By: Joan Killam
On June 18, 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte's French army met the allied forces of Great Britain and Prussia at Waterloo, a small town near Brussels, in one of the greatest battles of history. In the film Waterloo, Rod Steiger brilliantly portrays Napoleon's self- vision as the true leader and savior of France. Christopher Plummer is equally impressive in his role of Napoleon's opponent, the Duke of Wellington.
The film opens ten months earlier when Napoleon confessed to his assembled army that France had fallen, and in a stirring abdication address he goaded his soldiers to "remember me" as he emotionally bid farewell to his "sons." Now he has escaped from exile on the Island of Elba and returns to Europe with the one thousand men who had accompanied him to the island. When he encounters the soldiers of the fifth led by Marshal Michel Ney, the troops jubilantly embrace Napoleon as their emperor instead of capturing him as was their directive. Napoleon declares that he has come back only to make France happy.
Scenes of Louis XVIII fleeing the castle and the people rallying around Napoleon prepare the viewer for Napoleon's swift appointment of a cabinet as he reclaims power. Steiger portrays Napoleon's compassion as he dictates a letter to a mother informing her of her son's death. A letter to his son illustrates Napoleon's staunch belief that the people have placed the crown on his head and that he will save the nation. Napoleon's vulnerability is depicted in a letter to his wife as he implores her to return his son to him rather than keep the boy in Austria.
Europe declares war. War, not against France but against Napoleon. He theorizes that he can push General Gebhard von Blucher's Prussiam troops aside and then march on the Duke of Wellington's British troops. Napoleon recognizes that he is not as young and vigorous as he was at the Battle of Marengo. He is secretly battling a serious stomach ailment that hinders his effectiveness. His "body is dying, yet his brain is still good."
Meanwhile, the British and Prussian troops have separated. While attending a ball hosted by the Duchess of Richmond, the Duke of Wellington receives word that Napoleon has "crossed the river." He dispatches officers to ready the somewhat ragtag soldiers. Mostly "beggars and scoundrels, gin is their thing," but they will fight. It is their sense of duty.
Both Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington are presented as meticulous strategists in scenes that depict their planning sessions. Battle is accurately portrayed as being approached in the rather gentlemanly manner typical of the period. Napoleon believes Wellington demonstrates caution and courage, two qualities that he admires, but he thinks the British troops are badly positioned with trees at their backs. Wellington prays that General Blucher will arrive with the Prussian troops he needs to help him defeat Napoleon.
As June 18th dawns, the torrential rain of the previous day has subsided. The muddy terrain makes moving the cannons seem impossible. It could take hours, but there is no time to wait. "Battles are won or lost in one-quarter of an hour," Napoleon barks. He will soon wonder if the mud will kill them. The only enemy he fears now is nature.
Dramatic music enhances the scenes of each leader surveying the other's preparations and adjusting their strategies. Wellington plans to beat the French today. He drinks a toast with his officers to "today's fox." Symbolically, Napoleon rides a white horse among his troops. Later, he again reveals his tenderness towards his son as he philosophizes with his young attendant. As much as he would like to see his son, he would not want him to see today's battle.
At 11:35 a.m. the first cannon is fired by Napoleon's troops. The British 92nd advances on foot with the cavalry proceeding on "terrifying" gray horses. Despite the gentlemanly connotation of battle, Napoleon thinks the British are poorly led and his troops can catch them. Slow-motion effects and haunting music help re-create one of the greatest charges in history. Visibility is limited because of the thick smoke that fills the battlefield. Horses are spotted in the distance, but what color are they?
Napoleon suffers the great misfortune of physically collapsing and must lie down in a nearby windmill housing. Quite ill, he ponders his legacy and what he will leave his son. What will the world say about him? His loyal attendant suggests he will be remembered for extending the limits of glory.
A critical blunder occurs after Wellington, unable to determine what is happening, withdraws his troops one hundred paces. The French officer in charge during Napoleon's absence from the field mistakenly thinks Wellington is retreating. He orders the cavalry to advance, and the British form their illustrious square formations, readying for the French assault. Napoleon emerges to witness the chaos imposed by an overeager, inexperienced leader. Despite the fact that the cavalry should not have advanced without infantry support, it appears that the French are winning. Napoleon sends a message to Paris that at six p.m. he has won the battle, and thus has won the war.
Unfortunately for Napoleon, General Blucher finally arrives with his troops to assist Wellington. As Napoleon addresses his men, he tries to convince himself that he has beaten Wellington and that the Prussians are immaterial. The men say the battle is lost, and they physically restrain Napoleon from advancing. Poor timing of nature and illness, an officer's costly mistake, and the plain bad luck of Blucher arriving in time have preempted Napoleon's carefully planned strategies. As Napoleon escapes, he wonders if the memory of his greatness will gnaw at him. Wellington offers the white flag of surrender to the French Old Guard and implores them to save their lives. Refusing, the dutiful French soldiers are slaughtered. Looters emerge to scour the battlefield as Wellington surveys the carnage and the viewer hears his thoughts. He did not want to murder. He hopes he has fought his last battle. The worst thing next to a battle lost is a battle won.
Waterloo, splendidly directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, is an excellent depiction of the period known as the Hundred Days which spans from Napoleon's escape from Elba to his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. Bondarchuk masterfully captures the essence of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington by allowing the viewer to hear their thoughts throughout the film. His direction of the hundreds of soldiers and horses involved in making the film, and his vivid battle re-creations poignantly present this great battle of the nineteenth century.