Waterloo: The End of an Era

By: Dexter Satterwhite

"He who saves a nation violates no law."
- Napoleon Bonaparte

Down through history, certain events have formed convenient dividing lines that historians use to describe eras in the great human saga. The birth of Christ, the voyage of Columbus, and the First World War are some of these monumental events. Another event of this epochal magnitude was Wellington's victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in the summer of 1815. The event not only ended the Napoleonic era of European history and French domination of the continent once and for all, it also ushered in what is commonly known today as the Victorian age, an era in which England unquestioningly dominated not only European but world affairs for the next ninety-nine years.

Waterloo, the 1971 film depiction of this battle which stars Christopher Plummer as Wellington, and Rod Steiger as Napoleon, is Dino De Laurentiis' attempt to tell the story of the battle from the opposing commanders' points of view as to strategy and purpose. This technique becomes almost a psychological study of the two men, and it brings out each man's strengths and weaknesses, both physical and emotional. The film also effectively depicts the scope and ferocity of the conflict and introduces the viewer to the brutal aspect of eighteenth century continental warfare in a most profound way.

The movie opens with Napoleon's forced abdication at the hands of the European powers in 1814 which resulted in his first exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, but he returns a short time later with one thousand of his most faithful troops to reclaim the French imperial throne, The newly crowned king Louis XVIII sends Napoleon's ex- subordinate, Marshal Ney, to intercept the ousted emperor and return him to Paris as Ney's prisoner. This proves to be an ill-fated decision, for in a moving scene early in the film, instead of taking Napoleon prisoner as he is sworn to do, Ney instead surrenders his sword to his old master and marches with Napoleon to oust Louis and seize the French crown. When the allies refuse to negotiate with Napoleon, the stage is set for a showdown between these two men.

A considerable segment of the movie is devoted to the ball given by the Duchess of Richmond on the eve of the battle. This affair was attended by Wellington and most of his commanders, and the scene seems to be used by the director Sergei Bondarchuk for the most part to introduce the men who would die in the battle. Much of the gentlemanly conversation at this affair seems flippant, yet it gives the viewer a taste of the supreme confidence that was felt by Wellington's men if not by Wellington himself. During the ball, word comes to Wellington that Napoleon has crossed the Sambre River and is close at hand. The British commander is forced to retire to make final arragements for the approaching conflict while leaving his men to enjoy one last evening before they go forth to face death.

Due to a terrible storm the night before the conflict, the battle field was excessively muddy and the concern of both commanders as to its effect upon their strategy is brought out well in the film, yet fight the next day they must, despite their misgivings. The battle itself is portrayed as a titanic struggle of artillery, cavalry, and infantry as each side probes the other for weaknesses. Bondarchuk's use of aerial photography, and his skillful use of literally thousands of extras give the battle scenes a sense of scope and realism seldom achieved in motion pictures.

The two commanders' strategies are explored effectively in the film. Bondarchuk gives special attention to portraying Napoleon's physical condition, which kept him away from command at the critical moment of the battle when Ney's cavalry charged the British lines without infantry support resulting in its destruction. The fact that Ney's folly turned the advantage to the British, an advantage that Napoleon could not regain when the Prussian commander, General Blucher, arrives with 33,000 reinforcements is also brought out well in the film.

Finally the sheer brutality and terror of a kind of warfare that employed ancient and medieval tactics with modern weapons is especially well depicted. In the end, the French army was virtually destroyed which prompted Wellington to prophetically comment prophetically, after viewing the carnage of the battle field, "Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won."

Waterloo is technically well-made and is, for the most part, historically accurate in its depiction of the events and style of warfare during this time. The cinematography is excellent, the scope of the battle scenes is magnificent, and the direction of the large number of extras is extraordinary. However the plot is weak in terms of developing the characters, and no human story line is developed except in terms of the conflict of wills between Napoleon and Wellington. Much of Wellington's dialogue in the movie makes him seem flippant, if not cavalier, as to the gravity of the situation before and during the battle, while Napoleon is portrayed, for the most part, as an iron-willed no-nonsense commander who is in complete charge of the situation until his physical condition betrays him. Strictly in terms of depicting the Battle of Waterloo in a realistic and historically accurate way, this movie scores a bull's eye, but, just as a skilled infantryman of the time sometimes found it difficult to use a smooth-bore musket effectively, in telling the story in human terms as to warand its effect upon the soldiers that fight and the people that care about them, this motion picture, unfortunately, misses the mark.

Along with many web sites that are devoted to the Napoleonic Wars and the Battle of Waterloo, numerous books are available upon the subject. For more information about the final battle between Wellington and Napoleon read: Rory Muir, Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon 1807-1815; Gregor Dallas, George Dallas, The Final Act: The Roads to Waterloo; Andrew Uffindell, Michael Corum, On the Fields of Glory: The Battlefields of the 1815 Campaign.