand asks about the chill between the couple, Percy explains that he once asked if she had truly denounced the Saint Cyrs: “She flashed back a yes as sharp as the guillotine!” “So that is why you ceased to love her,” Armand says, “What a tragedy.”  Percy replies, “I shall love her ‘til the day I die, that’s the tragedy.” Such a line captures The Scarlet Pimpernel‘s rare feel for the smouldering romanticism lurking under the seemingly stoic and staid English surface. The very French and expressive Marguerite is conversely suffering her sudden and chilling alienation from Percy, who, as far as London society is concerned, is a shallow, witless gadabout obsessed with fashion and trivialities. True to Quentin Tarantino’s maxim about secret identity as a mask that reveals and critiques, the version of himself that Sir Percy Blakeney presents to the world is a stinging study in English upper-crust complacency and cloddishness. Percy maintains his cover by playing a jackass, fop, and effeminate pseudo-wit. He predicts Beau Brummel by advising the Prince in fashion, ridiculing his tailor’s efforts (“I’ll have you know that this is the last word in sleeves!” “Oh I should hope so, for there should never be another like it!”), and reciting to anyone who’ll listen his poem about the Pimpernel (“They seek him here, they seek him there…”) which he has to censor when repeating it to society ladies.

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The fat, old former soldiers he teases as they lounge about his club congratulate themselves on their superiority to such callow youth: “What that young man needs is a year of two’s hard campaigning, facing powder and shot!” declares Winterbottom (Edmund Breon), whilst one of the Prince’s circle, contemplating the horrors in France, muses, “What do you expect of a lot of foreigners with no sporting instinct? If it wasn’t for our fox hunting and grouse shooting, I dare say we should be cruel, too!” When Marguerite wonders if Ffoulkes might be the Pimpernel, Percy derides the idea: “The fellow couldn’t hit a ball at Eton!” This tint of satire on the worst traits of the English upper crust is, of course, contrasted in how Percy and his fellows actually represent their class’s best qualities. Even the Prince finally reveals his hidden grit when, disgusted by news Robespierre is planning to execute the French King, he’s introduced to Chauvelin, who he welcomes as a private citizen: “We shall try to forget the government that sent you,” before turning his back and getting on with his pleasant evening.

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The Scarlet Pimpernel’s layered and wit-laden script was composed by many hands, with Korda and Orczy adding some material to the credited foursome of Lajos Biró, S. N. Behrman, Robert E. Sherwood, and Arthur Wimperis. As per the Korda style, and perhaps partly reflecting the fact that the story had first appeared not as a novel but as a stage play, the narrative moves forward in a series of intensely orchestrated and carefully composed sequences. The actual job of direction fell to American Harold Young, making his third film after a long career as an editor: Young’s subsequent career would be largely unremarkable as a maker of B-movies, including The Mummy’s Tomb (1942). But the entire production bears the imprint of Korda, particularly in the carefully composed crowd scenes. Korda’s approach to spectacle was strange, offering lavish sets, casts, and costuming, and then often dismissing them, preferring to concentrate elliptically on peripheral details. The Scarlet Pimpernel deliberately detours from many key moments of action, and yet avoids staidness with its supple and functional cutting and quietly musical visual pacing.

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Notable are little minuets of telling close-ups and dramatic camera angles in compositions that are fastidiously balanced, often with characters framed in association with statues that match their personality. A brilliant, pivotal moment occurs when Marguerite finally realises her husband is the Pimpernel, camera zeroing in on a tell-tale feature of a painting she stares at, and cutting back to a high shot of Marguerite gazing up, the moment of realisation rendered electric. The effect shifts emphasis from the physical intensity of the drama to the emotional, making The Scarlet Pimpernel all the more singular. It’s tempting, if running the risk of making facile presumptions, to ascribe some of the emotional intensity of The Scarlet Pimpernel to the way it offers such a fervent metaphor for the lives of so many of its creators. Korda and Howard were Hungarian with Jewish backgrounds, busy dissembling as perfect English entrepreneur and actor, whilst Orczy was also Hungarian, and Oberon was part-Indian, a side of herself she had to keep suppressed to avoid the censure in a still often segregated cinema screen.

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One doesn’t look to The Scarlet Pimpernel for in-depth political considerations, and yet the brief depiction of Robespierre (Ernest Milton) is an amusing study in dictatorial power as the self-dramatized posturing of a child prodigy, one that seems cleverly pitched to evoke caricatures of Mussolini and Hitler as bratty buffoons for audiences of the 1930s. He stalks away from his desk after writing a death warrant with showy gravitas and situates himself before a nobly bearded bust, before calling Chauvelin and declaring effetely to De Tournay that “I send you people to the guillotine for the future happiness of the human race, but I don’t allow torture!” Chauvelin is both smarmy and serpentine in his confident espousal of the revolutionary cause, and also acutely aware of his vulnerability, tasked with capturing the Pimpernel and knowing it means his neck if he can’t. Chauvelin blackmails Marguerite into helping him identify the Pimpernel, having traced the various leads to Percy’s social circle. To manipulate Marguerite, he uses both standard pressures—arresting Armand and holding his fate over her—and his sinuous and unsettling psychological grip on her, as the keeper of her darkest secrets. Chauvelin was partly responsible for Marguerite’s denunciation of the Saint Cyrs, though her animosity towards the clan after the patriarch had her thrown in prison when his son wanted to marry her, was still powerful.

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The film’s multiple story strands collide in a lengthy sequence at a ball held by Lord Grenville (Allan Jeayes) in which dancing is dismissed as frou frou in favour of the far more intricate cotillion of role-playing and gamesmanship. Percy swaps gracefully between fop and spymaster (he’s able to rescue himself from the coterie of trailing women and make contact with one of his agents with the cry, “Zounds! That’s a monstrous good collar!”), Chauvelin stalks through the proceedings with his hunting-dog smirk, and Marguerite is caught between camps, cold-shouldered by the De Tournays until the Prince, who worships Marguerite, commands them to make friends. Marguerite is tasked by Chauvelin to obtain a message Ffoulkes has tucked in his sleeve, and Marguerite rises to the challenge in a sublimely odd sequence in which dance music drifts sonorously in from the ballroom, Ffoulkes tries to both aid Marguerite and read the message, and Marguerite looks for a chance, any chance, to see it, too, whilst a confused crackle of the erotic and the illicit infuses the game of deception. She finally succeeds in getting hold of the letter and is able to reveal its contents to Chauvelin, that the Pimpernel will be in the library at midnight, which proves true, only Percy makes a play of being asleep on a couch, sprawled with indolent laziness. Percy seems to fake Chauvelin out by this means, but his joke proves to have been a bit too clever, for Chauvelin quickly realises the truth and sets in motion a plan to catch Percy the next time he ventures to France.

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The weight of sustaining the film falls heavy on Howard’s and Oberon’s shoulders. Howard was just hitting the height of his fame, as he was starring in the hit play The Petrified Forest and had played the lead in a Hollywood adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage opposite Bette Davis. At first, Korda had offered the role of Percy to Charles Laughton after the success of Henry VIII, but fans of the books objected. Howard’s specific screen persona here came to the fore, in playing a man who seems emotionally obtuse and physically mild, and yet who actually possesses surprising moral and mental force; Howard would offer several variations on this character before his sad death in 1943. His performance as Percy, nonetheless, has a clarity and simplicity of technique that puts me in mind of Paul Scofield, in the precision of his shifts of character registered in diction and restrained physical emphasis, his delightful skill in swinging from pallid overcivility (the curse of his Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind, 1939) and mincing foppishness, to an unconventional, but steely, convincing rectitude. He’s particularly excellent in the key scene the couple have after the ball, in which Marguerite distraughtly confesses how Chauvelin has used her, and Percy asks just what she’s done in exchange for her brother’s freedom, with a sudden revelation of the anger and pain he’s been sitting on. As Marguerite breaks down and appeals to him with real desperation, he comes precariously close to kissing her as he realises she’s a victim and not a villain, but remembers himself at the last moment and pulls back with obvious difficulty.

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Oberon was still a fairly fresh-minted movie star, although she had been leading a life laden with novel-worthy mystique for much of her life, rising from headliner in Bombay nightlife in her early teens to several years of bit roles after landing in Britain, and discovery by Korda, whom she would marry. She would go on to be an underutilised but reliable star in Hollywood, but she inhabits the difficult role of Marguerite perfectly. She keeps Marguerite’s emotional quandaries in focus, smouldering with guilt and disaffection even as she’s called upon to be the perfect, nerveless beauty, wife, secret agent, and emotional prostitute, speaking with rueful sadness after her husband’s made another of his embarrassing displays, “The biggest fool in England has the most complete contempt for his wife,” and insulting Percy with bite, “You were a man once!” The quiet romanticism of the film is indeed laced with the bitter taste of its opposite, the Noel Coward-esque cynicism apparent as Percy, in character and yet delivered with cold brutality, responds to Marguerite’s proposition that they should help Armand get married, “What has poor Armand done to be sentenced to matrimony? You should know better, my dear.”

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Massey likely never quite had as much fun in a film role as here, playing Chauvelin with a plummy, come-and-go accent, but more effectively offering his hangdog face and perpetual five o’clock shadow to imbue a faint air of shifty dishevelment to Chauvelin’s pretences to elegant villainy, the inelegant method and functionary brutality underneath constantly in evidence. His exchanges with Percy in foolish guise are droll in Chauvelin’s recoiling disgust of the seemingly oblivious aristocrat who sneakily makes jabs at Chauvelin’s fear of the guillotine under the pretext of giving him fashion tips; whenever Percy reaches to adjust Chauvelin’s cravat, the envoy recoils in alarm. Chauvelin has his moment of triumph as he thinks he finally has Percy exactly where he wants him, in front of a firing squad, mouthing orders in anxious delight until he hears the shot. Once Marguerite ventures into enemy territory to warn Percy that Chauvelin is laying a trap for him, but once again makes herself perfect bait, as Chauvelin takes her prisoner and uses her as a means of forcing Percy into exchanging himself for her.

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Here the moral, physical, and romantic danger facing the characters crystallises in another marvellous moment of smouldering romanticism, as Marguerite declares she wants to die with her husband and fainting, Percy offering a last, breathlessly romantic kiss to her prone form before letting her be carried out. Percy pauses for his moment of poetically graceful patriotism before heading out to die—except, of course, Percy is too clever for Chauvelin, and, in one of the great action hero bluffs, his firing squad proves to be formed entirely of his own men. What’s rare about this last act is that in avoiding traditional action movie stunts, it generates a fervent tension that’s altogether sublime. The very finish twists Percy’s earlier black description of matrimony as a sentence, as he revises Chauvelin’s own pronouncement that Marguerite would be free when Percy died into an epigram of fidelity of a couple reforged into strong and confident partners in adventure. It’s worth noting that a sequel was produced three years later, but the only returning cast member was Bushell, and the film, whilst competent, was essentially an afterthought, which goes to show that half-hearted sequels are hardly a recent phenomenon.

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