Waterloo, The Movie
Bondarchuk, Sergei, director. Waterloo. Perf. Rod Steiger and
Christopher Plummer. Written by Sergei Bondarchuk, etal. Paramount,
Although this is a review of the film “Waterloo”, it’s
not a review in the way Barry Norman or Roger Ebert might do it (I wouldn’t
dare try!). Rather, this a summary of my own impressions of the historical
accuracy of the Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic production, written from the
point of view of someone who preferred “Wyatt Earp” to “Tombstone”,
which should make it fairly clear where I’m coming from.
Although knowledge of military history
can be a curse when it comes to dealing with the entertainment industry’s
various treatments of the subject, “Waterloo”, some howlers notwithstanding,
doesn’t do too bad a job. To avoid sounding too negative by grouping
all the criticisms together, I propose to examine the positive and negative
different aspects of the film separately, using the usual phases that
are traditionally used when describing the progress of the battle.
Prelude to Waterloo
The film opens with a prologue set in 1814, where Napoleon’s
remaining Marshals demand his abdication, followed by his farewell to
the Old Guard before departing for Elba. The next it deals with his
return to power and preparation for the 1815 campaign. Then the film
moves from matters political to matters military.
Now, there is a temptation, at least on my
part when dealing with this subject, to criticise every omission rather
than be thankful for the parts that the film does cover, which is a
little unfair. The treatment of the early stages of the campaign highlights
this. The French army is shown crossing the Sambre on the 15th.
Wellington is shown receiving the news at the ball in Brussels and subsequently
making his plans for the defence, which involve defending Quatre Bras
(“…if I can’t stop him there, I’ll stop him here…”) and drawing a circle
on the map around Waterloo. Admittedly, his marking of the map is of
Waterloo village, rather than the plateau of Mont St Jean (or indeed
La Belle Alliance), but this is just a quibble.
Of more significance to those knowledgeable about the
campaign is the treatment of the twin battles of Quatre-Bras & Ligny.
This treatment is, to say the least, cursory. Napoleon and Soult are
seen among the aftermath of a Prussian defeat, and the Emperor mentions
that "16,000 Prussian dead" will make “good news to slap on
the walls of Paris". There is no mention of the name Ligny itself,
however, to say nothing of the missed opportunity it proved to be owing
to the non-arrival of I Corps. Ney arrives to report: “I caught Wellington
at Quatre Bras – he’s retreating!” which is stretching things quite
a bit, but on the other hand such a positive spin does fit nicely in
a film involving Napoleon!
So, as regards the twin battles on the 16th,
the film is pretty uninformative and skims over the events very briefly.
Nevertheless it does deserve credit for at least alluding to the fact
that Waterloo wasn’t the only engagement of the campaign and getting
it right in the sense that the Allies ended up retreating. The part
of the film that concerns the retreat is actually done quite well, in
the sense that it makes it clear that, although the Allied armies are
retreating away from each other, the Prussians will endeavour to rejoin.
It is also made clear that it is because of the promised Prussian assistance
that Wellington decides to give battle at Mont St Jean. The mutual dependence
in the relationship between Wellington and the Prussians (personified
in the character of Baron Muffling) is well portrayed.
And so on to the battlefield, which is revealed
to us from the points of view of both commanders, particularly Napoleon’s
as he surveys Wellington’s position. The film scores highly here, I
feel, despite the fact that the slopes on each side of the battlefield
are steeper than they were in reality. Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte
appear to be in the correct positions both with regard to the armies
and relative to each other. There are some good panning shots of the
armies in position and the troops on both sides are deployed pretty
much where they should be. Wellington's troops have their backs to the
wood and are using the reverse slope, the French are deployed on either
side of the road and the attacks on Hougoumont and Wellington’s left
step off from the correct positions of II and I Corps respectively.
The area around Papelotte is not portrayed
at all, but that would really be too much to expect. A major omission
is, however, Plancenoit which gets only one mention over breakfast,
when Napoleon muses that the priest who is ringing the bell for Sunday
mass won’t have much of a congregation, which of course he did, but
not quite the one he had in mind. Apart from that, the film would have
you believe that nothing at all happened in Plancenoit that day. This
is, to my mind, one of “Waterloo’s” greatest disappointments.
The Calm Before the Storm
The passage of time between dawn and the beginning of
the battle is portrayed in a number of little scenes. Napoleon and his
generals are shown at breakfast, discussing the difficulties posed by
the wet ground, although the debate regarding the wisdom of attacking
the English frontally is omitted. Wellington is shown discussing the
tailoring of uniforms and having a sly dig at the expense of a shabbily
dressed Picton. We see Napoleon discussing his son with La Bedoyere
(in a scene that may have been inspired by his reputed play-acting over
the child’s portrait at Borodino) and we see Wellington cool as the
proverbial cucumber and succinctly outlining his “plan” in response
to Uxbridge’s concerned request.
Eventually the French guns open up and DeLancey notes
the time as 11.35 a.m. The attack on Hougoumont moves off and a nice
touch here is that, on the left flank left of the advancing II Corps
troops, cavalry can be seen— right where Pire’s division would have
As the French infantry emerges from the woods to assault
the chateau, they are shown coming under heavy fire, but the fight for
Hougoumont is merely portrayed as but mainly consists of French infantry
advancing through light woods and then charging at the walls. The fight
for the wood, the closing of the gate and the unsuccessful infiltration
by Lieutenant Legros and his party are not portrayed. On the plus side,
the fighting at Hougoumont is show to have been continued throughout
Soon it is time for the main event, and Wellington and
Picton praise the handling of the French artillery (although I must
confess that I’m not sure what they mean by this). I Corps moves off
in big columns with infantry in more open order out in front. Wellington
makes it plain he has no confidence that Bylandt’s brigade will stand,
and sure enough, they soon break before the onslaught. This, unfortunately,
seems to perpetuate the traditional British view regarding the unreliability
of their Anglo-Dutch allies. We only hear about Bylandt’s brigade second
hand, and the film makes no attempt to show what the brigade had to
endure before breaking.
Eventually, Picton is asked to plug the gap as the French
columns begin to reach the crest and here the film lets itself down
badly. Picton’s men are shown advancing against the French (some appear
to be fire from the hip while moving!) and…that’s it. The French columns
are neither seen nor heard of again. There is no portrayal of the columns
coming up against the British musketry, or of their attempt to deploy
under heavy fire, or of their routing at the hands of the British heavy
The British heavy cavalry charge is shown but it consists
of the Scots Greys only and goes straight for the French guns. The film
wastes time here trying to reproduce Lady Butler’s painting at the expense
of accuracy, although when the French cavalry counterattacks, it is
shown (correctly) arriving from where Jaquinot’s cavalry would have
been. The subsequent mauling of the British cavalry and the death of
Ponsonby is also shown.
Who are they?
About this time, the Prussians are seen in the distance.
In parallel with the omission of the fighting in Plancenoit, this is
all that will be seen of them until just before the Old Guard routs.
There is no mention of diverting units to guard the French right flank.
All that is done is that Napoleon orders Ney to capture La Haye Sainte
without delay: “…whoever wins the farmhouse wins the battle”. But the
film doesn’t leave the viewer any the wiser as to why this might be
the case. Compare this to, say, “Gettysburg” where the grand tactics
are explained in some detail.
A Cloudburst of Cavalry
Wellington has the army move back to reduce the effect
of the French artillery fire and Ney misinterprets this as a general
retreat and unleashes the French cavalry, which (correctly) charges
in the space between Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. The charges do look
impressive, although everyone goes hell-for-leather from the outset
leaving the lines of horsemen looking a bit ragged even before they
come under fire but this is just another quibble. During the initial
charge, numerous cuirassiers are seen tumbling into a huge ditch - it
looks like the scriptwriters had read their Victor Hugo. The British
artillery is shown firing and then retreating into the squares, which
then fire volleys at the horses.
There are some long overhead shots of this phase of
the battle showing the cavalry milling about between the squares, of
which at least two can be seen breaking, but this may not have been
intentional. It has been reported Red Army extras used in the filming
were extremely nervous of the horses, even when the limits of their
approach were clearly marked in advance. This would appear to bear out
some of what has been written about the psychological factors of cavalry
versus infantry combat during the period.
La Haye Sainte Falls
Finally, La Haye Sainte falls, but all we see of it
is the French flag being placed on the roof. There is no mention of
the KGL’s heroic defence of the farmhouse, which was nearly as much
a “battle within a battle” as Hougoumont. We are told that this puts
the Allied line in great danger, but again, we don’t know why since
there is no portrayal of the continuous skirmishing fire to which the
Allied units were subjected, not to mention the fire from the artillery
pieces that could be brough so much closer to the Allied line with La
Haye Sainte in French hands.
La Garde Recule
Finally the Old Guard forms up for the attack. Soon
after they set off, the Prussians are reported to have arrived, unfortunately
without any mention of the battle that had raged on the French right
involving VI Corps and the Guard. The attack of the Old Guard starts
off well and its columns look impressive, but the film doesn't portray
its initial successes or the sheer weight of frontal and flanking firepower
that caused it to rout. The British Guardsmen's volleys are portrayed
in a manner that reminded me of "Zulu" which doesn't, I feel,
do justice to the destructiveness of British volleys in the Napoleonic
era or for that matter the staying power of the Old Guard. The film
gives the impression that the Guard is surprised by the British, takes
a few volleys, and runs. As the French army begins to disintegrate,
the Prussians charge, completing the illusion and helping perpetuate
the myth that they simply turned up at the end of a battle that was
Historically speaking, the film’s sins are mainly ones
of omission, particularly as regards the Prussian contribution. On the
plus side, most of the main characters are present: Ney, Grouchy, La
Bedoyere, Soult, Picton, Uxbridge, DeLancey, Blucher and Gneisenau.
The Prince of Orange is mentioned in the credits but doesn’t have any
lines although I think we catch a glimpse of him (dressed like a Prussian)
at the Duchess’s ball.
Another good point is that the main events
happen in their correct sequence - Hougoumont; I Corp's attack; the
death of Picton; the charge of the Scots Greys; the death of Ponsonby;
the cavalry charges, the fall of La Haye Sainte; the attack of the Old
Guard. Ney regularly has his horse shot from under him and Uxbridge
loses his leg at the end. It could be said that this all goes without
saying, but when it comes to movies and history, you can’t take anything
All in all, "Waterloo" is disappointing in
a number of areas but that's probably only really true for the viewer
who has a good knowledge of the battle to begin with. In most other
ways, it's more than adequate, and I still enjoy it to the point of
taking it down from the shelf for a viewing every couple of months.
Reviewed by Paul Synnott
Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2004
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