Starring: Vivien Leigh, Robert Taylor, Virginia Field
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Running Time: 108 mins
Waterloo Bridge is an American film about a young woman who falls in love with a dashing officer in London during the First World War, but after she fears he is killed in action in Europe, her life takes a downward turn as she struggles to survive alone.
I really wasn’t expecting the emotional rollercoaster that was Waterloo Bridge. It’s a hugely engrossing romantic drama from start to finish, with a beautifully tender love story at the centre that’s played out perfectly at every moment. Unlike so many romances from the early Hollywood Golden Age, Waterloo Bridge is a realistic and understated film, but one that uses that understated quality to make for an amazingly powerful emotional punch.
Let’s start off with the performances. Vivien Leigh, fresh off the back of Gone With The Wind, is fantastic, and pulls off an incredibly complex and unique character for the age perfectly. When she has to play the smitten young woman, she’s brilliant, and when she has to play a more battle-hardened and desperate character later on in the film, she’s even better, and expertly holds the film on her own.
Meanwhile, Robert Taylor is just as great as Leigh’s fiancé. Although he doesn’t always play such a significant role in the story in comparison to Leigh, he pulls off the dashing officer about to set sail with ease, but extends that to an impressive showing in the more personal moments of the film, holding up brilliantly well against his co-star.
I was also very impressed with Mervyn LeRoy’s directing here. This film is a remake of a 1931 movie, which itself is an adaptation of a stage play, but LeRoy does a fantastic job to make an originally very theatrical piece excellently grounded. Rather than a typically over-exaggerated romantic drama, Waterloo Bridge feels so much more realistic thanks to its understated tone. Both Leigh and Taylor reign in their theatrics to give composed performances, under the direction of LeRoy, who, rather than following typical classic Hollywood tropes, makes the film unique and memorable by keeping everything much simpler.
Also, the story has a staggering level of grit and sadness for a wartime production. During the war, dark and depressing films were so much rarer to keep morale high, but as this is a remake of a film that was made in the interwar period, and also before the introduction of the Hollywood Production Code, it has some notably darker themes than most of its contemporaries. Of course, the time of release means a lot of the grit is turned down, but I can safely say that I’ve never seen a 1940s Hollywood movie that’s had such a deep emotional effect on me, and not in a wholly positive way.
And that’s where I get onto the best part about Waterloo Bridge, its story. The romance between the two leads is simply wonderful, and Leigh and Taylor’s chemistry only better that, but I was hugely impressed by the film’s ability to keep surprising me with more and more emotional drama when I thought it had nowhere else to go.
Above all, the way that Waterloo Bridge takes you through the delirious highs and devastating lows of this woman’s life during her tumultuous relationship with the officer was amazing, and it’s led me to the conclusion that this is probably the happiest sad film (or the saddest happy film) I’ve ever seen. Sometimes, it’s wonderfully pleasant to watch the two fall in love, but when the film hits its darkest points, it’s got a genuinely powerful sense of desperation, and that’s something that I have never seen from a film of this era in Hollywood.
Overall, I absolutely loved Waterloo Bridge. With excellent directing and two brilliant lead performances, it’s a hugely impressive and engrossing romantic drama, but what’s most striking about it is its uniqueness amongst classic Hollywood movies. Sometimes, it’s delightful, and sometimes it’s devastating to watch, but the fact that that emotional rollercoaster is so powerful is why I really loved this film, and that’s why Waterloo Bridge gets an 8.3 from me.