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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Miscellaneous

Waterloo, The Movie

Bondarchuk, Sergei, director. Waterloo. Perf. Rod Steiger and Christopher Plummer. Written by Sergei Bondarchuk, etal.' Paramount, 1970.


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.

The Battlefield

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 been.

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 the day.

The Main Attack

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 cavalry.

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 already won.


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 for granted.

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