Film Review: Waterloo
By Randy Harshbarger

"Waterloo," a Paramount Motion Picture, was first released in 1971. Produced by Dino DeLaurentiis and directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, "Waterloo" depicts the epic battle of June 18, 1815, which resulted in the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, thus ending his second bid for power. Napoleon's formal surrender to the British in July 1815 signaled the end of a brilliant career; Great Britain was now forced to deal with monumental internal problems at home. When Napoleon's coup was repulsed, a dramatic Hundred Days came to a close. In pursuit of preeminence, a course of action was begun which had lasted for nearly one hundred years. This era is often called "The Golden Age." Waterloo was truly a watershed in Britain's history and a monumental event for Europe.

While this film contains much factual history, there are large gaps in the true historical record that needed to be told; this demonstrates the limitations of film. After escaping from Elba, Napoleon was quickly ensconced in Paris. "I am France and France is me," he said. Hoping to further divide British sentiment which would rally more support to his side, he began amassing his army in order to move on Brussels. His strategy was to divide and conquer, but he must act quickly. With his army of one hundred and twenty-five thousand, he would first defeat the Prussian Blucher, who led nearly one hundred and thirteen thousand troops (one half of whom were untrained). He would then defeat Wellington's army of eighty-three thousand (only one-third of whom were British). Moving quickly, on June 15 Napoleon crossed the Sambre in pursuit of Blucher. If Blucher could be defeated first, Napoleon could then drive Wellington to the coastline, a position of great vulnerability. In Brussels, on the night of June 15, the Duchess of Richmond gave a ball in honor of the Allied officers. Receiving news of Napoleon's approach, Wellington was determined to stay in contact with the Prussians. Minor skirmishes on the 16th and 17th resulted in tactical victories for Wellington; his feigned retreat forced the battle to be fought on familiar ground. Napoleon realized too late that his best opportunity for victory was gone after Wellington retreated from Quatre-Bras. He ranted against Marshal Ney for Wellington's escape. Using his knowledge of the Belgian countryside, Wellington littered his troops and guns throughout the rolling hillsides.

Late in the morning, June 18, the French attacked both flanks of the Allied army. Napoleon established strategic points at the chateau of Hougoumont on the right and the farm of La Haye Sainte in the middle. Fierce cannonading gave the French control of La Haye Sainte; heavier fighting took place at Hougoumont on the right and the farm of La Haye Sainte in the middle. Here, Marshal Ney led his ill-advised cavalry charge, as fifteen thousand troopers rode into the well-entrenched square formations of the British army. These red square fighting positions provide the impetus for the "thin red line." Row upon row of fixed bayonets thwarted any desire of the French to pursue the enemy. By dusk, Blucher was arriving from the east; then Wellington counterattacked. The French army could not stand.

While watching this film, one is struck by the spectacular aerial views of the larger battlefield. Marshal Ney's ill-fated cavalry charge quickened the pulse. The drama surrounding Blucher's arrival causes one to cheer, first for the French, rethinking reinforcements were on the way, and then for the British, when Blucher said: "Raise high the black flag, children." The film is set in somber tones. The battle scenes are set in the midst of thick smoke. The mud thickened fields, the gray skies, and dead bodies piled high, all add drama and realism to the film; war can be exciting! Yet, the events leading up to the battle were less than definitive. Mention was made of Napoleon's gastric ulcer. Did this infirmity prevent him from recapturing his early genius on the battlefield? Arguably, a younger and healthier Napoleon would never have allowed Wellington to retreat to a position of superiority. Too, Napoleon's loss of capable leaders provides part of the answer for his defeat. In this reviewer's opinion, the subject matter is interesting, but except for the battle, the overall depiction was less than exciting. A film cannot do what a book can do.

The principal players in the movie are Napoleon, played by Rod Steiger, and the Duke of Wellington, played by Christopher Plummer. Lesser roles, at least in terms of the movie are: King Louis XVIII, played by Jack Hawkins: and Marshal Ney, played by Dan O'Herlihy. Although Sergei Zakhariadze's depiction of Marshal Blucher received little screen time, his late-day charge to Wellington's relief was central to the plot. Were the performances of the actors true to character? How can one know? Was Napoleon really a pudgy, tired, peace-loving despot? Too many closeups of Steiger said too much that had little to do with the story line.

For further reading and study, the interested student may consult the following works, which are good beginning places to study the Battle of Waterloo. Peter Hofschroer's, 1815 The Waterloo Campaign: Wellington, His German Allies and the Battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras, utilizes unpublished archival materials in exploring the role of the German and Dutch soldiers. A number of maps aid the student in plotting troop movements, geography, etc. This book was published by Stackpole Books in 1998, 432 pages. A classic on the Battle of Waterloo is History of the Waterloo Campaign, by W. Siborne, published over one hundred years ago; despite its still controversial nature, Siborne's work has stood the test of time. Writing within the lifetimes of many of the participants of the battle, he was able to use eyewitness accounts; this led many to doubt his true accounting and objectivity in relating the events of the battle. This work still remains a classic.