Waterloo (1971)




Director:    Sergei Bondarchuk.

Starring:    Rod Steiger (Napoleon), Christopher Plummer (Wellington), Orson Welles (Louis XVIII), Jack Hawkins (General Picton), Virginia McKenna (Duchess of Richmond), Dan O'Herlihy (Marshall Ney), Rupert Davies (Gordon), Philippe Forquet (La Bedoyere) .

Napoleon returns from exile to glory, but the attempted comeback is stopped short in the historic 1815 battle between Napoleon and Wellington. 


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

"Napoleon Bonaparte, inspiring his own people with his military and political genius and his revolutionary fervor, became, within a few brief years, Emperor of the French and master of all Europe.  In 1812, after 15 years of victory, he met with disaster in the Russian Campaign.  By 1813, defeated by the combined forces of Austria, Russia, Prussia and England at Leipzig, Napoleon was driven to the very gates of Paris -- there to await his destiny."

Fontainebleau, Wednesday, April 20th, 1814.  A group of Napoleon's military staff come to him to tell him that they are defeated.  The Austrians are in Versailles, the Russians are at the River Seine and the Prussians are near Montmartre.  They ask him to abdicate and accept being sent to live on the island of Elba.  Napoleon tells them that he made all of them and the one thing he hates the most is ingratitude.  He gets passionate about fighting the enemy.  His staff tells him there are no more troops to mobilize and they don't want to happen to Paris what happened to Moscow.  Napoleon gets angry and shouts several times that he will not abdicate.

Napoleon receives bad news.  He finally signs the abdication document and leaves the room.  The messenger says that the marshal confronting the Austrians has now surrendered his army to them.  That was Napoleon's last hope. 

Napoleon addresses the soldiers of his old guard.  He says after twenty years, he has come to say goodbye.  "France has fallen, so remember me."  He gets in his coach and leaves.

"May 1814, Napoleon sailed into exile on the small Mediterranean island of Elba.  After ten months Napoleon escaped from Elba in a desperate gamble with less than a thousand men.  He invades the mainland of Europe."

Thursday, March 1, 1815.  A messenger arrives to give a message to King Louis XVIII that the "monster" has escaped from Elba.  The King says Napoleon has less than 1,000 men.   He's not very dangerous, at least not yet.  Marshal Soult will command the troops in Paris.  Marshal Ney will be the first to confront the "werewolf".   Nye says he will bring Napoleon to the Emperor in an iron cage.  Napoleon is on the march and Marshal Nye waits for him on the side of a hill beside the road. 

Napoleon very slowly walks up the road to speak to the soldiers of the 5th.  He says:  "If you want to kill your Emperor, here I am."  Nye gives the command to fire, but no one fires.  The 5th goes over to Napoleon with wild cheering.  Nye throws his sword on the road in front of Napoleon.  Napoleon walks up to the man on the horse and gives him back the sword.  He then asks Nye to follow him to Grenoble (in southeastern France at the foot of the French Alps).    Nye says nothing, but he goes with Napoleon. 

Many citizens shout their praises for Napoleon.  Napoleon shouts he has come back and the French king has to go.  Louis XVIII leaves saying perhaps the French people will let him go, as they let Napoleon come in.  Napoleon comes in and starts creating his government.  He also starts dictating letters to the different heads of state.  The response is that all Europe declares war against him as an enemy of humanity.  Wellington is still in Brussels with his army.  Napoleon says Wellington's dead body will be his peace table.    

Marshal Soult tells Napoleon that the armies of Wellington and Blucher have separated.  This is good news for Napoleon who says they will push aside Blucher and then head for Wellington. 

Brussels, Thursday, June 15, 1815.  There is a big ball at which Scottish soldiers dance for the crowd.  Wellington arrives at the ball.  He speaks with his wife and daughter Sarah and they both want to talk about Napoleon. 

Napoleon's troops cross over the river.  He says they will brush their boots when they are in Brussels. 

Wellington's daughter dances with a handsome, young soldier named Lord Hay.  Mrs. Wellington tells her husband not to let Hay get killed.  She doesn't want Sarah to wear black before she's worn white.   Wellington and his wife dance along with Sarah and Hay.  A Prussian soldier tells Wellington what he already knows, that Napoleon has crossed over the border and has come between their armies.   Wellington tells his wife to let the ball continue.  He and his staff confer on what to do.  They reckon they will meet Napoleon somewhere around Waterloo. 

Napoleon engages the Prussian army.  He inflicts 16,000 dead on them.  One of his Marshals comes up to say that he caught Wellington at Quatre Bras and he's now retreating.  Napoleon is furious saying that if Wellington is retreating, why isn't the French army pursuing him?  He doesn't want to give Wellington any chance to chose the ground for his stand. 

The Prussian commander Blucher is informed that a retreat has been ordered.  Blucher wants to stand his ground.  One of his officers warns him that Wellington had better stand and fight or none of them will see Berlin again.  Meanwhile, Napoleon sends Grouchy and Gerard with 30,000 troops (one-third of his army) to pursue Blucher.  Grouchy protests that there are ten different directions Blucher might go.  Napoleon just tells them to go. 

Wellington is retreating in the rain.  Gordon, the head of the Scottish troops, comes to say hello to Wellington.  Napoleon watches Wellington's movements.  He says he's making a mistake by picking a position with a woods behind his troops.  But Wellington has been on this land before and he knows his men can easily get through the woods because there is little underbrush there.  

Wellington tells his staff it all depends of the Prussians.  A Prussian officer enters and says that Grouchy and his 30,000 men are following the Prussians.  Grouchy, therefore, is not between the British and the Prussians.  Wellington tells the Prussian officer that he begs Blucher to come to Waterloo by 1 p.m. 

The weather is stormy.  Bonaparte is not feeling well, but he will not send for a doctor.  He tells himself he must not be sick.  He needs all his strength for tomorrow. 

In the morning the storm has gone, but the ground is still very wet.  Including the French, there are 140,000 men there.  Napoleon is feeling well now.  He wants to attack at 9 a.m..  He is informed that the ground won't be dry until 12 noon.  The artillery officer Drouot says that he can't move his artillery in this mud. 

Both armies are in position to fight.  Napoleon says they will create a diversion on Wellington's right flank because that's where he is expecting trouble.  When he pours more troops into the right flank and weakens his center, they will push through the center.  Napoleon is now just waiting for the ground to dry out more.  The first cannon fire occurs at 11:35 a.m.  The artillery of both sides bang at each other.  The French troops start to march forward. 

Hougoumont, 11:55 a.m.   The French attack, but take heavy casualties.  A messenger comes to Wellington to say that the French attack Foel and his army to turn them to the right.  Wellington doesn't move.  So Napoleon moves his artillery and goes after Bylan's men. 

2 p.m.  The French are just now starting to climb over the defensive wall at Hougoumont. 

Bylan's brigade breaks.  Wellington orders in the heavy cavalry.  Gordon is told to get his Scots up to the cliff ahead.  They move accompanied by the playing of the bagpipes.  The heavy cavalry attacks.  Napoleon sends out his lancers to meet the cavalry.  The order to the bugler is to sound recall.  Just as the lancers and cavalry meet, the men British to retreat.  The head of the cavalry and a young man with him are killed. 

In the distance the Prussians are seen coming across the fields.  And now Napoleon wonders where is Grouchy and his third of the army?  Napoleon collapses from the pains in his stomach.  Napoleon has to lay down for awhile. 

Wellington has some of his troops move back 100 paces and this gives one of the officers, Nye, the mistaken perception that Wellington is retreating.  The cavalry attacks.  Napoleon returns and is shocked that Nye would take the cavalry without infantry support.  The British form their troops into many military squares.  Hay is killed urging men to keep fighting. 

6 p.m.  Hougoumont.  The French finally think they are winning as they pour into the area behind the front wall.  Napoleon dictates a note to Paris that at this time they won the war.  Even Wellington thinks they have lost the battle.  Napoleon now has his Old Guard move forward.  Wellington abandons his position on the left.  He wants everyone here with him.  Every artillery piece will concentrate on the Old Guard. 

Bad news arrives for Napoleon.  Blucher and his Prussians are in the woods.  Napoleon comments that he should have burned Berlin.  The Old Guard faces a heavy barrage.  Someone shouts that the Prussians have arrived and they have to get out of there.  Meanwhile, Napoleon is desperately shouting that the Prussians have come too late, Wellington is beaten.

La Haye Sainte, 8 p.m.  Heavy fighting takes place here.

Marshal Sauret tries to stop the Old Guard from retreating, but is not having much luck.  Someone tells the Marshal that the Prussians are here! 

Now Wellington says the whole army will advance straight ahead.  With Wellington, Uxbridge is hit by cannon fire and loses a leg. 

Napoleon is grabbed by his officers and dragged away.  They say the battle is lost and they must retreat.  Moreover, they don't want to lose Napoleon to the enemy. 

Wellington asks the French soldiers if they will surrender and they say no.  So they are blasted away by an artillery barrage at close range.  Wellington looks at what's left of the French.  He comments to himself:  "Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won."

Napoleon gets in his coach and starts back for Paris. 


Good movie.  It's a difficult thing to portray effectively the ebb and flow of battle in a complicated battle situation.   And they cannot display even all the major movements of the troops.  Usually, everything has to be simplified.  It might have helped if they had used more captions to help explain the action.  But if one really wants to know, they have to use Wikipedia or some other website or read a book on Waterloo. 

Rod Steiger (Napoleon) and Christopher Plummer (Wellington) both did good jobs in this battle story.  Wellington was portrayed as being very cool under fire, so to speak.  Napoleon was portrayed as being very intense (of course, he had much more to lose than Wellington).  What was impressive was seeing the overviews of the massive number of men lined up in formation ready to fight. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.



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