WATERLOO

★★★★

AN EPIC RECREATION OF THE LEGENDARY BATTLE

BLU-RAY REVIEW
By Daniel Lammin
31st May 2020

This week, we're taking a look at some of the first titles from Imprint Films, a new premium-label Blu-ray series from Via Vision Entertainment, featuring world-first releases of classic films. Each month, new titles are added to the collection, featuring new transfers, exclusive special features and more, and the first 1,500 units come with a beautifully designed slipcase. As far as boutique home entertainment releases go, Imprint is already proving a welcome addition for Australian audiences.

Our next title is the world-first Blu-ray release of the mammoth 1970 historical epic 'Waterloo'.

Co-produced by Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis and the Soviet film studio Mosfilm, 'Waterloo' is essentially a historical recreation of the legendary battle on the 18th of June 1815 between the French forces of Napoleon Bonaparte (Rod Steiger, 'In The Heat of the Night') and the British forces of the Duke of Wellington (Christopher Plummer, 'All the Money in the World'), the battle that essentially ended Napoleon's campaign to dominate Europe. The first act focuses entirely on Napoleon, his initial exile and his return to power in France, while the second act puts all the pieces in place for the battle, and the final, gargantuan act presents a startling recreation of the battle itself.

The film was placed in the hands of Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk, who in the mid-1960s had directed the magnificent seven-hour Soviet-funded adaptation of Tolstoy's 'War and Peace'. This experience made him possibly the only director capable of realising a film of the scale of 'Waterloo', the battle scenes in 'War and Peace' being the largest and maybe the greatest ever captured on film. The final act of 'Waterloo' sees tens of thousands of extras choreographed into the chaos of battle, astoundingly visceral and mindboggling to behold when you consider that every element in the frame is being captured in-camera. Bondarchuk somehow balances the chaos and enormous scale of the battle without sacrificing the clarity of its narrative, but perhaps his greatest asset to 'Waterloo', both in the battle sequences and in the film in general, is his singular ability to visually realise and capture the epic. Within one frame, we can see thousands of men on horseback charging across a field, with explosions all around them, and men and horses collapsing mid-run, while the camera frantically races with them, and despite the film's age and the historical nature of its subject, it always feels immediate and dangerous. He isn't simply presenting the battle but digging deep into the experience and psychology of it, including astounding uses of slow motion and helicopter shots. Though they never quite reach the same jaw-dropping awe of the battles in 'War and Peace', the battle in 'Waterloo' is easily one of the greatest staged in an English-language film.

SWITCH: 'WATERLOO' TRAILER

The problem is that, while the final act is tremendous, the first two never find their feet. This isn't necessarily a fault of Bondarchuk, who fulfils the requirements of the sweeping Hollywood epic while still employing his own distinctive idiosyncratic techniques (whispered voiceover, moments of breaking the fourth wall, wild and crazy camera techniques that no American or British director would ever think of). The fault is in the screenplay - it spends most of its time focused on Steiger's brooding Napoleon, but this is Napoleon as an icon, not a character. The film doesn't give us a strong emotional connection to any of its protagonists, so by the time we reach the battle, it's hard to be emotionally engaged with it. It also leads Steiger towards a histrionic, emotionally wrought performance, though Plummer has a lot more wit and music as Wellington. The film also never makes clear its intentions other than being an effective recreation of a historical event. Its scale and prestige inevitably place it in the same field of Napoleonic films as Bondarchuk's 'War and Peace' and Abel Gance's silent film epic 'Napoleon' (1927), but 'Waterloo' lacks their psychological complexity and, despite its enormous scale, feels lacking.

The result is as a film that, while technically impressive, feels emotionally distant. Bondarchuk and cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi never hide the influence of Napoleonic paintings on the visual language of the film, but that's essentially what 'Waterloo' becomes - a piece of history told at arm's length from the distance of time. As difficult as it is to emotionally engage with, 'Waterloo' is still an impressive production, all the more so as a demonstration of Sergei Bondarchuk's remarkable ability for balancing the inner world of his characters and the spiritual horror of war with the ultimate expression of the epic in cinema. For those reasons alone, 'Waterloo' is certainly a film that deserves attention.

The battle in 'Waterloo' is easily one of the greatest staged in an English-language film.

PICTURE & SOUND
Of the three Imprint titles reviewed so far, 'Waterloo' is the most technically robust. The 1080p 2.35:1 transfer provided by Sony is very strong, with excellent detail throughout with very little sign of damage and healthy film grain. Some DNR may have been applied, but not in a distracting manner. What is most interesting though are the colours, slightly sickly and desaturated at points. One could blame incorrect colour timing, but the look also matches the strange use of colour in Bondarchuk's 'War and Peace', especially in the use of grey makeup on the actors, which suggests that it may be an artistic decision or a result of the film's Soviet production rather than a fault in the transfer itself. It will be a potentially strange experience for some audiences, but once you get used to it, it ceases to be distracting. The transfer comes with a robust DTS-HD MA 5.1 track that really comes into its own in the final battle, creating an equally overwhelming aural experience. The disc also comes with an LPCM 2.0 track.

SPECIAL FEATURES
'Waterloo' only comes with one featurette, a theatrical trailer (3:29) and an Imprint trailer, but the featurette, 'Sheldon Hall on Waterloo' (37:36) is terrific. A film historian who has written extensively on epic cinema, Hall gives a detailed account on the making of the film, from its development right through to release. The featurette, produced exclusively for this release by Via Vision, is probably the best on any of the Imprint releases we've reviewed so far, and a valuable companion to the film.

As with the other films, the disc is presented in a sturdy slipcase with the original poster artwork, and alternate artwork on the case, though not quite as striking an alternative as the other releases.

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