I freely admit that it took me three tries to make it all the way through Sergey Bondarchuk’s Waterloo (1970). For me at least, it’s that kind of picture. Yes, it’s big. It’s epic. It’s especially impressive when you realize that in those quaint pre-CGI days, all those thousands of dress extras are actually there. OK, that’s all in the plus column, though I confess that after awhile a certain epic overkill sets in. How many shots of soldiers on horseback, soldiers on foot, soldiers in mud, soldiers firing cannons and so on before it all runs together? Impressive, sure? But as drama, well, that’s another matter.
There’s no shortage of drama, however, in Rod Steiger’s Napoleon. I don’t suppose any actor ever worked so hard at trying to become the character he was playing. Problem is — at least for me — the harder he tries the more he is just Rod Steiger straining to be someone else. That’s certainly the case with his sweaty, over-emotional, petulant Napoleon. I never believe him for a moment, but I am almost mesmerized by the effort he puts into it. In Waterloo it’s even more pronounced since he’s up against Christopher Plummer’s effortlessly elegant Duke of Wellington. Plummer is easily the best thing about the picture. The two never have any scenes together, but there’s a long stretch where the film cuts between the two that offers a study in contrasts — and an unintentional contest of performers. Plummer wins.
When Waterloo came out it turned out to be a gigantic flop. Various reasons have been given. Some hold water. Some don’t. The idea that no one was in the mood for a war movie in the midst of Vietnam sounds good till you realize that Patton was a major hit the same year. That it was a period film seems more solid and probably has some bearing on it. But mightn’t it also be that it’s just a tough slog of a movie?
The Hendersonville Film Society will show Waterloo Sunday, Sept. 28, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.