Rod Steiger adds his name to the list of distinguished actors who have played Napoleon Bonaparte, but his performance is not nearly as good as those of many of the other actors who have taken on the role (including Marlon Brando in DESIREE, Herbert Lom in King Vidor's WAR AND PEACE,
Vladislav Strzhelchik in Bondarchuk's WAR AND PEACE, Charles Boyer in CONQUEST, Jean-Louis Barrault in MLLE. DESIREE, and Albert Dieudonne in Abel Gance's NAPOLEON). Undeniably, Steiger's portrayal is a method actor's interpretation of the complex Corsican, characterized by much strutting,
fretting, and sweating but offering no indication of what's going on inside the Little Corporal's head. Even though it was filmed on location in the Ukraine and Italy, with interiors done at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, the film covers too-familiar ground. Fearing the power-hungry Steiger, the kings
and queens of Europe pressure him to step down as the emperor of France. Steiger bids a touching farewell to his soldiers before depating for exile on Elba. That exile doesn't last long, however, and soon Welles (as Louis XVIII, in what must have been, at most, a two-day cameo) and his court learn
that Steiger has fled the small island and is already gathering some of his loyal men in an attempt to take control once more. O'Herlihy promises to apprehend his onetime commander, but when O'Herlihy and his men face Steiger and his loyal forces, O'Herlihy's troops refuse to fire upon their
beloved former leader. O'Herlihy sees the power of Steiger's presence, tosses his saber to the ground, and joins his former chief. The troops arrive in Paris and occupy the city without a shot being fired or a sword wielded. Welles escapes and Steiger again becomes emperor, prompting much
political maneuvering by the leaders of Russia, England, Austria, and Prussia, who unite to put an end to Steiger's ambitions once and for all. Plummer (as Wellington) leads his troops to a meeting on the Belgian plains with the Prussian regiments commanded by Zakhariadze (as Blucher). Aware of
his enemies' plotting, Steiger launches an attack on Zakhariadze's men after first driving a wedge into Plummer's forces. The Prussians fall back immediately and race toward Waterloo where Plummer and his forces wait, but O'Herlihy, leading a wing of Steiger's troops, doesn't go after them. Wet
weather mires Steiger's cannons in the mud, so he plans to wait until the earth dries out. Because he is not well, Steiger commands his men from the rear, where he is dependent on courier-carried information that is dated once it reaches him. Time passes and the morning of June 18, 1815, dawns.
All of the Prussians have made it back to Waterloo and they represent a much larger force than Steiger has expected. The French march in and are decimated by the combined troops of Plummer and Zakhariadze. After the fighting is over and Steiger has been defeated, Plummer rides through the
battlefield; surrounded by death, he observes that losing a battle is just slightly worse than winning one.
Director Bondarchuk was responsible for one of the most expensive pictures ever made, the Russian version of WAR AND PEACE. Since the government was footing the bill on that film, he spent what might have been as much as $100 million. This time around, the Russians put up only half the money and
Bondarchuk had to be content with a considerably smaller budget. To insure the historical accuracy of the film, technical advisor Willoughby Gray drew on the copious notes of his grandfather, who fought on the British side at Waterloo.
When all is said and done, it is Steiger's performance that most underminds the film's success. In a tri-cornered hat, the round-faced Steiger looks less like Napolean than like comedian Shecky Greene doing his impression of Hugh Herbert. Steiger's uneven performance was reputedly the cause of
many offscreen battles between the actor and director Bondarchuk that made the Waterloo sequence look like patty-cake. When Steiger is good, he is an Oscar winner; when he is bad, he is very bad. With WATERLOO, Steiger proved not only bad but vain, requesting that the film's title be changed to
"Napolean," presumably to make clear who the star was.
While the battle scenes employ thousands, they are not well staged. Yet for all the money lavished on those battle scenes, the filmmakers were also willing to use badly produced rear-screen projection in other scenes. WATERLOO is far longer in its Russian version, and the scenes clipped from the
US release print might have helped explain some of the erratic behavior from the actors. Although it was a monstrous bomb at the box office, the film deserved a better fate, if only for the spectacle it brings to the screen.
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- Review: Rod Steiger adds his name to the list of distinguished actors who have played Napoleon Bonaparte, but his performance is not nearly as good as those of many of the other actors who have taken on the role (including Marlon Brando in DESIREE, Herbert Lom in… (more)