The visitors’ center at the Waterloo Battlefield plays clips from the 1970 Sergey Bondarchuk film, Waterloo. The museum gift shop has DVDs of the movie in French, Dutch, German, and some other languages, but not English. But I saw an English copy on Amazon (with Chinese subtitles!), so I bought it and watched it over the weekend (subtitles off). I’d seen the movie as a 10 year old when it first came out: I haven’t seen it since. It was cheesy in spots, and Rod Steiger was over the top as Napoleon, but the battle scenes were pretty amazing even 40 years after they were filmed.
The movie was an expensive collaboration between the Soviet Bondarchuk and the Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis. The battle scenes are immense and elaborate. And the interesting thing is that 15,000-odd Soviet infantrymen were the combatants on film, and that Cossacks were among the 2,000 cavalrymen. The Soviets reengineered the landscape at the shooting site in Ukraine, building replicas of buildings like Hougoumont and Le Haye Sainte, constructing hills, planting fields as they were at Waterloo. and installing an elaborate underground irrigation system to create the mud that was an important feature of the Waterloo battlefield and battle. At the time, it was a hugely expensive movie, and would have been more so if it had been filmed anywhere but the USSR.
So if Russians playing Frenchmen lose a big battle, who gets credit for the win?
Watching Waterloo motivated me to revisit Amazon, where I bought another Bondarchuk epic with a reputation for its elaborate battle scenes, War & Peace. With English subtitles, which will be on.