Waterloo Wasn't Quite Total War, But It Was Awesome

Fun fact: I'm a history graduate, so when a Total War game comes along, I'm normally first in line. Especially when it involves pipes, muskets and rad uniforms, because they remind me not of Napoleon, but of Waterloo. The movie.

I bring this up because, taking place long before motion picture, audio recordings or even photographs, the Napoleonic Wars were a thing whose immediacy is rarely captured. First-hand accounts can tell us of cavalry charges and farmhouse struggles, but not what it felt like to charge down a square of infantry, or what 20,000 dead men on a field smells like.

But Waterloo (the movie) captures it almost perfectly. And as such, I'd recommend it to anyone currently playing Creative Assembly's strategy game, or even considering playing it. If it can't get you in the mood to go to war with drums and horse-drawn artillery, nothing will.

The 1970 film seems to be barely-remembered these days, which is a shame, because it's amazing. Not necessarily for the "story", or for the performances - though Rod Steiger's Napoleon and Christopher Plummer's Wellington are great - but for the scale of it.

Just like Napoleon: Total War (and Empire: Total War before it) impress with the scope and size of their campaigns, Waterloo is a movie that, even today, stands as a Herculean achievement in production. Why? Because of stuff like this:

- Forget CGI. The movie was filmed in the former Soviet Union, and "stars" over 16,000 Red Army soldiers playing the part of the British and French armies. They weren't just dressed up, either; the soldiers were trained in musket and marching drill, so when on the "battlefield", they could pass for 19th century troops. Watch the scene below, especially around the 0:40 mark, and tell me you don't get goosebumps.

- With the movie set in Belgium, but filming mostly in Ukraine, Soviet army engineers went the extra mile to replicate the look of the Waterloo battlefield. They cleared away two entire hills to get the terrain looking similar, then built replica farmhouses, planted Western European crops, laid five miles of paved roads and planted over 5000 trees.

- To film the movie, the production team didn't just use standard rigs. They used a helicopter, which in 1969 was pretty special. But not as special as the "monorail" built across the entire battlefield by Soviet engineers to allow for long tracking shots.

- Think the breath-taking scenes with the cavalry charges above and below look familiar? That's because Peter Jackson used them as his muse for the Pelennor Fields battle in Return of the King.

If, like me you've got the Napoleonic Wars on the brain at the moment, you need to watch this movie.


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