THE cinema's new season has started with a bang --a loud one from the big guns of Waterloo ("U," Odeon, Leicester Square)and five new films each over two hours long. It is difficult to decide how to approach "Waterloo," produced by the Italian Dino De Laurentiis and directed by the Russian Sergei Bondarchuk.
Filme.d mainly in Russia, and with an international cast including just about everybody from Orson Welles to the Red Army, it might be treated as history, documentary, romantic fiction, half-term pantomime or sheer spectacular.
Spectacular it certainly is: and Signor De Laurentiis might legitimately claim to be the greatest producer of spectaculars since Cecil B. De Mille. Like De Mille. he has mastered his material.
De Laurentiis is said to have wanted to film the battle of Waterloo for ten years — presumably since he made his excellent Italian film of "War and Peace.'' So he has had the sense to get straight to the point with a minimum of ado and concentrate on the battle.
A few sharp captions bring the Napoleon story up to date with the "monster's" escape from Elba. The arrival of Napoleon (Rod Steiger) back in France at the head of a thousand men to win over the whole French army is decidedly moving.
We are rushed on, with only essential pauses, to the
celebrated ballroom in Brussels. Here, surely, is legitimate spectacle. Red coats and kilts and sporrans whirl to stereophonic bagpipes as Gordon Highlanders do a sword dance and young visitors take leave of their loves.
Virginia McKenna, as the Duchess of Richmond, looks every inch the English aristocrat. and generals gossip and compare rumours. It is good to see Jack Hawkins as General Picton, Michael Wilding as Ponsonby and Peter Davies as the young Lord Hay. Terence Alexander makes the most of a sympathetic bit part as Uxbridge.
From the moment the dancing has to stop the film becomes one magnificent battlescape with bodies (equine as well as human), The battle seems to me superbly, almost lucidly organised; yet the chaos and the carnage are always paramount.
The mood is that of the grief-stricken comment of Wellington (Christopher Plummer) about the next saddest thing to a battle lost being a battle won.
After all the billowing white clouds of cannon smoke, the charging Scots Greys or the French cavalry or Blucher's last-minute Blues, the last words are the anguished cry of an anonymous soldiea : "Why do we kill each other? How can we do it!"
So the film can hardly be said to glorify war. It struck me as the grimmest, and so probably truest, picture I'd seen of war. But if people find war splendidly exciting, no doubt they will find this a splendid and exciting picture, not without generosity of heart.
Rod Steiger is of course a fine actor, and well enough cast as Napoleon, though his Napoleon did not impress me as any more convincing than Boyer's in "Marie Walewska," or Herbert Lom's in De Laurentiis's "War a n d Peace."
Christopher Plummer, on the other hand, not cast at all obviously to type as the Iron Duke, gets the utmost dignity and character from a performance which cannot be made easier by having to utter mouthfuls of' Wellington's most familiar witticisms.
For other reasons it is difficult ttr decide not so much how the critic or the spectator should approach the film of Chekhov's The Three Sisters ("U," Cameo-Poly), as what were the intentions of Sir Laurence Olivier in directing it.
Olivier is so celebrated now as the great man of our National Theatre that it is sometimes forgotten that a few years ago he seemed the great hope of our cinema, when he made his triumphant Shakespearian films, "Henry V," and "Hamlet."
His films of "Othello" and "The Dance of Death" were more strictly photographed records of his stage productions, and one's view of these two films probably depended on one's view of the stage original.
It is a perfectly proper subsidiary function of the cinema to record great stage performances for posterity. In "The Three Sisters," however, Sir Laurence seems to me to have compromised between the two extremes.
The fault, I think, is in the proportions of pace and quantity, or length of time, appropriate to the respective media. Closeness to the original play makes a slow movie, while the few attempts to "open out" the action (into the inevitable birch-grove) are too half-hearted either to make or mar the illusion.
Nevertheless it is of course a record worth making — and worth having : of all three frustrated sisters dreaming vainly of getting to Moscow especially of Joan Plowright's Masha, and Sheila Reed as their grotesque sister-in-law; of Ronald Pickup's superbly unostentatious "Baron," Kenneth Mackintosh's Kulighin, the wonderfully complaisant husband of Masha, and of course of Olivier's own delightful character study of the old doctor, Chebutikin. With this last I had only one tiny fault to find, in thinking his silver wig or hair-piece remained perhaps too immaculate for the scene of the doctor's drunken disorder. Finally, if none of these had been worth remembering this film version would still be worth while (quite a long while, two and three-quarter hours) if only for the total brilliance of Alan Bates's Vershinin.
Chekhov's households of Russian provincial life always seem to me, if not the ancestors, at least close kin, to Tennessee Williams's from the Deep South.
Film versions of Chekhov's so far confirm my deeply held belief that well proportioned short stories adapt more easily to the cinema than do well-constructed plays. But Olivier is said to have made this version of "The Three Sisters" (smoothly translated by Mourn Budberg) frankly for the cinema. Certainly t h e performances I have menhoned could hardly fail to be worth seeing.