Thursday, 11 February 2016

Waterloo (1970)

I am not one of those people who automatically discounts the use of CGI in films.  It can be very effective.  I do however think that there is often a weight and presence to practical effects that are often missing from their digitally-generated counterparts.

Obviously as a 45-year old film, Waterloo never really had the option of CGI effects, but even if it had, I definitely think this is one of those cases where sticking to practical effects would have been the right call.  Even though the 17,000 Red Army extras used in the film are only a faction of the size of the real forces that waged the battle, they are more than enough to convey the scope of the engagement.  A scope that I think would be lacking if we knew most the "men" in shot were computer-inserted images.

This Italo-Soviet co-production begins with the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte's empire and his exile to the island of Elba.  It then leaps forward ten months to his escape back to France and the "100 days" in which he overthrew the Bourbon monarchy and once more raised the armies of France.  Marching north from Paris, he engaged and fought the armies of the 7th Coalition (AKA "pretty much everyone else in Europe") in a series of battles that culminated with the one after which the film is named.

The even more terrible wars of the 20th Century sometimes tend to make us overlook the Napoleonic Wars, but the Battle of Waterloo represented Bonaparte's last throw of the dice after a decade-long conflict that claimed roughly five million lives and saw French armies range from Spain to Russia to Egypt (not to mention the subsidiary conflicts in India and the Americas).

This is a solid film, ably evoking the confusion and danger of battle in the Napoleonic era.  It also does a good job of conveying the uncertainty of the outcome as fortunes see-sawed back and forth over the long course of the day.  I do think the movie falls a little short of greatness, though: for instance, it would probably profit by excising the opening scene of Napoleon's first downfall and beginning things with the panic that arose in the Bourbon court when he returned to France.  Still, it's a fine if rather bleak picture with strong performances from the two leads.

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