ot a train strike, but a silent film about the battle which finally stopped Napoleon. Waterloo was made in 1929 and though popular at the time has been largely forgotten; yesterday evening's showing at the Royal Festival Hall was a welcome revival, particularly as it had a live accompaniment from the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Carl Davis, who also composed and compiled the score.
The film was made in Germany and directed by Karl Grune: unsurprisingly it tells the story very much from the German viewpoint, concentrating on the Prussian Field Marshal Blücher (played by Otto Gebühr), who (having previously defeated Napoleon and caused his exile to Elba) is called out of retirement upon Napoleon's escape and return to France. Promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the Prussian Army, Blücher forms an alliance with the Duke of Wellington. Blücher's troops are initially defeated by Napoleon, to whom the French Marshal Ney has defected, but when Napoleon attacks Wellington at Waterloo it is the nick-of-time arrival of Blücher's troops which saves the day.
Napoleon himself (played by Charles Vanel - essaying the part for the third time) remains a shadowy figure, with the film concentrating on Blücher's activities. Because the historical plot is fairly simple there is a sub-plot involving a female German spy (Wera Malinowskaja) who seduces an aide of Blücher's (Oskar Marion) to the distress of the latter's fiancée (Betty Bird) - this tends to over-dominate the second half of the film (which is already long at two-and-a-half hours) though it does provide some human interest and a little comic relief when the spy attempts to turn her charm on Blücher.
The battles are spectacularly staged, though some of the hand-to-hand combat is not convincing (consisting, as all too often, of actors standing a safe distance apart banging each other's bayonets) and well photographed; and, the sub-plot aside, the film appears to stick reasonably closely to the historical facts. Gebühr's performance as Blücher is very effective - first seen from behind examining a horse's shoe, and shown as a warm-hearted and somewhat eccentric but decisive commander. Though Malinowskaja's performance tends to descend into eye-rolling, the other actors give good and not over-stated performances and the whole film stands up well. There are some innovative multiple-exposure shots (possibly inspired by Abel Gance's Napoleon) but these are kept to a minimum and the narrative is clear and well laid out.
The film gained immeasurably from Davis's effective score and the excitement of a full orchestra. The only downside of this sort of performance is that there is inevitably a lot of light spillage from the music stand lights which reduces the contrast of the on-screen image - and the RFH's projector really could do with a stronger light source. Even so the print was of fine quality from a recent restoration: it's a little-known classic and well worth seeing.
Posted: Fri - April 23, 2010 at 09:25 AM by Roger Wilmut
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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM