If you’re like me, Waterloo conjures up a limited array of mental images. Napoleon and The Battle of Waterloo. The Kinks and Waterloo Sunset. That’s about the extent of it. Now I can add Vivien Leigh, Robert Taylor, and Waterloo Bridge to the list.
Fittingly, our opening prologue begins at the titular location, as a handsome man with a touch of gray, dressed in military attire, makes a ponderous appearance. The place holds an obvious resonance for him even as he holds an unnamed token in his hands. This is Robert Taylor. He probably looks too virile to be an old man, but that’s hardly his fault. At any rate, he’s preparing to give one of the most continuously amiable performances of his career.
Then, we’re back in time. For a minute the cultural moment caught me off guard. Even though the flashback seemed to denote the first war to end all wars, how our star couple first meets, heading to the Underground for an air raid, feels like a distinctly World War II-era image. However, it happened earlier as well, and it makes for a very practical meet-cute.
With the Germans threatening to rain down their ammunition, the Underground is stuffed to the gills with all sorts including Captain Roy Cronin and Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh), a member of a ballet troupe. This might be their first and last meeting, but the spell between them is too bewitching. The cinematic mechanisms of star-crossed love are at work.
There’s a warmth and romantic civility bathing the picture, and it’s the kind of feeling you often seem to get in pictures of old — at least the most supernal ones. I can think of a handful: Random Harvest, Love Affair, Now Voyager, maybe The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. In a word: Stars. Because the scenario can change and yet when the talents fit together, there’s just something so disarming and delightful released into the atmosphere.
We want to soak it in and be in the moments with them to feel the same swells of emotion. Whether war or some other force pulls them apart or gets in the way of their love, they always face it with a good humor and a grace that we can live vicariously through as the audience out in the dark.
All of this might see like an admittedly surprising proclamation because anyone who knows anything about Leigh will first consider Gone With The Wind from the year before and then her larger-than-life relationship with Laurence Olivier. He was the man she wanted for this picture. Alas, he was called to make Pride and Prejudice (1940). What came into being with Waterloo Bridge is probably better.
Oh that we could be as handsome a Scotsman as Robert Taylor (with a better accent) or such an immaculate and gorgeous ballerina as Vivien Leigh. As such, their romance is set in this heightened supercharged arena created by wartime.
The film’s most illustrious scene is the “Farewell Waltz” by candlelight, played to the soft melancholy tones of “Auld Lang Syne.” In the silence or, rather, without dialogue, the magic of the moment is the film’s apogee. That song becomes one of the strongest motifs at the movie’s disposal.
It might have been the most bittersweet short film of all time if the first 30 minutes were all we got. All things considered, it wouldn’t be a bad place to end allowing the pleasantness to waft over us and invade our collective hearts and minds.
Still, their story continues for over an hour more. There must be complications. Robert Taylor is soon on the train platform, a fellow soldier holds a bawling son amid the hubbub, and our protagonist’s head is on a swivel as he moves down the platform. The camera follows close behind; he’s anxious to see his love just one last time before he ships out for what may as well be forever. It sets the tone going forward.
Their joint life together suffers in the wake of his departure and we can say “departure” because the movie stays behind as he goes overseas. It works in the story’s favor not to break off and try and tell both sides because this way it gets at the feelings of those left behind fretting on the home front.
Still, the final act needs something more. In comparison, it feels like a bit throwaway as if the movie is coasting on the power of those first minutes of romance and quite literally that haunting chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.”
You can write it off as sanitized rendition of its 1931 brethren or otherwise call for a perceptive reading between the lines, but what the picture must resolve once and for all is Myra’s shame — the guilt she holds onto while her man is gone.
Because even with the spunky support of her best friend Kitty (Virginia Field), she is left destitute without the lifeline of her husband. Whether he lives or not, she must subsist someway, and she chooses the only conceivable path, prepared to live with the ignominious consequences.
The only way to redeem the ending is to reflect it back at the audience — back at all of us — because it’s indicative of what many of us deal with. It consists of the lies we tell ourselves when no one is around. We’re unlovable. We’re too far gone. We’re the Judas. But the movie fails to go anywhere creative and poor, downtrodden Myra hardly fits the description of a loveless tramp.
The final saving grace is Vivien Leigh. Her quizzical right eyebrow gives all of us lacking perfect facial symmetry hope. Despite her final moments being trance-like, she is more than capable of the art of captivation even in her character’s execution of the inevitable. If I don’t quite buy her convictions taking her to such a sorry conclusion — the logic seems a bit drastic even for the time period — it’s easy enough to get swept away by her emotion alone.
Robert Taylor for one, gives a performance brimming with vitality, and he feels like more than a chiseled block of wood. He reminds us that in order to have true love there must be two involved. That place. His token. They only maintain their meaning because he shared them with someone else. We get the privilege of being there with them both.
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