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. The suite 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, 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. 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 room floor, Plummer and Terrence Alexander (playing 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 even more unpleasant tang of urine. Ogilvy suggested that the scent in the corridors emanated from the concierges who were all babushka type women who were stationed on every landing. When Christopher Plummer had 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, like pale islands through the sour cream. “It’s the g******n stuff 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]

Rod Steiger‘s performance, was described by one Italian crew-member in terms anyone will understand when they see the film. He framed his face with his hands and held them in front of his face and said ‘This is Rod Steiger‘s long shot.’ Then he ‘zoomed in’ on his eyes and said ‘This is Rod Steiger”s close up.’ O’Herlihy likewise had experience of Steiger’s ‘performance’ on and off the set. When discussing the scene where Ney confronts Napoleon on the march to Paris, a scene O’Herlihy had particularly liked and signed up to do, Steiger announced that he had done some work on it and the new scene was now genius. Upon outlining the genius, which he punctuated with announcements that O’Herlihy ‘would love it’ and that it was ‘brilliant’ he explained that the scene now had almost no dialogue and consisted of a great deal of screen time for Steiger and very little for O’Herlihy. ‘Me not saying anything is brilliant?’ Dan asked. ‘Absolutely! The silence you see? The tension! The drama! It’s brilliant!’ But O’Herlihy told Ogilvy that when it came to tension and drama, silence had very little to do with it. 

Ian Ogilvy played De Lancey, Wellington’s QMG, or as Ogilvy put it, Christopher Plummer’s glorified echo. It being his chore to listen to some undertone direction from Plummer, turn in the saddle and bellow it to the waiting staff officers. Like Plummer’s wife, Ian’s spouse Diane had opted to go out to western Ukhrain with their newborn son and six year old daughter rather than live part for the shoot and it seems Plummer was not exaggerating about the trials of getting to the location. Most of the British principles left Rome for Hungary and then took the train from Budapest into the USSR. Jack Hawkins’ raucous Bon voyage party making it all the more difficult to reach the station on time. The train from Budapest smelled like a lavetory, the Windows didn’t open and the seats were little but wooden slats. With their children asleep in the overhead luggage nets, the Ogilvy’s hunkered down as the train rattled and bumped its way across the Hungarian plain. 

In the rarely flattering dawn light the, hungover and exhausted movie-stars paraded, zombie-like, for Soviet customs at the border station at Chop. They were confronted by stern faced officials who treated them with egalitarian indifference. The British submitted wordlessly to a search of their luggage and the Soviet customs men did a thorough job of going through their belongings. This was no mean feat as the Ogilvy’s alone had baggage for two months. They were especially on the lookout for written materials that might contain anti communist propaganda, and they found it. Jack Hawkins had bought a playboy before setting out into the unknown. Ian Ogilvy had watched with amusement as an official scrutinising a colouring book belonging to one of his children was then suddenly drawn to the side of his comrade investigating Hawkin’s magazine. A gentle, lustful, trickle of officials soon began flowing towards the object of interest, much to the amusement of Hawkins. The Ogilvy’s used the distraction to pack up and quietly slip away. At length the vital piece of western capitalist printing was confiscated, and when Hawkins asked for it back he was met by a simple, stern ‘Nyet’.

When they got there, they found the hotel as uninviting as everyone else had. According to Ogilvy though it was the pride of Uzghurod. The rooms were small, with members of the cast and crew packed four to a room in the case of the Ogilvy’s. It was infested with cockroaches, and the bathing water was tepid, weak in flow and varied in colour. The food was inedible and Ogivly’s wife stalwartly made do with whatever she could scrounge to make do, a pearl of great prize being the obtainment of a saucepan. Meanwhile the compound like surroundings seemed to have awakened old instincts in former POW Rupert Davies who plays Gordon had escaped four times from Stalag Luft III, and now improvised a toaster from bits and pieces he had collected. One day he conveniently fell asleep with the bath running which drowned all his cockroaches.

Jack Hawkins was a silent and brooding fellow, unable to articulate except by asophagal breathing, he would wait until he had something pithy to say and then bang his fist on the nearest flat surface and gulp something out about the mendacious nature of their dismal surroundings. ‘Blaze of f*****g colour’ he would say, pointing to a single flowerin an empty bed, ‘can’t fool me’ he gulped once, pointing to a truck that passed by each day no matter what, ‘B****y thing is empty. Trying to convince me that somebody’s busy in this god forsaken place.’

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 were they allowed to stray far from their lodgings. If you tried to leave the town, then a guard with a machine gun would turn you back with a Nyet. Nyet was a word everyone got used to, although one Yugoslav stuntman decided he’d had enough of it when a waiter denied him an egg with the monosybalic negative for which the stuntman threw the waiter bodily across the room. 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 a Hungarian with a Magyar’s disdain for the Russians, and stubbornly got them through checkpoint after checkpoint. Georgians, Transylvanians, Yugoslavians were also common nationalities to bump into and 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 that the reality was almost monstrous as Wellington seemed to be making fun of Uxbridge. He was talked around to sense, but Plummer distinctly thought the process had made “Bondars” 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, the short sentences and the morose expressions from the Soviet director 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 alone, 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 bigger 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 seemed like a General himself.

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. He 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, rumour had it the Russians were making notes for a copy [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 and they were having quite a good time. 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, and 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. 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 bent at a ghastly angle. It pleading pitifully for help. Its rider heard the plaintive cries of distress, and 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 in no less internal anguish cast around desperately for a gun to end its ordeal. With none to hand, he took out a knife and with shockingly accurate precision cut the animal’s throat. When the cameras stopped rolling an eerie silence fell over the scene, penetrated only by the cries of the heartbroken soldier weeping over the body his dead friend. [23]. Horses were to drop like flies during the 48 days of battle shooting, to the degree that when the prop department began to run out of fake carcasses and began to use the real thing. [24]. This was vividly recorded by Ian Ogilvy. The actors were trained on their horses to get used to loud noises before going on location, riding at various paces while a Russian cavalry office threw some manner of fireworks at their horses legs. However sometimes this was all for nought as Ogilvy remembered being given a fresh horse one day and being informed his former steed was dead, no explanation was given but it was pointed out to him sometime later, lying stuffed with straw as a prop. Animals were treated harshly on this movie, there was no animal welfare commission here, and if a horse died it died and no apart from the poor militiaman Ogilvy senses few tears were shed. But though quite callous in this respect the Yugoslav stuntmen would do all they could to save a horse if they could. Once Ogilvy saw a group of them stop working and rush to the aid of an exhausted animal drowning in the mud, lifting it free and then staying with it until it recovered and ignoring the calls from the Russian production team.

Whenever filmmakers and historians get together to create something, battles are fought over battles. During that summer 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 and 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) Hawkins and Plummer that all those witty lines got given to Wellington, and that he was allowed to show some of his repressed emotion. Plummer was unhappy about the dry treatment the Duke was getting in the film.
It’s the biggest b****y performance I’ve ever seen!’ Christopher Plummer said after watching several hours of Steiger’s rushes ‘He rips down the curtains, he chews up the carpets, he bellows, he screams, he cries – and to top it all apparently Napoleon’s either got the most frightful indigestion, or the worst case of piles the world has ever seen! I can’t compete with that! What the hell am I to do when it’s my turn?’ He asked Hawkins plaintively one day. Hawkins banged on the table and cleared his throat, pumping oxygen into his asophagus in order to frame a few choice syllables. ‘Every time they – gulp – cut to Wellington -gulp – say something droll. Gulp. Audience will start -gulp – to look forward to -gulp – seeing funny Wellington after -gulp – five minutes of hammy old Napoleon.’ According to Ogilvy this sent Plummer to work finding every droll thing Wellington ever said. Plummer cornered Willow and told him: “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, most of the lines in the film were indeed said at one time or another, although in different ways. Bondarchuk accepted these alterations with good grace, as he’d never liked the script much anyway, and 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 called Stok, and was completely deaf after having 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 feeling 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 injured military dignity. The Generals were impressed by his stand, and invited Willow to their tent where they all promptly got pickled toasting him in vodka and discussing the battle, with Chemedurov serving 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].

Apparently the film was shot by nationality. First the French, then the British and then the Prussians with slight overlap. 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 1968 operation to restore his voice, (he’d had his Larynx removed due to cancer in 1966 and died in 1973), and packed up, much to the relief of the cast who worried about his exposure to all the smoke. That summer it was known that the moon landing was in the offing but the Russians weren’t exactly keen on advertising the achievement. O’Herily was still around and obviously wanted to see it and so bought an old TV set and installed it in his room where he tuned it to a Czhech station. Jack Hawkins put his long range radio into service and at 4.:56 am on 21 July the remaining Anglo American Brigade watched the event as it happened in Dan O’Herily’s room.

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. Apparently he had more scenes than 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 but, they didn’t make it. Or if they did the phantom director’s cut has never surfaced and is perhaps merely legend. When the Georgians left, things returned to drudgery and the remaining cast wondered when it would all be over. Ogilvie remembered his eight weeks in soviet controlled Ukraine as an arduous slog, and when the wheels of his BEA left the runway at Budapest the passengers all cheered.  When it was finally 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.


3 Replies to “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.

  2. Thank you for these fascinating recollections of this movie, which we must also thank Dino Di Laurentis for; he was the go-to man to make this colossal beast happen. Thankfully this movie was made before the ugly hand of modernisation took hold and no cgi in sight, and no fake, pretty modern day actors. Real men and real characters. This was made when we still had a foot in the old world; you can feel it. The sheer vast numbers of soldiers captured make my jaw drop to this day; thank goodness for those telephoto lenses!! You can really get a feel of the seriousness and scale of that day. The aerial scene of the squares are memorable for their eye-watering scale, thanks to Willoughby. Thanks to all
    and your work will be fondly remembered. Respect to all those who fought and fell.

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