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Returning to "Waterloo"

Posted at 3:55 PM on January 29, 2007 by Euan Kerr

Back in 1970 when I was in the equivalent of the 5th grade in Edinburgh, our teachers loaded the entire grade onto buses and took us to the Odeon Cinema in South Clerk Street to see the Dino de Laurentiis epic "Waterloo."

The Odeon had one of the largest screens in the city, two if not three stories high and for two hours we were plunged into the splendor and the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars. Rod Steiger played Napoleon with goggle-eyed ferocity, and Christopher Plummer oozes arrogance as Wellington.

This was a big production: 20,000 extras for the battlefield shots, most of them from the Soviet Army, which gets a special vote of thanks in the credits.

The image that stayed with me though was of two French soldiers, members of the Old Guard, who had marched with Napoleon to Moscow, mourned as he entered exile on Elba, rejoiced at his return 10 months later, then died rather than surrender to Wellington. Director Sergei Bondarchuck locked in on their faces several times during the film, and the quiet determination and loyalty of their expressions seared into my 10-year-old mind more than anything else.

What we didn't know back in 1970 was the movie was a box office bust, and having our 200 or so butts in seats, while no doubt educational, was also small help to the bottom line.

Over the weekend I again watched "Waterloo," trying hard to ignore the Chinese subtitles which I was unable to dismiss despite repeated attempts.

Being older, some things stood out more to me this time. There's Napoleon's genius combined with meglomania. There's Wellington refusing to divulge his battle plans even to his second-in-command. When it's pointed out that it would be wise for others to know, he says his plan is simple. "To beat the French!"

There's also just how close Wellington came to losing the battle, and how different world history might have been had Prussian reinforcements not arrived at the last moment.

Watching on a 14 inch screen is never a good idea especially when it's an epic. The close-ups of Napoleon and Wellington's eyes looked incredible when they were 50 feet across. At five inches they just looked frantic.

But those two men with the military moustaches are still there, serving as the common soldiers, whose lives depend on the whims of the men in the hats at the back of the line. This time though I remember more how they look after the cannons cut them down. Thousands of men died that day, and "Waterloo" shows at least obliquely, each had his own story.

January 2007
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