The battle is lost for Napoleon before it begins, Wellington has a strategy he cannot fathom.
Bondarchuk is a very canny director, he would have to be, the Soviet experience of World War Two is never far from him, evidently.
If Wellington “cuts cards with the devil” on occasion, Bondarchuk knows this is Churchill and Stalin. The battle is nothing more or less to him than the Bulge, yet he perseveres in it for its own sake, exhaustively.
The silly, moronic reviews in New York and Chicago deprecate Steiger. Half the film is him, half Plummer as Wellington, “Boney’s not a gentleman,” and, offering a toast on the morning of the battle, “Gentlemen, today’s fox.”
The heroism of the French gone to dust, the distinguished gentlemen who perish on the field, Blücher’s black flags, the Irishman and his pig, the ball from Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp, the Duke’s keen appreciation of Charleroi, nothing meant a damn to the critics, and De Laurentiis lost a good deal of money.
Steiger plays the Emperor as the tragic figure who cries, “I am France!” His defeat is foreordained, whereas Wellington only fears failing in his duty.
Much time is spent deploying the commanders each with his staff differently, before the massive arrays of soldiers appear on the field. The fine nuances and understanding carried no weight with reviewers, they are the film.
Rota’s score, the occasion of Ebert’s review, is primarily battle music of the period, to be sure. His endpapers give the sense of European conflict from Bondarchuk’s viewpoint that is required.
Roger Greenspun meant to disparage the film by calling it set out “more or less the way Tchaikovsky orchestrated the Battle of 1812.”
A day-long battle is very well evoked by Bondarchuk, with its very important consideration of a last-minute reversal, also a sense of war in another mode of combat.