“On coming out of the chapel, a well can be seen on the left. There are two in this yard. You ask, Why is there no bucket and no pulley to this one? Because no water is drawn from it now. Why is no more water drawn from it? Because it is full of skeletons.”
-Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
Later in life, when Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was asked to comment on the accuracy of his depiction of the Battle of Waterloo in his seminal novel Les Miserables, he explained, “Il va sans dire que nous ne prétendons pas faire ici l’histoire de Waterloo, nous ne sommes qu’un témoin à distance.” (It goes without saying that I do not pretended to [write] history of Waterloo, we are only a distant observer/witness.) To Hugo Waterloo was an enigma. Similar to Tolstoy’s efforts to reconstruct the legacy of the Napoleonic Era in War and Peace, their general narrative fluctuates between a variety of embellishment, re-enactment, and adaptation. As with any work of historic fiction, a certain degree of liability comes on the part of the author when carrying out adaptation of any sort. Whether in literature, artwork, or cinema the liberties taken by the author should in a sense provide the best possible representation of the period in question.
“Written history is, of course, not devoid of emotion, but usually it points to emotion rather than inviting us to experience it. A historian has to be a very good writer to make us feel emotion while the poorest of filmmakers can easily touch our feelings.”
Yet each medium is also constrained by various limitations. There is no perfect vehicle for transcribing the past, each has its advantages and its drawbacks. In the case of mainstream cinema, historic films consist of six key elements, both to the advantage and determent of the subject matter addressed.
The mainstream film tells history as a story, a tale with a beginning, middle, and an end. A tale that leaves you with a moral message and (usually) a feeling of uplift.
Film insists on history as the story of individuals. Either men or women who are already renowned, or men and women who are made to seem important because they have been singled out by the camera and appear before us in such a large image on the screen.
Film offers us history as the story of a closed, completed, and simple past. It provides no alternative possibilities to what we see happening on the screen, admits of no doubts, and promotes each historical assertion with the same degree of confidence.
Film emotionalizes, personalizes, and dramatizes history. Through actors and historical witnesses, it gives us history as triumph, anguish, joy, despair, adventure, suffering, and heroism.
Film shows history as process. The world on the screen brings together things that, for analytic or structural purposes, written history often has to split apart.Economics, politics, race, class, and gender all come together in the lives and moments of individuals, groups, and nations.
Film so obviously gives us the look of the past-of buildings, landscapes, and artifacts- that we may not see what this does to our sense of history. So it is important to stress that more than simply the look of things, film provides a sense of how common objects appeared when they were in use.
Which brings me to this week’s excursion to Waterloo. When faced with reconstructing the history of a site with such a monumental legacy, any interpretation is going to face the dilemma that Victor Hugo faced, “La bataille de Waterloo est une énigme.” However the filmic representations event perhaps most responsible for shaping the modern European state are somewhat lackadaisical. Where much of the great literature of the second half of the nineteenth century directly or indirectly intersect with the events of Napoleon’s 100 days, films of the twentieth century have been surprisingly lackadaisical in their representation of what is such a perfectly cinematic moment in history. Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo (1970) is perhaps one of the most notable exception. Although an impressive spectacle, (his use of 15,000 extras for the battle scenes is truly awe inspiring), the film’s plot and narrative is sadly lackluster. See the trailer below to get what I mean:
Released in 1970, Waterloo is a war movie that had some pretty big stars, and also won a few awards. Yet in the decades since, it’s been all but forgotten. Which is a tragedy, since its ridiculously epic production is one of the most amazing stories in cinema history.
When I say epic, I mean epic. Waterloo is a movie that at first looks big and explosive, but once you know the scale and the story behind it, its battle scenes become something almost more than cinema; you admire them as much for their engineering as their art. The film is based on not just the Battle of Waterloo, but the entire campaign leading up to it, which later became known as the “Hundred Days”. It runs a little over two hours, and in that time covers a bit of dancing, a bit of talking and a lot of fighting.
In almost every scene, everything looks too big and too lavish to be real. Enormous palaces, hundreds (sometimes thousands) of extras, ridiculous amounts of artificial lighting, more explosions than a Michael Bay movie. Only, it was all real, and was somehow paid for with real money. To make a movie this big today would be prohibitively expensive. To make one this big in the 1960s seems impossible. In the traditional way of making movies, it was! There was no way in hell a studio would be able to afford to make a movie that was going to require so many men, so many effects and so much gear. So producer Dino De Laurentiis didn’t make the movie the traditional way. He went to the Soviet Union. Despite this being right in the middle of the Cold War, and despite the film being a Western production with British and American stars, De Laurentiis was able to strike a deal with the Soviets that meant they could not only film Waterloo in the USSR, but would pay bargain basement prices for their access to Russian men and equipment.
There had never been a movie quite like Waterloo, and given the costs, will likely never be again. The final bill was around USD $40 million, which by 1970 standards made it one of the most expensive movies of all time. Had it not been shot primarily in the USSR, it’s estimated it might have cost two or three times that amount, which would have pushed its budget into the territory of “lol nope are you fucking kidding me.”
If you’ve never seen it, and are now very curious about it, you should know that Waterloo isn’t the world’s greatest movie, which may explain why it’s faded form people’s minds over the years (as has the lure of the Napoleonic Wars in general). Some of the dubbing is shocking, even from big stars like Christopher Plummer, and almost every scene not involving the battle itself (or at least the dramatic intro showing Napoleon’s first exile) is tedious as hell.
So why hasn’t Waterloo been given the treatment it deserves? Considering how often Civil War and World War II narratives are revisited by filmmakers, what is it about the Napoleonic Wars that remains so off putting to producers? There are plenty of narratives that can be constructed that go beyond just the showdown that took place between Napoleon and Wellington. One of my favorite movie monologues contains a story set in and around Waterloo, that could be a movie in its own right. Imogen Poots’ speech in this scene from the seriously underrated Comes a Bright Day (2012), captures the range of possibilities that this battle can present in dramatic representations. (Please excuse the Italian subtitles, this was the only way I could tag the scene I wanted, but it’s really a great performance worth seeing.)
So on to the battle’s epicenter, two-and-a-half miles south of Waterloo town. You will have been seeing it for a while; the 141ft conical mound with lion on top sticks out as much as anything sticks out in Belgium. Erected after the battle, to honor the wounded Prince of Orange, it’s an imposing item – though purists complain that its construction distorted the battlefield. Purists also complain about other scars on or about the British lines: a hotel, snack bar, gift shop and cinema room for Waterloo-related films.
Meanwhile, pride of place will go to the brand new, and vast, Waterloo Memorial experience, created underground in the shadow of the mound. Due to open on May 21, this was an off-limits building site when I visited recently. But it promises much: 10 galleries, films, an 80ft curved screen to place visitors at the center of the action, with the floor moving as artillery roars. The early 20th-century Panorama nearby is a 360ft, 360-degree fresco through which Ney’s cavalry charges at Britain’s gallant infantry squares. It’s a broiling, brawling, engrossing work as powerful today as when completed in 1912.
There are several fascinating parallels between Dumoulin’s panorama and Waterloo XXL, where the same questions of adaptation raised by artists, filmmakers, and authors all intersect. The dimensions of this huge fresco are awesome and worthy of its dramatic subject matter. The concept behind the Panorama dates from the 19th century. It is a huge and elegant building designed to display massive paintings of up to 110 m by 14 m. Panoramic paintings generally represent famous battles, religious events or landscapes. The Panorama is a unique visual theatre, offering visitors an opportunity to escape into a different world. The Panorama of Waterloo illustrates a key moment in the raging battle. Its huge size, the portrayal of the soldiers, the weapons and the period costumes make the fresco come to life. Its display in the round leads to total immersion inside the image, making visitors feel like they are at the heart of the action, caught up in an epic saga. The sense of perspective and three-dimensional reality are remarkable, and there is a real feeling of movement and emotion. A soundtrack of clashing swords, cavalry charges, cannonballs, bugles and the cries of the infantry plunge visitors into the heat of the battle. This Panorama was restored in 2008, and is an important piece of historical heritage because it is one of the few that still exist today. In the early 20th century, these kinds of historical reconstructions were almost ubiquitous, but they have since become less and less common.
In the period before the great epic film, works such as this sweeping panorama were the only way to attempt to recreate the action of the battlefield. The experience is quite mesmerizing, as a your senses are assaulted by a series of sound effects and atmosphere building that allows your imagination to come to life. In walking through the panorama I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, specifically his documentary depiction of Picket’s charge. He relied on many images from the panorama of the battlefield at the Gettysburg museum, and the accompanying sound and connection of images is startling. In an effort to further reconstruct the day that changed European history, the museum has also recently unveiled an extravagant 4D reenactment film of the battle. It is quite an impressive spectacle to say the least, and a fascinating fusion of nineteenth and twentieth century techniques of historic adaptation.
The film is screened on a 180 degree panel, with cutting edge 3D effects, supplemented by a sound system that comes up from under your feet. Where I experienced an imaginative immersion while viewing the panorama, the level of direct engagement that the filmmakers are capable of involving their audience is unparalleled. The scope and grandeur or the 15 minute short film is as impressive as the efforts made in Bondarchuk’s Waterloo, minus the melodrama and scenery chewing. Instead I liken the experience to being just short of standing on the battlefield between the two armies and bearing witness to history unfold. The freedom you have to explore different panels that extend beyond your immediate range of sight help to provide an even more impressive sense of spectacle.
In the Thick of Battle! accomplishes in fifteen short minutes what has eluded filmmakers since the time of Abel Gance. That being a succinct and clear recreation of a watershed moment in European history. Where novelists have often relied on Waterloo as a plot point and in turn have manufactured countless narratives and recreations of events of June 18, 1815, filmmakers have struggled to successfully do the same. What is it about film as a medium that has prevented Waterloo from receiving a proper narrative treatment? Which elements of the day’s events fail to fit into Robert Rosenstone’s formula of a historic film’s need for alteration, compression, and invention? Yet as project such as In the Thick of Battle! have demonstrated, Waterloo can in fact be recreated in a very real way through alternative formats. Ultimately I feel that it will be with the visual mediums of the twenty-first century such as virtual reality battlefield tours, immersive video games, and other alternative formats yet to be imagined, that will at last recreate Waterloo in a way that will take us from distant witness of an enigmatic event to active participant in one of history’s greatest turning points.