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.

 

Quatre Bras.

The Battle of Quatre Bras was a vital action for both sides. However it was of greater strategic significance to Blucher and Napoleon than Wellington and Ney. In some ways it is very similar to the Battle of Busaco in 1810, but not for the reasons most people think. Continue reading

Brussels in the Summer.

The Brussels Waltz. It was the age of the Waltz. That scandalous peasant dance that was exhibited at Almack’s in 1812 which had so many ladies of a certain age reaching for their smelling salts. With the hands in constant contact, palm to palm, with bodies pressed close and the gentleman’s arm around the lady’s waist, it was the romantic ideal that encapsulated the spirit of the age a decade before Strauss wrote a note. The Times and oddly even Lord Byron had dressed it down in typically high minded prose but by 1814 this continental obscenity, this affront to good English taste, was the rage of all the fashionable house parties and balls in Brussels who wanted to cause a stir. Any dandy officer worth his salt would have paid good money to be taught how to masterfully twirl a lady around a dance floor with gentlemanly grace and manly reserve. It was as if a stage had been set by a genius of dramatic production. All the ingredients were there, elegant young ladies, fashionable gowns, brilliant uniforms and dashing young officers, a dinner party every night and a ball or two every week. With hindsight it is plain that there was almost a mathematical certainty that romance and tragedy had to collide at some point and create a legend. However at the time the large British expatriate community were blithely unconcerned with the march of history.

Wilson's Correct Method of French and German Waltzing. Despite its rather notorious reputation, its a far cry from you see in ballroom competitions today.

Wilson’s Correct Method of French and German Waltzing. Despite its rather notorious reputation, its a far cry from you see in ballroom competitions today.

British Invasion. Almost as soon as peace was declared in 1814 the invasion began. The city had always been an attractive destination for the aristocracy before the French Revolution, indeed as a young man the Duke of Wellington had lived there with his mother for a while. It afforded a slightly cheaper cost of living, in a fashionable European city, that in many ways resembled a British Spa town, and had none of the current dreary political upheaval then occurring in other capitols. The Belgian capital was best accessed by canals from Ostend, after a sea crossing most civilians were unceremoniously dumped on shore but had the consolation of a barge trip through the countryside to the city. Separated into upper and lower towns and ringed by the old defensive walls, life in Brussels centred on the salons of the wealthy inhabitants, the fine lawns and landscaping of the park, the fine avenues and the grand hotels. Since the “Little Peace” of 1803 had afforded the well heeled in Britain little opportunity for travel, they quickly seized their chance to descend on the Low Countries in 1814 and live it up after 12 years of isolation. The British quickly made themselves at home & the Belgians were shocked and perplexed by the balls that usually lasted past midnight and their copious drinking habits. Yet these glitterati were not the first to besiege Brussels. There had been a British expeditionary force operating in the country under General Graham since 1813, and though he had not convinced the French to surrender a single fortress, he had at least managed to keep them bottled up inside them. Graham had briefly assumed command of the allied forces, and had his headquarters in Brussels, before giving up command to the Prince of Orange in August 1814. Thus there were already a good deal of scarlet uniforms and gold lace present in Brussels when in March 1815, news came that Napoleon had escaped from Elba and was once more in control of France. If anything the slow buildup of British, Hanoverian, Dutch, Belgian and other national troops across the country only added to the glamour of the social scene, and most likely extended its shelf life. Instead of packing up and going home the British expatriates stayed on, after all the allied powers were to attack into France to fight Napoleon, not defend Belgium.

A plan of Brussels park from the 18th century. A focal point of the city where much socialising could be done.

A plan of Brussels park from the 18th century. A focal point of the city where much socialising could be done.

The Shadows Lengthen. Despite the endless minutiae of running an army Wellington somehow managed to mix business with pleasure. There is not a work on Waterloo that does not mention a “Dalliance” or “Affair” with the heavily pregnant Lady Harriet Webburn Webster. Since Wellington never disclosed a single personal remark about who he spent his time with, I will not add to the weight of words theorising about the affair, as it can never be anything but unprovable gossip. Nevertheless what is certain that he was usually always entertaining or in attendance on fashionable ladies, probably as much for their company as the fact they probably knew more about what was going on than did his adjutant general. More important was his social strategy of bluff. The Capitol was full of French sympathisers, and while he felt certain that Napoleon was going to advance against his western flank via Mons, he knew however that this was an unsubstantiated hunch, and that intelligence gathered at this stage was nothing but an indicator. Since 1808 Wellington had worked only on firm information, therefore since he knew nothing of Napoleon’s intentions he dug his heels firmly into the ground, while watching over his right shoulder. While he waited he played, in public he was the not a military commander, nor was he stern and distant as his formidable reputation suggested, he was an aristocrat on holiday. He was charming and witty and was always seen to be having a good time, but in private he was busy organising the army, arranging payment, food and supplies, sending for trusted officers, and scanning intelligence reports, while growing more and more concerned that Napoleon would strike first. Apart from his administrational work he would breakfast alone in his house on the Park and usually dine with his staff. He had large dinners every day and by the 4th of June he had held 3 large Balls and was planning to hold another on the 21st of June to mark the second anniversary of the Battle of Vitoria, which up till then had been his greatest victory. The Duke was a fixture of Brussels society, and the star around whom the little galaxy increasingly revolved. Because he maintained an air of carefree gaiety to the public nothing changed in Brussels, except that more officers became available to socialise with. Gentlemen still went to “Reading” Clubs to gamble, there was carriage and horse riding, strolls and picnics and outings into the country, cricket matches, military reviews, hunting parties and the racing days provided by the Prince of Orange and the Earl of Uxbridge were always popular and hostesses vied with each other to entertain. However the gay and carefree British expatriate community living in the Belgian capitol, like animals scenting the air for danger, sensed the mood changing. Something was going to happen that would bring and end to their way of life, perhaps they felt things reaching a peak, and the only way to go now was down. It was no secret that the Duke of Wellington’s army was in Belgium to fight, but when it would do so was anybody’s guess. The wise heads suggested that the Duke was awaiting word that the Austrians and Russians had invaded France, which would be sometime in July. Until then there had been an air of tranquility, a miasma of springtime holiday activity in a little London created overseas, for almost a year now, hardly interrupted by Napoleon’s escape and the concentration of the Duke of Wellington’s army, indeed the influx of officers and dignitaries likely prolonged the fun, cloaking the reality that Napoleon was massing troops on the borders of France. Now spring turned to summer, the days began to stretch and the shadows began to lengthen over the lawns in Brussels park. But just as one can tell, after a long summer day of activity that the night is fast approaching, both soldiers and civilians began to realise that they were playing on borrowed time. The constant passage of military couriers seemed to tell their own story.

A map of Brussels from 1837 shows roughly it's 1815 extent, with North more or less to the right. The area around the park shows Wellington's street, the Montague de parc, the house of the Prince of Orange and at the right, at the edge of where the walls used to be is the Rue de Blanchisserie were the Duke and Duchess of Richmond stayed.

A map of Brussels from 1837 shows roughly it’s 1815 extent, with North more or less to the right. The area around the park shows Wellington’s street, the Montague de parc, the house of the Prince of Orange and at the right, at the edge of where the walls used to be is the Rue de Blanchisserie were the Duke and Duchess of Richmond stayed.

Save the date for the 15th. Charlotte Duchess of Richmond was a noted socialite, who had presided over several balls already, and she was determined to pack in as much as possible before the army marched. Seeking out the Duke of Wellington, who himself was behind many of the balls and dinners in the city, entertaining most nights, she asked him in the true regency fashion of Austen or Heyer, whether she could give a ball without it being interrupted. She asked for no secrets, and no reasons, just if she could give her ball. “Duchess” Wellington said fatefully “You may give your Ball with the greatest safety without fear of interruption” in truth he could not say anything else and maintain the facade of calm. The date was set for the 15th of June. In the meantime the round of balls continued. The Duchess of Richmond knew how to do things properly, and she engaged two officers of the 7th Hussars to hand deliver her invitations to the officers of the cavalry when Lord Uxbridge held his next field day at Grammont. Despite the rumours of the army preparing to march, no one could be sure of anything except that on the 15th the Duchess of Richmond would be giving a very select and private ball at her home in the Rue de Blanchisserie. Roughly 230 invitations were sent out, over half were to officers. Yet it was not really a large ball, though it was reasonably well attended, for there were 1,064 officers in the army and most were from the staff, nor was it yet the event of the season. It was to be a private party thrown at private expense. Had it been on any other day it would have been little different than any other ball and faded into the parchment of history like all the others, but it was not to be. Josh. Sources. The Duchess of Richmond’s Ball: David Miller. Dancing into Battle: Nick Foulkes. Wellington, the years of the sword: Elizabeth Longford. Freshly Remembered, The story of Sir Thomas Graham: Oglander. Your Obediant Servant: James Thornton Cook to the Duke of Wellington. Spencer and Waterloo, letters 1814-1816: Spencer Madan. Wellington, the iron duke: Richard Holmes.

Napoleon prepares for war.

The grand ceremonies at the Champ de Mai and the Champ de Mars marked the end of Napoleon’s glorious return to power. They also marked Napoleon’s effort to restore the faith of the army in its emperor, to see him arrayed in splendour, an invincible deity like figure that walked amongst them. Continue reading