Waterloo: The Making of a Battle.

On any given night during the summer of 1969, if we are to believe Roger Ebert, [1] the stars of Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo gathered in Rod Steiger’s suite to drink Johnnie Walker Red and tell dirty stories. The suite was the only one in the run down, Bolshevik Grey, hotel in Uzhgorod, Ukraine, that served as the cast accommodation. It consisted of two tiny rooms “One to sleep in and one to breath in.” Said Christopher Plummer. [2] Steiger, Irish actor, Dan O’Herlihy, playing Marshal Ney and Plummer often got together in the evenings before “Napoleon” departed to drink and joke and moan about the location. [3]
A morose Steiger, brooding over his recent divorce didn’t need much excuse to have a glass in his hand. Ebert remembered Steiger braced over a table one night in the hotel dining room, periodically drinking back measures of local wine to steady his nerves after his horse had been spooked by an areal explosion and bolted. Horses being spooked by explosions were a problem, and not just for the Russian cavalry. In a scene that didn’t make it past the editing floor, Plummer and Uxbridge went on an unscheduled ride after the pyrotechnics went off at the wrong time [4].
‘”My family was destroyed by alcoholism,” Steiger cried dramatically. “I can’t let up!” Plummer and O’Herlihy laughed. “Joking, of course,” he said. “Trying to bring my small measure of poetry into the world.”‘ [5]

Christopher Plummer. Wikipedia.

The hallways of the hotel smelled of sweat and the dining room mixed this with the unpleasant tang of urine. When Christopher Plummer arrived after a horrendous train journey in a ramshackle carriage with no facilities save a hole in the floor, the most comforting meal that could be scrounged was a plate of chicken and a sad salad of poor tomatoes and cucumber. [6]. He’d already been greeted by a welcome gift of caviar and a cordial welcome sent round by the director, which the messenger then asked him to pay for. To add insult to injury there was never anything to eat in the hotel except Borscht, which did nothing to improve Steiger’s mood. ‘”Borscht again!” Steiger said, stirring the thick rust coloured soup so the potatoes surfaced occasionally through the sour cream. “It’s the goddamn staff of life on this location. Borscht for lunch. Borscht for dinner. I’m afraid to come down for breakfast.” [7] He gazed morosely into the brownish red gloop and mused about his role and wether Napoleon would’ve cared a curse if Borscht had been on the menu every day. He pushed the bowl away from him and emptied his glass. Plummer tried to improve his mood with some artless but well meant flattery;
“It is the role, my dear sir, you were born for.”
“Don’t you read E.E. Cummings?” Replied Steiger “A World of made is not a world of born.”
“Then it is the role you were made for sir.”
Steiger didn’t argue further, “You can say that again.” [8]

Jack Hawkins. Wikipedia.

Ukraine in 1969 was beautiful, scorching hot, and dirt poor. The actors were not allowed to fraternise with the locals who came to stare, nor to stray far from the hotel. The hospital was a death trap, as were most of the rooms in the hotel. It was a rich agricultural area, but hungry because the bulk of their hard earned produce was the property of the state and by law sent to Moscow. The area was full of Soviet citizens that were either indifferent to or hated Russia. In part the only reason Plummer’s wife was able to get to Uzhgorod was because the driver he had hired to transport them was Hungarian, who stubbornly got them through checkpoint after checkpoint, with a Magyar’s disdain for the Russians. Georgians, Transylvanians, Yugoslavians were common nationalities to bump into. The area was volatile, part of the reason the film was even possible was because of the buildup of Russian troops on the Czech border after the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968.

Dan O’Herlihy. Wikipedia.

Sergei Bondarchuk didn’t understand Englishmen. Indeed his knowledge of English itself was scant at best. The first time he met Christopher Plummer, the Canadian actor was in makeup for his role as the Duke of Wellington. They were in Rome at the time and master makeup artist Alberto di Rossi was just informing Plummer his nose was more than big enough for the task of emulating “Old Nosey’s” famous beak, when the intimidating form of Bondarchuk strode in tailed by a stern group of what Plummer took to be KGB agents. He was a very Russian looking Russian. A large compact bear with frowning eyes and a pugnacious chin, after observing di Rossi’s work he voiced concern about the upper lip not being right. The Italian makeup artist had a sharp wit and asked if it wasn’t “stiff enough.” To his and Plummer’s surprise he responded in the affirmative and had to be informed that “Stiff upper lip” was an expression, not an ailment. After he had been made to understand, the taciturn Bondsrchuk turned on his heel and left without another word [9].
Rod Steiger said humorously that the director knew three phrases in English, “How are you?”, “I come back soon” and “Bonjour.” [10] For the scene where Wellington and Uxbridge mildly discuss his lost leg, he had something much more dramatic and emotional in mind, which would have seen a tearful Duke escorting his fallen comrade from the field. His feeling was it was almost callous and seemed to be making fun of Uxbridge. He was talked around to sense, but Plummer distinctly thought the process had made him wash his hands of the entire cold blooded, stiff lipped Anglo Saxon race. [11]

Bondarchuck (L) and Orson Welles (R) who played a small part in Waterloo.

The long dark looks, short sentences and morose expressions could well be explained by the sheer size of the undertaking at hand. Italian Producer Dino di Laurentiis had been trying to get Waterloo off the ground for 10 years. His production company wasn’t big enough to handle the monster, and no one else wanted the risk either. Russia was the only place such a logistically challenging movie could be made and Mosfilm stepped up to the plate [12]. A giant budget made the Waterloo project one of the biggest movies in production, and a big responsibility, but Binderchuck was used to immense budgets, War and Peace had cost $100 Million. Even so had it not been made in Russia, with the Red Army it would have cost three times that much. At the time it was said that Sergei Bondercuck commanded one of the biggest armies in the world. 15-16,000 Soviet troops had been mobilised to act as the various armies of 1815, including a full brigade of the Moscow Militia Cavalry, making the recreation three quarters the size of the real thing, each man was played the princely sum of $1 a day for his trouble, a salary that seemed dazzling to them. In order to control his army Bonderchuk counted on a staff corps of Russian Generals, 3 of whom were military historians, who consulted on formations and tactics, General Kozakov, General Lushinsky, and General Oslikovsky,[13] a former major, Anatoli Chemedurov was his assistant director.[14] [15] What with these men, and his small troop of 4 interpreters the soft spoken, plainly dressed man, often mistaken for a Georgian farmer by curious visitors, [16] certainly acted like a General.

Movie producer, Dino di Laurentiis. Wikipedia.

It was obvious that despite the rubbish accommodation Mosfilm was ambitious in its outlook. For months the set director had been carefully manicuring a hitherto ordinary parcel of Ukrainian farmland near the Czech border into a facsimile of Mont St Jean Ridge, Belgium. He bulldozed two hills, deepened a valley, laid five miles of road and six miles of pipe to create mud. sowed fields of rye and barley and recreated four historic buildings, it must stand as one of the most impressive set builds in history for sheer landscaping alone. To film the massive battle scenes, 100 foot towers had been constructed, a helicopter readied and an overhead railway built [17]. The schedule was relentless but as usual at the mercy of delays, weather being one, and the importation of a giant telephoto lens from Italy, which kept the entire “army” hanging around doing nothing for a week while it was rumoured the Russians copied it [18], which did nothing to ease tensions of army officers worried about overheads or actors, stewing in their dump in Uzhgorod. Plummer and the rest of the cast, spent their time either drinking smuggled booze or socialising at dinner parties given by his wife, who had braved the Spartan living conditions to join him on set.
Roger Ebert had mused about the Soviets in drag; “If the Czechs did decide to rise up one day, would the Russians take time to change? Or hurry across the border in costume, Napoleon’s Old Guard against the students?” [19]. On one morning the cast had driven out to the set, a couple of miles in a suspensionless van over bad roads, but driven in Plummer’s case by a excellent man they called Fred, to find it empty. Apparently there had been some emergency and the troops had been scrambled, uniforms and all to go to fight the enemy. [20]

Rod Steiger at the 40th academy awards. This win was not because of Waterloo. IMDB.

The Russian infantry and cavalry were quartered in a massive encampment near the field. They had been taught close order drill, and 2,000 had been taught how to load and fire muskets. Payed more than they had ever seen, they were fairly happy with their lot. Soon after breakfast they marched to the film set and were outfitted, fifteen minutes afterwards they were expected to be in position. The Russian technicians were happy too who gorged themselves on the pasta and vino Bondarchuk flew in from Italy every other day for lunch [21]. The Moscow Militia Cavalry, who Plummer identified as Cossacks and Tartars, undertook gruelling rehearsals for the massed charges, that were filmed from the tracks, aircraft and towers with the high powered Panavision lenses. [22]
These charges were awe inspiring to watch, but painful as well and not just because everyone was getting the feeling that their parts were becoming lost against the vast sea of extras. The Western, Yugoslavian and Russian stunt men could make their horses fall on command, but the cavalry mounts had no special training, and trip wires were used instead with fatal results. Watching one charge Plummer and the rest of the cast were horrified to see a horse rise from the ground with its neck broken, pleading pitifully for help. Its rider heard the plaintive cries of distress, unable to be restrained he sprinted to its side, ignoring all calls to get out of the shot. The animal was in dire pain, and whinnied piteously to its owner, who cast around desperately for a gun to end its ordeal. None was to hand and so he took a knife and with shockingly accurate precision cut its throat. When the cameras stopped rolling an eerie silence fell over the scene, penetrated only by the cries of the heartbroken soldier weeping over his dead friend. [23]. Horses were to drop like flies during the 48 days of battle shooting, in fact the prop department had begun to run out of fake carcasses and began to use the real thing. [24].

Whenever filmmakers and historians get together to create something, battles are fought over battles. During the months in Ukraine, one of the men waiting in attendance on Bondarchuk was his British advisor. A colonel, who not only sported a monocle and moustache but habitually wore a kilt. His name was also unforgivably British; Willoughby Grey, whose great grandfather had actually charged with the 2nd Heavy Dragoons, Scots Greys at Waterloo. He is credited as playing Captain Ramsey of the RHA In the movie, and thus has one line a brief appearance in the film. A generally affable fellow, who chummed around allot with the actors and was usually in on most of the big production calls, he was supposedly an expert on Wellington and the British army he commanded [25]. It is due to Willoughby, nicknamed “Willow” by the cast, and Plummer that all those witty lines got given to Wellington, and that he was allowed to show some of his repressed emotion. Plummer, unhappy about the dry treatment the Duke was getting in the film, having cornered him and said “You know practically every recorded statement the Duke ever made. Let’s put them in the script, even if they are out of context. The writers have all gone; let’s give him back some of his wit and style.” Of course Willow agreed, which is how all those famous lines got inserted, most of which were indeed said at one time or another, although in different ways. Bondarchuk or “Bondars” As he was nicknamed, accepted these alterations with good grace, as he’d never liked the script much anyway, and as such tolerated everything from unauthorised script changes to Steiger’s on the spur ad libs. Wellington’s bearing was also helped by the fact that Plummer was given a wonderful old former police horse from Moscow to ride called Stok, and was completely deaf after going through so many gun battles.
Willow spent days organising the scene were the French cavalry charge the squares, assisted by second unit and assistant director Major Chemedurov. On the day appointed 5 large squares of British infantry had been formed on one of the hills, but for some reason Bondarchuk refused to shoot it, snapping through an interpreter “It may be authentic, but it’s not cinema.”
Willow calmly argued that it would indeed be cinematic if he put his areal cameras to good use, but that just made the Russian dig his heels in. Plummer thought he was threatened by someone who had done their homework. “But this is correct” the Colonel insisted “This is how it happened. I can’t change it. I won’t change it.” Silence from the Russian corner.
“There is really no point in my being here at all if you won’t listen to anything I say!” And he stormed off. Behind him trailed the Russian Generals who had all taken his side, together the soldier historians marched stiffly along the ranks of waiting cavalry, a picture of military dignity. The Generals were impressed by his stand, and invited him to their tent where they all promptly got pickled toasting him in vodka and discussing the battle, with Chemedurov as the interpreter.
In the end Willow won his Waterloo and the areal shot of the squares remains the most admired part of the film. [26].

One by one the actors fulfilled their duties and got out of dodge Plummer, Terrence Alexander Willow and Jeffrey Wickham, appealing to Bondarchuk to let Michael Wilding finish his scenes first due to an encroaching illness. Jack Hawkins having soldiered through his scenes, while recovering from an operation to restore his voice in 1968, (he’d had his Larynx removed due to cancer in 1966), and packed up, much to the relief of the cast who worried about his exposure to all the smoke, he died in 1973. Living conditions had brightened up in Uzhgorod that September with the arrival of the Georgians. Sergo Zaquariadze, playing Blucher was a big star in the Soviet Union, he had the red carpet treatment and for the time they were there the hotel almost became liveable. He brought good company and copious amounts of red wine. He had more scenes that what most audiences remember, stills show the famous meeting at La Belle Alliance & Plummer remembered watching a dramatic scene where he is presented with Napoleons captured hat. When they left things returned to drudgery and the remaining cast wondered when it would all be over. When it was his time to go, Plummer was glad to get away, but reflected later he’d not have missed the adventure of filming the battle of “Batty-Poo” for the world.

See you again for another adventure in Historyland. Josh.

[1] http://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/interview-with-rod-steiger
[2] Plummer, In Spite of Myself.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ebert.
[6] Plummer.
[7] Ebert.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Plummer.
[10] Ebert.
[11] Plummer.
[12] Souvenir Program.
[13] IMDB.
[14] Plummer.
[15] IMDB.
[16] Program.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Elbert.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Plummer.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Program.
[23] Plummer.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid.

 

One thought on “Waterloo: The Making of a Battle.

  1. What I would to see to have someone make a documentary on the making of Waterloo along where the shooting location where. I also want to thank you for this insight of what when on. Maybe someday do a book on this.

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