The Dalai Lama Isn’t Cutting The Ice Like He Used To.

The 14th Dalia Lama on his escape to freedom 60 years ago. The anniversary of this internationally important event has been ably muffled by the Chinese and does not seem to have resonated to a new generation.

It is rather surprising to me that the anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s escape from Chinese controlled Tibet slipped by with little more than a murmur this spring. It’s been 60 years since 17-31 March 1959. A significant moment in world history.

During a year that should have been celebrating a landmark event, the central figure has come under fire not only by his traditional enemy but former allies as well. And with politics in such a mess in Europe, a pitiless mob; eager for blood online & an all-you-can-eat feeding frenzy on all things Trump, few major editorials & fewer world leaders seem to have tested China’s rhetoric defences.

Over half a century has passed since Tibetan Exile began. And though the event will have been marked in Dharamsala, around the world, the conversation is subdued. There seems little interest in looking at how India & China’s Tibetan policies began, have gone & where they might go.

At the beginning of the year Beijing seemed to be expecting trouble. From what is online I can see that the Chinese were so worried about foreign tourism surrounding the anniversary that they closed the border of Tibet. [1]

In an effort to head off bad press & contend with critics in the thorny question of who has the right to appoint the 15th Dalai Lama, the China Daily openly criticised HH & his comments on his successor & praised Beijing’s enlightened stance towards Tibet [2]

Indeed they’ve been laying down a counter narrative minefield since 2018 in anticipation of large scale press & popular backlash. [3]

It would seem that Beijing beat everyone to the punch. Creating a story centred upon their accusations of rabble rousing in Dharamsala & a hypocritical Dalai Lama. Adding to their relentless bombardment of anti Dalai Lama rhetoric and mockery and niftily sidestepping the historical events of 60 years ago. [4]

His Holiness the Dalia Lama and Prime Minister Nehru. The relationship was complicated but the PM’s eagerness for the new republic to stand up to China, and indeed utilise the political clout of their exiled guest is no longer evident in nationalist controlled modern India.

A whole generation has grown up with only a passive intellectual connection to Tibetan Exile. The web eagerly turned on HH this summer over a misstep, in a news storm that drowned the coverage of his fight for freedom & lifetime of good works. [5]

Unfortunately HH’a message of compassion just isn’t cutting the ice like it used to and doesn’t seem to be resonating with people the way it did before. Though still a respected religious leader, his political clout seems increasingly on the wane.

No 60 years of dedicated humanitarian service is protection against a single slip of a 84 year old 2nd language tongue. More worryingly it shows us again how time erodes  the meaning of history through generations.

In a geopolitical sense as well, China’s push to become the inherited caretakers of an international Bhuddist community is not being countered as stolidly by an increasingly exclusive India as it once was. [6]

Ironically the rise of Hindu nationalism in India is at odds with the support of Tibetan nationalism and breeds a disinterest in competing with China for the support of Asian Bhuddists. In March 2018 Indian officials were instructed to keep clear of a Tibetan nationalist rally, a sure sign that Beijing’s threats are being taken seriously.

With the current Dalai Lama in his 84th year, the rise of global nationalism, an India that wishes closer ties with China & a harsher press & social media climate, perhaps it’s no surprise that very few outside the old-guard hurried to cheer his historic escape to freedom in exile. [7]

  • Sources retrieved July 2019.
  • [1] https://www.news18.com/news/world/china-closes-tibet-to-foreigners-ahead-of-60th-anniversary-of-dalai-lamas-exile-2042327.html
  • [2] http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201903/20/WS5c92390aa3104842260b1a88.html
  • [3] https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/china-warns-tibetans-not-to-be-taken-in-ahead-of-dalai-lama-anniversary
  • [4] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/as-tibetans-mark-60-years-since-dalai-lama-fled-china-defends-policies
  • [5] https://amp.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/03/dalai-lama-female-comment-cancelled-twitter?__twitter_impression=true
  • [6] https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/01/22/dalai-lama-reincarnation-beijing-politics-tibet/
  • [7] https://amp.ft.com/content/1aa2876c-2149-11e8-a895-1ba1f72c2c11

When Britain Almost Invaded México.

The Mexican Expedition of 1861.

Charles Lennox Wyke, British Representative In Mexico.

The long war of Mexican independence had left the country in a greatly fragile state. Teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, with a large army to pay, her once lucrative trade revenues dropped dramatically in the years that followed the expulsion of the Spanish. Sinking into an economic depression, rife with faction, alone and vulnerable with no allies to ensure her independence, Mexico decided to attempt to gain European interest by applying to one of the great powers for a loan. They, in response, were pleased to open the account.

Unfortunately, this did not take into account Mexico’s instability. The country had no taxation system to speak of and despite successive regimes promising reparation, continual strife meant that what money could be gathered got spent on internal matters. Mexico’s debts rose and foreign merchants and Mexican Citizens lost property and money as opposing forces sought cash to pay their troops. It got so bad that repayment of the Mexican debt proved to be a political topic of great discussion in Britain, France and Spain during 1861.

British representatives in Mexico had been working hard to try and achieve some kind of workable plan with multiple treaties being signed between 1842 and 1851 but to no avail. Mexico was consistently unable to raise the money. Calls for troops to be deployed to intervene in Mexico’s domestic problems and restore order were ignored. Although the British government was interested in the welfare of the country and wanted to see a stable government implemented, which was in the best interests of everyone. No one in parliament wished to make Mexico a protectorate or fight a costly war of intervention.

President Benito Juarez.

Britain’s Western relations were tense in the 1860s. There had been two war scares with the United States between 1859 and 1861. Once during a boundary dispute on the Canadian border, known as the “Pig War” and another when the U.S. Navy illegally seized Confederate diplomats sailing on RMS Trent. Both times cool heads had prevailed but on the wider stage Whitehall was disinterested in further large scale colonial adventures. Britain had only just got out of a conflict in China, and there were similar calls to protect British interests in Japan and New Zealand. A war without a firm goal in a country as destabilised as Mexico was not on the cards. 

Between the loss of Texas and the year 1850 the Mexican nation went through a period of violent turmoil and anarchy. A series of revolutions and counter revolutions had wrecked the already fragile economy. Then in 1846 the disastrous American war, which ended in 1848, saw a chunk of territory comparable to the size of Western Europe, including gold-rich California, lost to the United States. Not unsurprisingly a civil war then followed, between Liberal Republicans and the Church conservatives, known as the “Guerra Reforma”. 

On 1 January 1861, (the Liberal side having won the war) Benito Juarez, a 54 year old country bred Zapotec lawyer from Oaxaca became president of Mexico. After removing his enemies from positions of power, including sending the Spanish ambassador packing, his response to the debt crisis was to call a moratorium. The pending payments, now amounted to some $80 Million, parcelled out between Swiss banking houses, Spain, France and Britain. Britain making up the main injured party with unpaid bonds and damages valued in excess of £69 Million.

General Juan Prim of Spain.

In September Spain suspended diplomatirelations in response to the ejection of her representative & urged France and Britain to do likewise. Infuriated Anglo-French representatives, Saligny and Wyck wrote angry letters to Juarez warning that if the moratorium wasn’t lifted then they would break off relations with Mexico. The Spanish went so far as to press Britain to form a coalition that would invade Mexico to obtain redress.

In the United States, President Lincoln, was unsurprisingly jumpy about the idea of European powers messing around South of the border with large armies and fleets. American ambassadors in Mexico City and London were empowered to take action. Thomas Corwin told the Mexicans that the USA would take responsibility for the debt, via a large loan, with the understanding that if reparation was not made in 6 years, all public and mineral lands in Baja California, Chihuahua, Sonora and Sinaloa would be forfeit to the United Stares. In London, ambassador Francis Adams informed Prime Minister Earl Russell that if European powers got embroiled in the Americas, the United States would likewise freely embroil itself in Europe. The British tacitly agreed that an intervention was necessary but also played for time, they told the Spanish to wait and see what the French would do. 

Admiral Graviere of France

The French question was soon to resolve itself. As leader of one of the three principle nations tied up in 
Mexico, Napoleon III was watching events closely. The emperor was an adventurer, and all too happy to go galloping off in search of windmills to joust, especially if they furthered his imperial fantasies. After Juarez suspended the debt payment, Napoleon was eager to get involved in Mexico, not just for the money but to create a Mexican monarchy with a French puppet, Saligny wrote encouragingly that 4-5,000 European troops could take the whole country. Napoleon however felt politically insecure without British involvement, as the nation with the largest grievances. 

On 31 October 1861 representatives from the three powers signed the London Convention which laid out their intentions to obtain redress from Mexico but firmly asserted that they would not try to take territory or usurp the government. The plan was to occupy Vera Cruz and from there coerce Juarez to pay up, although a coordinated effort was desired, the Spanish sailed from their nearby bases and took the port on January 17 1862. Spanish troops held it alone with 6,500 men, until the other allies arrived. The Mexican army withdrew from the coast at the arrival of the Europeans, who now in total numbered about 12,200 men.

The British force was small compared to her allies. 4 ships of Dunlop’s Squadron, two armed with heavy Armstrong guns and with between 400 and 700 Marines specially selected from the Plymouth Division aboard, backed up by double that number of sailors, who would form large Naval Brigade battalions if necessary. Dunlop’s numbers swelled briefly once they reached the West Indies in January 1862, and then receded back to their starting number. The navy, as the empire’s main trouble shooters in matters of this sort, had been chosen to undertake the operation alone. Once at Vera Cruz the three powers went about seizing the customs house and threatening to invade the interior of the country. The snag was that Dunlop, in conversation with the French admiral Graviere at Havana, had become aware that they were there on different missions.

Both the Spanish under General Prim and the British wanted to reopen negotiations with the Mexicans as quickly as possible. However Graviere insisted that the first objective was to assist the people of Mexico in forming a monarchy. Prime Minister Lord Palmerston had been aware of Napoleon’s crackpot idea to foist the Austrian Archduke Maximilian on the Mexicans, and had warned his representatives to take no part in the scheme unless the Mexican people wished it, and even then to not advance inland unless specifically ordered.

The French were under the opinion that there was a large monarchical party in Mexico and entertained Conservative party members, even though the British were arresting them, causing tension to rise in the European camp. After meeting with the secretary of war, General Zaragoza, and with no clear idea of how to proceed in one accord, the three powers sent their demands on to Mexico City, but yet again the excessive demands of the French derailed the scheme. Mr. Wyke correctly observing to Lord Russell that they were calculated to render acceptance by the Mexican government unacceptable. France was spoiling for a fight. Juarez tried to plead his country’s woeful financial state, and asked that the three powers return their troops to their ships.

There was however a pressing problem due to the buildup of troops and the advancing season. The climate would soon become unhealthy for the Europeans stuck in Vera Cruz, and negations were opened to allow them to move out to higher ground to avoid being decimated by the diseases that would find them on the low lying coastal plain.

In February the Soledad convention agreed on the various towns in which the Europeans could enter, and the limit to which they could advance. The British were still adamant in not advancing inland, while 3,000 French reinforcements drifted in to augment the 5,000 already there and so outnumber the Spanish. The Mexican flag was raised over Vera Cruz and the customs house handed back over. If negations were to break down the Europeans should “return to Go” at Vera Cruz, and 100 men from each nation were to garrison the city. The British contingent likely stationed at the fort of San Juan de Ulloa. It was hoped that the extraneous forces would be sent back to Europe.

However the treaty of Soledad was more an agreement between the three powers than one between them and Mexico and the problem still remained; how to obtain the money from an almost bankrupt nation without provoking a war. The way forward was marred by France’s belligerence and separate agenda. In an attempt to rein them in, Spain and Britain threatened to pull out if the French did not stop fraternising with the conservatives, as it was contrary to the convention of Soledad. They did not stop.

When exiled conservative Minister General Almonte arrived and proclaimed a monarchy. The bemused Wyke and Prim asked what government he was representing in declaring this. Almonte replied that he had the confidence of France, and the last straw broke.

France broke off negotiations with Juarez, Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs, General Doblaño warned the French that a move to overthrow the Republic and impose a monarchy would be strongly resisted, and invited the British and Spanish to discuss matters. Unwilling to back down, on April 16 France declared war on Mexico and urged its citizens to rally to the French tricolour in order to form a stable government.

General Prim and Admiral Dunlop condemned the action most strongly, much to Doblaño’s satisfaction and applause. With France in open violation of the treaty of London and the a Convention of Soledad, Britain and Spain could not justify their presence in Mexico any longer and withdrew. British representative Mr. Wyke however had finally found a temporary solution to the debt problem that had kept 700 marines cooped up for 4 months at Vera Cruz.

He simply managed to get the Mexican Government to agree to sign a convention that promised to begin paying their debt out of the illusionary loan of $11 million offered by the United States. As a result it would be years before the subject of repayment could be once again revisited.

The entire expedition was predicated on the idea that Mexico could pay the debt, or would promise to do so, and would not continue to resist an in the face of an armed intervention. When both of these assumptions proved false the entire thing went belly up, not aided by the less than inspired plan to impose an Austrian archduke, promoted by exiles like Santa Anna, as a resumption of the house of Moctezuma, on a hastily constructed throne propped up by French bayonets. 

With the exit of Spain and Britain, Mexico declared war on France. The red trousered French regulars marched into the interior to begin “The Mexican adventure”. A conflict that would see, the early Republican victory at Puebla on Cinco de Mayo 1862, the last stand of the French Foreign Legion at Camerón, Mexico becoming a short lived protectorate of France, and the tragic execution of the reluctant emperor, Maximilian I. But it is nonetheless fascinating to think that in 1861 Britain, of all places, skirted close to an invasion of Mexico.

This post first appeared on the Britannia Magazine Facebook page in 2016.

Sources.
Relations between Great Britain and Mexico 1820-1870: Yusuf Abdulrahman Nzibo.
Everyday Life and Politics in Nineteenth Century Mexico: Men, Women, and War: Mark Wasserman.
Maximilian and Carlota: Europe’s Last Empire in Mexico: M. M. McAllen
Hansard Archives, Mexican Affairs. http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/…/jul/15/papers-moved-for
Times and NY Times excerpts retrieved from Victorian Wars Forum thread http://www.victorianwars.com/viewtopic.php?f=18&t=8113

Empire of the Sikhs.

empire-of-the-sikhs-800x534-e1536717167970.jpg

‘Empire of the Sikh’s is a full circle journey, bathed in tones of gouache and gold, that opens a window to the past and brings us to the present’.

Short Review.

The Empire of the Sikhs exhibition at the SOAS, a major exhibition presented by the UK Punjab Heritage Association, will close in a few weeks but I highly recommend you visit before it does, it’s free, spectacular and well worth the time. The installation is found in the exhibition rooms of the Brunei Gallery, a straight walk from the gates of the University of London. There is something there for student, art lover, culture junkie and newcomer alike.

I spent just under two hours at the exhibition, at first moving quite slowly, and if you linger as I did at each exhibit, paying close attention and examining them closely, you would probably need three. So if you want to linger at each display, recall there are over 100 artefacts with their descriptions and several large information panels, and the nature of the objects fairly beg you to take your time with them.

The exhibition is expansive in scope but intimate in expanse, I imagine that it could become quite crowded at busy times, should you happen to arrive at such a moment I’d advise being patient. If you can manage it, browse the books, pick a bench outside for a little while, or drop back down Store Street and sit in one of its chic cafes for half an hour.

Instructions are well posted on the door as you come in. If you have a family, don’t worry. People were bringing their children in, and a small play area where the kids can colour-in is situated to the right of the entrance door. Additionally the Brunei Gallery has a small but well stocked bookshop in the building and inside the exhibition there is a wonderful selection of illustrated books, many published by the excellent people at Kashi House, being sold in the exhibition, as well as post cards and prints, all very reasonably priced and of good quality.

The Empire of the Sikhs is undoubtedly one of the brightest lights of London’s summer exhibition season, and not to be missed.

Opening Date: 12 July 2018: Time: 10:30 AM
Finishes: 23 September 2018: Time: 5:00 PM.
(Late Opening on Thursdays. Closed Mondays and Bank Holidays.)
Venue: Brunei Gallery.
Admission: Free.

Continue reading “Empire of the Sikhs.”

Historyland’s Top Five History Books from 2017.

Once more good people, books flooded my reading list last year in such quantities that at times I found myself swimming in them. In total I think I read one, maybe two books that was not related to research or that I had not been asked to review. My undying thanks goes out to all the wonderful author’s and publicists who have given me the opportunity to indulge in what I love to do. So now I present my five favourite history books from 2017, there’s no particular order here but here they are in the order they were posted.

Isabella of Castile. Giles Tremlett.
‘For its blend of grandeur, cruelty, drama and sheer unrepentant passion nothing can match the history of the Spanish Empire. And it all started with a young strawberry blond Castilian girl named Isabella. This wonderfully produced book will engross you to the very finish’.
https://adventuresinhistoryland.com/2017/03/21/book-review-and-discount-code-isabella-of-castile-by-giles-tremlett/

The Late Lord. Jacqueline Reiter.
‘The Late Lord is a confident, elegantly written biography, rooted in iron clad fact, rarely ever straying from what cannot be substantiated. I think it also brings to the fore the wider strategy Britain adopted to defeat France. Brilliantly highlighting, at the same time, the life of a man who represents a substrata of British statesmen and aristocrats during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. This book does much to retake lost ground, questioning what has been taken for granted, and bringing a much needed spotlight of unbiased scholarship to a fascinating and tragic life.’
https://adventuresinhistoryland.com/2017/04/10/book-review-the-late-lord-by-jacqueline-reiter/

Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain. Ian Mortimer.
‘Ian Mortimer’s Books are so brilliant. Not because they bring the past back to life, but because they prove that there was once life in the past … The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain maintains the high standard of the series, with Mortimer’s usual verve and humour. An eye opening tour that thoughtfully opens up, not a world lost, but a world gone by’.
https://adventuresinhistoryland.com/2017/05/11/book-review-the-time-travellers-guide-to-restoration-britain-by-ian-mortimer/

Koh I Noor. William Dalrymple and Anita Anand.
‘A book that shines in its ability to string together thousands of years of history, involving politics, war, personalities and rivalries into a fluid tale. In many ways parting the mists of myth that surround the diamond. A highly readable, exciting and poignant work, that cleverly tells the history of the diamond and at the same time using it as a vehicle to tell the history of India’.
https://adventuresinhistoryland.com/2017/07/27/book-review-koh-i-noor-by-anita-anand-and-william-dalrymple/

Tartan Turban. John Keay.
‘This … is a story that is worthy of motion picture treatment. Few lives could have been so heroically flawed and so madly eccentric or so deserving of notice, but at the same time it was a life played in a sort of gaudy, inglorious, undertone, because Gardiner never stepped fully into the limelight in his own lifetime. Happily we now have John Keay’s book to bring this fascinating character back into focus’.
https://adventuresinhistoryland.com/2017/10/11/book-review-the-tartan-turban-by-john-keay/

Happy reading in 2018 everyone.
Josh.

A view of Florence and the nature of History.

This is the find of the week for me, something I’ve not seen before that I suddenly noticed adorning a book jacket. A view of Florence c1490, painted I hope by the anonymous gentlemen pictured in it. It’s amazing what art can do. Today I was feeling pretty humdrum, nothing much to stir the juices, then two or three hours ago I caught a glimpse of this and suddenly everything went into warp drive. This little post is the result.

A View of Florence.

Continue reading “A view of Florence and the nature of History.”

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, 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. 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]

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 their lodgings. 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].

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) 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, cornered Willow 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, 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].

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.

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. 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.

 

Ask me about 1066: The Answers part 3.

After a delay which I could put down to factors beyond my control, but instead will attribute to seeing something shiny, this video has been unnecessarily delayed but hurrah! At last I have posted by latest 1066 Q&A vid, I’d love for you to like, comment and favourite, I’d love it even more if you subscribed to my channel but no pressure, I’m easy going like that, wether 10 or 10,000 people watch it. (But please, please, please do).

Josh.