Sometimes an historical epic overwhelms you with its cast of thousands - CG makes this sensation absolutely commonplace - and sometimes it condenses all the action to the quiver of an eye. Last night I watched Waterloo, the 1970 film directed by Sergei Bondarchuk and produced by Dino De Laurentiis, with its 15,000 soviet soldiers and a brigade of cossack cavalry as extras standing in for Napoleon's Old Guard and Wellington's "scum of England", and it managed to do both.
Rod Steiger gives a riveting performance as Bonaparte, whose magnetic presence even in brooding silence fills up even the most cavernous palace or the space between armies. George C Scott won the best actor Oscar that year for Patton and Waterloo was passed over for any of the top nominations, which says more about the sensibilities of the motion picture academy than the worthiness of Steiger's acting. A foreign war picture, filmed largely in the Ukraine about an event which meant little to Americans, wasn't going to stand up to the likes of the disaster film Airport with its ten academy award nominations that year.
Nevertheless the film is magnificent and stands the test of time far better than many of its contemporaries. Christopher Plummer plays the Duke of Wellington with understated urbanity and gets most of the best lines, including the classic exchange near the close of the battle with Lord Uxbridge in which the latter reels on his horse and says "By God, Sir, I've lost my leg" and Wellington replies softly, "By God, Sir, so you have." Like our Gettysburg, there are classic moments like these that every scholar of Waterloo knows by heart that find their way into the film.
True, there is very little made of the fact that the bulk of Wellington's army was comprised of Germans and Dutch-Belgians, or that his nominal second-in-command was the incompetent Dutch Prince of Orange. Those Scot's Greys riding hell for leather, somersaulting over their stricken mounts at the gallop, and the ragged British squares blunting the tide of the French Cuirrassiers, are part of Waterloo mythology. So, too, is the destruction of the Old Guard, after their commander is said to have replied to an offer to accept their surrender with a defiant "Merde!", but this was not accomplished by surrounding them with cannon as the movie depicts it. I am sure it had a moving effect on the French audiences at its Paris debut, and besides, even the participants in the battle got it wrong on numerous occasions. Maitland's Foot Guards were subsequently called the Grenadier Guards because it was though that they had defeated Napoleon's Grenadiers of the Old Guard instead of the similarly attired 3rd Chasseurs. No matter: the Chasseur Guards just doesn't have the same ring to it.
There is a Russian release of the DVD available from Amazon and dubbed in English that I highly recommend. I believe this is also the version you get if you order it from Netflix.