Hey, it was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on Thursday, so the Edinburgh International Film Festival decided to show Sergei Bondarchuk’s remarkable epic WATERLOO in 35mm anamorphic, with a certain amount of side-trumpery from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard (well, some of them) and an introduction from an affable, well-informed and frightfully posh retired brigadier.
My only real prior knowledge of this movie was an anecdote recounted in the 1978 Scorsese profile documentary MOVIES ARE MY LIFE. Although Ennio Morricone is quoted as saying “Brian DePalma never smiles,” and that ties in with Fiona’s experience of the Great Man, the DePalma who appears onscreen to talk about his friend is a giggling, rolly-polly figure, just coming out of his improv comedy phase, I guess. DePalma the wacky funster. And he launches into a “hilarious” anecdotes about seeing WATERLOO with Scorsese on a double date, where Marty’s girl became distressed at the tripwired horses onscreen tumbling head over hooves in the dust. The tripping of horses is now outlawed as its very dangerous. As you see in old westerns, most tripped horses get up, but some can’t. They don’t show you that.
“So Marty’s telling her to shut up and she won’t and so he starts hitting her and because of that we miss the whole reason Napoleon lost the battle,” concludes the chortling Brian. Which tells you a lot about his sense of humour. One likes to think the story is at least heavily exaggerated. I discussed it with a friend.
“Well, hopefully Scorsese couldn’t really hurt anyone, he’s small and frail.”
“But energetic,” my friend replied grimly.
Disturbing that in 1978 that story could go into a documentary and nobody apparently worried about it. The past is a nightmare.
WATERLOO shows some of that aspect of history.
The battle scenes, deploying 16,000 soldiers from the Russian army (plus some actual dragoons) are astonishing, of course. “Impressive” is too weak a word. But director Sergei Bondarchuk excels before then with his staging of TALK — he’s obviously in love with Rod Steiger’s performance as Napoleon, jumping in on the beady eyes or the obscenely wriggling sausagey little fingers. I’m not sure he’s RIGHT to be in love with the performance, which is very tricksy and big and elaborate, but having accepted the Steiger challenge, Total Commitment is the only option that makes sense. So sit back and enjoy the ham.
And so generously sliced! The movie also sports Orson Welles (puffing his cheeks for two scenes), Jack Hawkins, a veritable shooting gallery of Toby Jugs. Christopher Plummer is a splendid Wellington — the lady next to me remarked afterwards, “I felt Wellington suffered from his dialogue consisting of every famous thing Wellington ever said. A man who speaks entirely in aphorisms.” And it’s true, he does come across as a sort of battlefield Oscar Wilde. But this is a kind of gigantic historical pageant, so it’s kind of appropriate.
Shot in the Ukraine, apparently. Well, it was probably good practice.
REALLY impressed by the editing by Richard C. Meyer, who had just moved to the bigtime with BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID after years on smaller films like the superb MEN IN WAR. But let’s give Bondarchuk credit too — he stages dialogue and action alike in long takes abruptly broken by short, aggressive cuts, faces, eyes, flickering flags. We get the grand sweep but we’re also kept on our toes. This is one epic that doesn’t lumber. Admittedly, the blasting and roaring and bellowing can exhaust the ability to appreciate — and I saw the damn thing with a hangover, for God’s sake — but if one overlooks the rather shoehorned antiwar moment (maybe a soldier really did freak out on the battlefield and run about shouting “Why must we kill each other?”, his blond locks waving in the breeze poetically, in which case I’m an idiot and forget I said it), this is true cinema. It just happens to be writ very, very large.
Of all the movies I’ve seen at the Fest so far, this is the only one where I was struck by the size of people’s heads. Rod Steiger’s head was twice my height. I expect it was in life, too. But in the movie I saw right before, in the same auditorium, the people’s heads, though frequently framed in extreme closeup. seemed no larger than a chihuahua’s. Charisma, people!