Waterloo (1970 film)

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Italian theatrical poster
Directed bySergei Bondarchuk
Screenplay by
Story byH. A. L. Craig
Produced byDino De Laurentiis
CinematographyArmando Nannuzzi
Edited byRichard C. Meyer
Music by
  • Mosfilm
  • Dino de Laurentiis Cinematografica
Distributed by
Release date
  • 26 October 1970 (1970-10-26)
Running time
128 minutes
  • Italy
  • Soviet Union
Budget£12 million

Waterloo (

Napoleon Bonaparte and Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington with a cameo by Orson Welles as Louis XVIII of France.[5] Other stars include Jack Hawkins as General Sir Thomas Picton, Virginia McKenna as the Duchess of Richmond and Dan O'Herlihy as Marshal Ney

Steiger and Plummer often narrate sections in voice-over, presenting thoughts of Napoleon and Wellington.[6] The film takes a largely neutral stance and portrays many individual leaders and soldiers on each side, rather than simply focusing on Wellington and Napoleon. It creates a generally accurate chronology of the events of the battle, the extreme heroism on each side, and the tragic loss of life suffered by all the armies which took part.

The film is most famous for its lavish battle scenes,

Best Art Direction, and the 1971 David di Donatello for Best Film


In the aftermath of the

Napoleon Bonaparte is forced to abdicate at the demands of his marshals. Exiled to Elba with 1,000 men, Napoleon escapes after a year and once more rallies the French to his side. King Louis XVIII flees, and the European powers declare war once again. In Brussels during the Duchess of Richmond's ball, the Duke of Wellington is warned of Napoleon's march into Belgium, tactically driving a wedge between the British and Prussian armies. Wellington, in consulting with his staff, elects to halt Napoleon at Waterloo


Quatre-Bras, Marshal Ney fights the British to a draw, whereas Napoleon defeats the Prussians at Ligny. Ney rides to Napoleon to deliver his report, but in doing so has allowed Wellington to withdraw his still intact forces. Napoleon commands Grouchy
to lead 30,000 men against the Prussians to prevent their rejoining the British, whilst Napoleon will command his remaining troops against Wellington.

On June 18, 1815, the Battle of Waterloo commences with initial cannon fire from the French. Napoleon launches teasing attacks against Wellington's flanks at Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte, though Wellington refuses to divert his main force. General Picton is sent to plug a gap when a Dutch brigade is routed, and though successful he is killed in doing so. Ponsonby also leads a cavalry charge against the French cannon, but becomes isolated from the main allied force and is cut down by French lancers.

Troops spotted emerging from the east are worryingly assumed to be Grouchy by Wellington, and Blücher to Napoleon. Suffering from stomach pain, Napoleon momentarily withdraws and leaves Ney in command. Simultaneously, the order is given to allied troops to retire 100 paces, which Ney incorrectly interprets as a withdrawal.

Ney leads a cavalry charge against the British, but is repelled with casualties by infantry squares. Despite this, the battle still wages much in Napoleon's favor; La Haye Sainte falls to the French, and Napoleon ultimately decides to send the Imperial Guard to deliver the decisive blow.

During their advance, Maitland's 1st Foot Guards who were lying in tall grass deliver a devastating point blank volley against the Imperial Guard, repulsing them with heavy casualties. At the same time, Blücher arrives in the field. For the first time in its history the Imperial Guard breaks, and the battle is won by the Allied forces.

That evening after the battle, Wellington is seen observing the thousands of casualties on the field. Napoleon, having survived the battle, is urged to flee at the pleas of his marshals.


The French and allies

The British and allies


De Laurentiis announced the film in October 1965, saying it would be made the following year. John Huston was to direct.[10]

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 began talks with the Soviets in the late 1960s and reached agreement with Mosfilm. Final costs were over £12 million (GBP) (equivalent to about U.S. $38.3 million in 1970), making Waterloo one of the most expensive movies ever made, for its time.[11]

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, and nearly 17,000 soldiers of the Soviet Army, including a full brigade of Soviet cavalry, and a host of engineers and labourers to prepare the battlefield in the rolling farmland outside Uzhhorod, Ukrainian SSR.[12][13]

To recreate the battlefield "authentically", the Soviets 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.[14][7]

However, the authentic nature of the topography is questionable and has more to do with dramatic panoramic filmshots rather than topographical accuracy: in reality, the Waterloo site is laid out as a series of low hillocks with few opportunities for long views. In particular, La Haye Sainte is almost invisible from the north and west, sitting in a small south-facing hollow.

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 the Royal Palace of Caserta, Italy, while interior scenes were filmed on the large De Laurentiis Studios lot in Rome. The battle sequences of the film included about 15,000 Soviet foot soldiers and 2,000 cavalrymen as extras and 50 circus stunt riders were used to perform the dangerous horse falls. It has been joked that Sergei Bondarchuk was in command of the seventh-largest army in the world.[15]

Months before the cameras started filming, the 17,000 soldiers began training to learn 1815 drill and battle formations, as well as the use of sabres, bayonets and handling cannons. 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 via walkie-talkie. To assist in the direction of this huge, multi-national undertaking, the Soviet-Ukrainian director had four interpreters permanently at his side: one each for English, Italian, French and Serbo-Croatian.


It was the fifth most popular "reserve ticket" movie at the British box office in 1971.[16] However, it failed to recoup its cost. Post release saw the film gain popularity and receive numerous positive reviews for its battle depiction. 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.[17]

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 novelised by Frederick E. Smith
, with the content based on the screenplay.

The meagre box office results of Waterloo led to the cancellation of Stanley Kubrick's planned film biography of Napoleon.[18]

New Zealand film director Peter Jackson, famous for the adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, said that the film inspired his future projects.[19]

Awards and nominations

Award Category Nominee Result
British Academy Film Award Best Cinematography Armando Nannuzzi Nominated
Best Costume Design Maria De Matteis Won
Best Art Direction Mario Garbuglia Won
David di Donatello Best Film Dino De Laurentiis Won[a]
Nastro d'Argento Best Cinematography Armando Nannuzzi Nominated

Historical inaccuracies

While the film portrays 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 departures from historical fact, 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 reality, in 1814 Soult was commanding the defence of Toulouse against Wellington's Army.

The Duchess of Richmond tells Wellington that she does not want her daughter "to wear black before she wears white". The tradition of the bride wearing white did not arise until the 1840s, following Queen Victoria's wedding.

At the Duchess of Richmond's ball (which itself was held in a former carriage house rather than the magnificent ballroom depicted[20]), there is an entirely fictional romantic sub-plot with Lord Hay and one of the Duchess' daughters. However, her daughter Sarah did recall Lord Hay being present at the ball.

Perhaps the biggest inaccuracy in the film is the battleground itself: having had torrential rain the previous night, which delayed the French attack until midday, the battlefield was extremely muddy. In consequence, the British cavalry, in reality, would not have been able to acquire the speed shown in the film before encountering the French columns. However, here, as elsewhere, the film replicates a famous painting of the battle, in this case Elizabeth Thompson's 1881 work Scotland Forever!, which depicts the cavalry galloping towards the enemy.

Another inaccuracy is that the Household cavalry do not seem to appear in the movie at all. Further, Ponsonby, commander of the Union Brigade, is believed to have initially been taken prisoner by French cavalry, before being killed during a failed rescue attempt. In the film, he tells the Earl of 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,[21] and he is simply foretelling his own fate in the battle.

The British cavalry charge was aimed at d'Erlon's corps, but in the film the cavalry do not appear to engage French infantry at all, but instead charge straight into French artillery, scattering French gunners before themselves being driven back by French lancers, in scenes that bear some cinematic resemblance to the Charge of the Light Brigade. Nor are any 92nd Highlanders seen hanging onto their stirrups as they charge, as was recalled by Corporal Dickson of "F" Troop of the Scots Greys.

Overall, the film almost completely ignores the Dutch-Belgian and German elements of the army under Wellington's command, giving the impression that the allied army was essentially British. In reality, the British contingent was less than half of Wellington's troops..

Unlike the Prussians in the film, 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 but are not depicted in the film. (Around 7:30 p.m., 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—as shown in the film.)

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 composite 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

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.[22]
The acting commander of the regiment during the battle appears to have been Major Donald MacDonald of Dalchosnie.

Lord Hay is seen being killed during the French cavalry attack, whilst inside a British square, with Wellington witnessing his death. Hay was actually killed at the Battle of Quatre Bras, two days earlier.

The story of the refusal of the guard to surrender has been the subject of much controversy over the centuries. Commander of the last Imperial Guard square, General

La garde meurt et ne se rend pas!" ("The Guard dies and does not surrender!") which is believed to have been uttered by General Claude-Étienne Michel
, commander of the Middle Guard.

Cambronne did not die in the battle, and having been knocked unconscious, was captured by Colonel Hugh Halkett, commander of the 3rd Hanoverian Brigade. He later married the Scottish nurse who cared for him after the battle, and died in 1842.

The song Boney Was a Warrior sung when Wellington's troops are awaiting the attack wasn't written until after the battle.


  1. ^ "Obituary: Mario Soldati". The Independent. 1999-06-22. Retrieved 2018-01-26.
  2. ^ AlloCine. "Mario Soldati". AlloCiné. Retrieved 2018-01-26.
  3. ^ Waterloo (1970), retrieved 2018-01-26
  4. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Waterloo Movie Review & Film Summary (1971) | Roger Ebert". www.rogerebert.com. Retrieved 2018-01-26.
  5. ^ "A Battle Fought Strictly for the Camera:Bondarchuk Directs Craig's 'Waterloo' Rod Steiger Portrays Ill-Fated Napoleon". www.nytimes.com. Retrieved 2018-01-26.
  6. ^ "WATERLOO (1971)". AFI CATALOG OF FEATURE FILMS. Retrieved 2021-07-31.
  7. ^ a b Plunkett, Luke. "Screw CGI, This War Movie Used 15,000 Real Soldiers". Kotaku. Retrieved 2018-01-26.
  8. ^ Pitogo, Heziel (2015-06-18). "Waterloo: The Movie That Used 15,000 Real Soldiers as Extras". WAR HISTORY ONLINE. Retrieved 2018-01-26.
  9. ^ Pitogo, Heziel (2015-06-18). "Waterloo: The Movie That Used 15,000 Real Soldiers as Extras". WAR HISTORY ONLINE. Retrieved 2021-06-18.
  10. ^ 'Waterloo' Set Next Year Martin, Betty. Los Angeles Times 7 Oct 1965: D16.
  11. ^ "Waterloo (1970) - Financial Information". The Numbers. Retrieved 2018-01-26.
  12. ^ "Waterloo: the epic 1970 movie". Mark Pack. 2015-01-07. Retrieved 2018-01-26.
  13. ^ Tunzelmann, Alex von (2009-09-10). "Waterloo: My my, Napoleon did surrender rather like this". The Guardian. Retrieved 2018-01-26.
  14. ^ "making of Waterloo 1970 | Adventures In Historyland". adventuresinhistoryland.com. 30 June 2017. Retrieved 2018-01-26.
  15. ^ Corrigan, Major J.G.H., Waterloo (review), period props were built by E. Rancati and hundreds of pairs of footwear were supplied by Pompei. Channel 4, archived from the original on 27 March 2009
  16. ^ Peter Waymark. "Richard Burton top draw in British cinemas". The Times [London, England] 30 Dec. 1971: 2. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 11 July 2012.
  17. ^ Evans, Alun (2000) Brassey's Guide to War Films Potomac Books Inc.
  18. ^ "Stanley Kubrick's 'Napoleon': A Lot of Work, Very Little Actual Movie". www.vice.com. 10 February 2010. Retrieved 2021-06-02.
  19. ^ "Peter Jackson Inspiration 2". Retrieved 2 February 2013 – via Youtube.
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  1. The Conformist

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