Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Waterloo – Battle, History, Film, Book

Author Frederick E. Smith, was a veteran of the cycle of novel to film and vice versa after his own “633 Squadron” turned into a film several years before he was asked to write this novelized version of the script for the epic film “Waterloo” about the battle fought by Napoleon against the Duke of Wellington’s army and the Prussians under Marshal Blucher.  The film was a major release in 1970, a joint Italy/USSR production directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, whose previous film hand been the almost eight hour long 1966 “War and Peace” (1966).  (I once saw this shown in 16mm format on a series of 10 minutes reels!).  Like that previous film,”Waterloo” was shot on location in the Soviet Union with thousands of Soviet Army personnel as extras to recreate the sweeping battle scenes.
There are persistent rumors of a four hour long Russian language version of the film, but I suspect that that was the rough cut version that was then edited down to the final release version.   During four years living in Moscow, I was never able to find any recorded version (VHS or DVD) that was other than a Russian version of the regular release.  Nor could I find reference to a 4 hour long version in any of the Russian language film catalogs I was able to access.

I read this novel very much as ‘the shooting script’ for the film and looked especially for elements that were consistent with or not consistent with the released version of the movie.  The narrative arc of this fictionalized battle is reasonably close to history, with only minor touches of Victor Hugo or Tolstoy inserted here and there probably as dramatic flourishes.  I preferred the Napoleon presented in these pages to Rod Steiger’s Napoleon in the film.  I don’t know whether the differences arose from the actor or the director’s interpretation, but this novel’s Napoleon matches up better with my conception of the historical Emperor I know from decades of reading and study.

The other characters in the book also follow the film’s lead as they consolidate historical characters into one film personage or attribute historical dialogue from one character to a different film character.  Another difference between page and screen are the Duke’s interactions with the 27th Inniskilling Fusiliers (a favorite regiment of mine) – and in my opinion the film’s version successfully ‘improves’ on the novel’s account for entertainment purposes.  The book includes an expansive list of the cast and crew involved in making the film.

The research done for the film also inspired another book by the film’s Costume Designer  Ugo Percoli and Michael Glover, “1815, The Armies at Waterloo” which presented a history of the battle and pages of color plates and drawings of how they were believed to have appeared at the battle.  Frederick Smith acknowledged “his debt” to a list of ten then significant works addressing Napoleon’s life, the ‘hundred days’ campaign leading up to the Battle of Waterloo, and his principal opponent the Duke of Wellington.  These include “Napoleon” by Felix Markham (which I’ve also read and reviewed), David Howard’s [sic] “A Near-Run Thing” – which I’ve also read and enjoyed.  The cited works cited were, in 1970, among the standard works on the subject.  However, they and thus Smith’s work here has been overtaken by subsequent research and scholarship.

I do recommend this book, especially if you are a fan of the film and interested in the insights it might give into the process of translating words into screen images.  Until someone writes a history of how this movie came to be made, this book plus Percoli’s, are the nearest thing.


Vintage Wargaming said...

That's David Howarth rather than David Howard, isn't it?

Robert A Mosher said...

Yes, I've adjusted the text. He actually wrote David Howard but he clearly meant David Howarth.