Screw CGI, This War Movie Used 15,000 Real Soldiers

Waterloo, released in 1970, is a war movie that had some pretty big stars, and also won a few awards. Yet in the decades since, it's been all but forgotten. Which is a tragedy, since its ridiculously epic production is one of the most amazing stories in cinema history.


When I say epic, I mean epic. Waterloo is a movie that at first looks big and explosive, but once you know the scale and the story behind it, its battle scenes become something almost more than cinema; you admire them as much for their engineering as their art.

The film is based on not just the Battle of Waterloo, but the entire campaign leading up to it, which later became known as the "Hundred Days". It runs a little over two hours, and in that time covers a bit of dancing, a bit of talking and a lot of fighting.

In almost every scene, everything looks too big and too lavish to be real. Enormous palaces, hundreds (sometimes thousands) of extras, ridiculous amounts of artificial lighting, more explosions than a Michael Bay movie. Only, it was all real, and was somehow paid for with real money.

To make a movie this big today would be prohibitively expensive. To make one this big in the 1960s seems impossible. And, in the traditional way of making movies, it was! There was no way in hell a studio would be able to afford to make a movie that was going to require so many men, so many effects and so much gear. So producer Dino De Laurentiis didn't make the movie the traditional way.

He went to the Soviet Union. Really. Despite this being right in the middle of the Cold War, and despite the film being a Western production with British and American stars, De Laurentiis was able to use director Sergei Bondarchuk (who was Russian) to strike a deal with the Soviets that meant they could not only film Waterloo in the USSR, but would pay bargain basement prices for their access to Russian men and equipment.


It's that access that is key to how badass Waterloo ended up being. The Red Army contributed a staggering 15,000 soldiers to the production, including an entire brigade of cavalry, along with trained engineers.

Having that many men at his disposal meant that director Sergei Bondarchuk could shape his "set" like a God. Filming took place on farmland near the Ukrainian city of Uzhhorod, and to ensure that the movie's battleground resembled the actual thing in Belgium engineers laid five miles of roads, planted thousands of trees, built replicas of the farmhouses at the centre of the battle and most insanely used bulldozers to clear away two hills. Just like that. Gone.


It also meant that Bondarchuk had a literal army to fight his battles. All 15,000 Soviet troops (who lived in tents next to the "battlefield") were used as extras, and spent months training like Napoleonic soldiers, while 2000 of these were given even more intensive lessons, as they'd be required to load and fire muskets on camera.

Those months also gave the troops enough time to grow some damn impressive Napoleonic facial hair.


Now that you know how much work went into the battlefield, and how many actual men were involved, take a look at the film's two most impressive battle sequences: the charges of the British and French cavalry.

First, the British. If you've ever got goosebumps from the charge of the Rohirrim during Return of the King, know that Peter Jackson is a big, big fan of Waterloo. You'll want to start at around 2:00, and just soak up the slow-mo sequence that follows.

Second, and even more impressive, is the French charge.

That scene is just not fucking around. JUST LOOK AT IT. There are thousands of men in a single shot, explosions and smoke going off everywhere, horses collapsing (there were around 50 trained circus riders employed just to fall off "dead" horses), the bagpipes, ungh, it's just incredible to see.


It's a sequence that also best shows off the insane engineering that went into so much of the movie: the major battle shots like this used five different cameras shooting at once, with one in a helicopter and one on a special rail system that was laid and built just for the movie. You can also see the soldier's training pay off: all those smaller puffs are men actually loading and firing muskets.


Isn't it just amazing? There are modern films, using the latest in computer imagery—which in theory should be able to produce anything the imagination can conjure, money be damned—that can't compete with that kind of bombast and spectacle. Hell, even the one that comes closest (Jackson's Return of the King) simply can't match a cavalry charge where even the falling horses and tumbling riders are real.

There had never been a movie quite like Waterloo, and given the costs, will likely never be again. The final bill was around USD$40 million, which by 1970 standards made it one of the most expensive movies of all time. Had it not been shot primarily in the USSR, it's estimated it might have cost two or three times that amount, which would have pushed its budget into the territory of "lol nope are you fucking kidding me."


If you've never seen it, and are now very curious about it, you should know that Waterloo isn't the world's greatest movie, which may explain why it's faded form people's minds over the years (as has the lure of the Napoleonic Wars in general). Some of the dubbing is shocking, even from big stars like Christopher Plummer, and almost every scene not involving the battle itself (or at least the dramatic intro showing Napoleon's first exile) is tedious as hell.


But that's OK. It doesn't matter if this movie fails at telling the story of the men and women involved. What matters is that it got the battle itself right, and holy shit, you will never see a more impressive clash of arms (or collection of actual humans fighting) on the big screen.



Watching Lawrence of Arabia the other night, I thought about this same thing: the idea that CGI just cannot hold a candle to having real actors.