Rod Steiger and the art of the nervous breakdown

Before CGI, if you wanted to film an epic battle scene, you had to stage one. Waterloo, the Soviet-Italian film by Sergei Bondarchuk, is one long battle scene, a triumph of manpower and logistics that required a cast of thousands.  To recreate the battlefield, Russian engineers bulldozed swathes of the Ukranian counrtryside, laying five miles of road and transplanting 5,000 trees. With some 15,000 Soviet foot soldiers and 2,000 cavalrymen as extras, during filming the director was said to be in command of the seventh largest army in the world.  They certainly don’t make them like this anymore, and for good reason: a box office flop, Waterloo cost £12m, at that time one of the most expensive films in history.

But for all its epic swebig-rodep, the film’s essential drama takes place in the mind of one man. Rod Steiger’s tour de force performance as the diminutive emperor is a study in physical and mental torment. He gives us the military genius riven by self doubt, a monstrous egomaniac obsessed with his own legacy, yet also oppressed by the burden of the myth he has created. For much of the film Steiger’s face is a clammy, seething mass of neuroses; his Napoleon is a Lear-like figure, raging against storms, corralling his generals while bent double with the stomach cancer he is fighting to conceal.

By contrast, Christopher Plummer as Wellington is every inch the unflappable English aristocrat, napping under a tree as his opponent’s forces mass in the valley.  Steiger’s performance came just two years after his portrayal of another troubled soilder in The Sergeant, the story of a gay US army officer struggling with his own repressed desires.

With scenes like the charge of the Scots Greys and the desperate final stand of the French Old Guard, Waterloo is exciting, boys-own stuff in the vein of historical war epics like 1964’s Zulu.  But in some respects it also prefigures the anti-war films of the post-Vietnam era. At the height of the battle a young man breaks from his unit and runs among the troops, pleading with both sides to stop the killing.  Later, as it scans the scarred landscape, the camera picks out his corpse lying among the dead.  The film closes with a long sequence in which Wellington surveys the carnage, sombre in victory, while Napoleon leaves in his carriage, a broken man.

Mirroring the madness of its subject with its own crazed ambition, Waterloo is a forgotten classic that deserves to be ranked among the finest war films of the ’70s.

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