Waterloo (1970)


Waterloo (1970)

After defeating France and imprisoning Napoleon on Elba, ending two decades of war, Europe is shocked to find Napoleon has escaped and has caused the French Army to defect from the King back to him. The best of the British generals, the Duke of Wellington, beat Napolean's best generals in Spain and Portugal, but has never faced Napoleon. Wellington stands between Napoleon with a makeshift Anglo-Allied army and the Prussians. A Napoleon victory will plunge Europe back into a long term war. An allied victory could bring long term peace to Europe. The two meet at Waterloo where the fate of Europe will be decided.
Soviet Union
IMDb  7.3 /10
Director Sergey Bondarchuk
Writer H.A.L. Craig
Writer Sergey Bondarchuk
Writer Vittorio Bonicelli
Writer Mario Soldati
Release Date1970-10-27
Runtime2h 3mins
GenreAction, Biography, Drama, History, War
Content RatingG (G)
AwardsWon 2 BAFTA Film Awards. Another 1 win & 2 nominations.
CompanyDino de Laurentiis Cinematografica, Mosfilm
CountryItaly, Soviet Union
Napoleon Bonaparte
Arthur Wellesley - Duke of Wellington
Jack Hawkins
Jack Hawkins
Gen. Sir Thomas Picton
Duchess of Richmond
Marshal Michel Ney
Michael Wilding
Michael Wilding
Blucher (as Serghej Zakhariadze)

Waterloo (1970 film)

Waterloo (Russian: Ватерлоо) is a 1970 epic period war film directed by Sergei Bondarchuk and produced by Dino De Laurentiis. It depicts the story of the preliminary events and the Battle of Waterloo and is famous for its lavish battle scenes. It was a co-production between the Soviet Union and Italy, and was filmed in Ukraine.

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

Rod Steiger narrates large sections of the narrative in a whisper, representing Napoleon's internal thoughts. As the same is not done for Wellington, the film may be seen as primarily representing Napoleon's view of the events. However, other than this the film takes a largely neutral stance, and concentrates on the heroism and skill of the individual leaders on each side, rather than simply focusing on Wellington and Napoleon. The film strives, and largely succeeds, in creating a blow by blow 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 impact of the 15,000 authentically dressed extras, recreating the battle sections with true numbers and without special effects, is unsurpassed, and remains the highest number of costumed extras in any film. The film received mixed reviews from critics.


In 1814 French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, facing certain defeat at the hands of the Sixth Coalition, abdicates at the demand of his marshals. He is banished to Elba with 1,000 men, but escapes and returns to France. Ney, now serving the monarchy of Louis XVIII of France, is tasked with recapturing him, but he and his army defect to Napoleon. King Louis flees, Napoleon triumphantly enters Paris, and the European powers declare war.

The Prussian Karl Freiherr von Müffling interrupts the Duchess of Richmond's ball to warn the Duke of Wellington that Napoleon has invaded Belgium to defeat the Allied forces before they can unite. Realising that Napoleon has got between the British and the Prussian Armies, Wellington decides to halt the Grande Armée at Waterloo.

The French fight the British to a draw at Quatre-Bras, but defeat the Prussians at Ligny. Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher rejects the advice of his chief of staff, General August von Gneisenau to retreat and instead moves north to Wavre to keep contact with Wellington. Napoleon, enraged that Ney has let Wellington withdraw to ground of his choosing, directs 30,000 men under Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy to pursue Blücher and keep the Prussians from rejoining the British, while he leads his remaining force against Wellington.

The battle of Waterloo, delayed to let the ground dry after the previous night's storm, starts shortly after 11:30 am with cannon fire from the French. Napoleon launches a diversionary infantry attack on Wellington's right flank, the Chateau of Hougoumont, but Wellington refuses to divert forces. Napoleon then attacks the allied left with the Comte d'Erlon's infantry corps. General Picton, in civilian dress having lost his uniform when his mule was lost, successfully halts the attack but is killed. William Ponsonby's cavalry brigade, the renowned Union brigade, including the famous Royal Scots Greys, pursue the French, but go too far across the battlefield and become isolated from the rest of the Allied force, and are thus cut to pieces by Napoleon's lancers. Ponsonby himself is killed.

Napoleon realises that troops spotted emerging from the woods to the east are Prussians (Blücher's army), not French (Grouchy's force), but keeps this from his army. He then suffers stomach pain and withdraws temporarily, leaving Marshal Ney in command. Ney, in his desperation to win before Prussian intervention, misinterprets a reorganisation of the Allied line as a retreat and leads a cavalry charge, which is repelled with heavy losses by allied infantry squares.

Napoleon returns and rebukes his marshals for letting Ney attack without infantry support. However he hopes that Wellington's line has been worn down. The British strongpoint of La Haye Sainte falls, and Napoleon sends the Imperial Guard for the decisive blow. As they advance they are repulsed by Maitland's Guards Division, who were lying unseen in the grass on the reverse of the slope. The repulse of the Guard devastates French morale, and the arrival of the Prussians makes matters certain. After refusing to surrender, the final square of the French Imperial Guard is annihilated with close range cannon fire.

After the battle, Wellington wanders among the sea of dead (in reality 46,000 were killed in the battle), as survivors organise them into groups according to regiment. He laments the cost of victory - "next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won".

At the same time Napoleon, who had declared that he would die with his men, is dragged by his marshals from the field and later departs in a carriage for Paris.


  • Rod Steiger as Emperor Napoleon I of France
  • Christopher Plummer as Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
  • Orson Welles as King Louis XVIII of France
  • Jack Hawkins as Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton
  • Virginia McKenna as Charlotte Lennox, Duchess of Richmond
  • Dan O'Herlihy as Marshal Michel Ney
  • Rupert Davies as Colonel Alexander Gordon, 4th Duke of Gordon
  • Philippe Forquet as Brigadier-General Charles de la Bédoyère
  • Gianni Garko as Major-General Antoine Drouot
  • Ivo Garrani as Marshal Nicolas Jean-de-Dieu Soult
  • Ian Ogilvy as Colonel Sir William Howe De Lancey
  • Michael Wilding as Major-General The Honourable Sir William Ponsonby
  • Sergo Zakariadze as Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher, Fürst von Wahlstatt (as Serghej Zakhariadze)
  • Terence Alexander as Lieutenant-General Henry Paget, 2nd Earl of Uxbridge
  • Andrea Checchi as Soldier of the Old Guard
  • Donal Donnelly as Corporal O'Connor (as Donald Donnelly)
  • Charles Millot as Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy, Marquis de Grouchy
  • Yevgeny Samoylov as Brigadier-General Pierre Cambronne (as Eughenj Samoilov)
  • Oleg Vidov as Tomlinson
  • Charles Borromel as Mulholland
  • Peter Davies as Lieutenant-Colonel James Hay, Lord Hay
  • Veronica De Laurentiis as Magdalene De Lancey
  • Vladimir Druzhnikov as Général de Division Étienne Maurice Gérard, comte Gerard (as Vladimir Drujnikov)
  • Willoughby Gray as Major William Ramsay
  • Roger Green as Duncan
  • Orso Maria Guerrini as Officer
  • Richard Heffer as Captain Cavalié Mercer
  • Orazio Orlando as Constant
  • John Savident as Major-General Karl Freiherr von Müffling
  • Jeffry Wickham as Colonel Sir John Colborne
  • Susan Wood as Lady Sarah Lennox
  • Gennadi Yudin as Grenadier Chactas (as Ghennady Yudin)


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

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 finally began talks with the Soviets in the late 1960s and reached agreement with the Mosfilm organization. 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. 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, 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.

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. 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 include 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. 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.

The charge of the Royal Scots Greys closely echoes the famous painting Scotland Forever!.

The high level static bird's eye view of the battle formations, in particular the French cavalry attacking the British squares of infantry, act like textbook diagrams of the plan of attack and echo the shots taken in the Russian film War and Peace, filmed using hot air balloons four years earlier.

Much of the photography is done in half speed (and in relative silence) giving a dream-like quality to some of the charges.


Waterloo has an approval rating of 27% by critics and 82% by audience on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 11 reviews, and an average rating of 5.67/10.

It was the fifth most popular "reserve ticket" movie at the British box office in 1971. 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.

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 meager box office results of Waterloo led to the cancellation of Stanley Kubrick's planned film biography of Napoleon.

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

Awards & nominations

British Academy Film AwardsBest CinematographyArmando NannuzziNominated
Best Costume DesignMaria De MatteisWon
Best Production DesignMario GarbugliaWon

Historical inaccuracies

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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 something more like a barn than the magnificent ballroom depicted), 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, 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.

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. (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 son, the Earl of March, who would eventually become the 5th Duke's heir in 1836, and who served as a major and an aide de camp to the Duke of Wellington; another branch of the family was represented by another ADC, 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. 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 subject of much controversy over the centuries. Commander of the last Imperial Guard square, General Pierre Cambronne, is portrayed as responding "merde" although he denied it later. Nor did he say "La garde meurt et ne se rend pas!" ("The Guard dies but 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 finally died in 1842.