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Film: Waterloo

"The throne? You know what the throne is, Ney? The throne is an overdecorated piece of furniture. It's what's behind the throne that counts."
Napoleon

Waterloo was a 1970 film produced by Dino Delaurentiis that told the story of the events leading up to the climactic battle of the Napoleonic Wars. One of the most expensive films ever made up to that time, it was a box office failure of legendary proportions but has since gained substantially more respect as an exemplar of old-fashioned epic-style film-making.

The cast featured Rod Steiger as Napoleon Bonaparte, Christopher Plummer as The Duke of Wellington, and Dan O'Herlihy as Marshal Michel Ney. Orson Welles had a well-paid cameo as Louis XVIII, the Bourbon monarch Napoleon overthrows. Director Sergei Bondarchuk recruited thousands of Soviet soldiers as extras and reshaped a large area of Russian countryside to match the topography of the Waterloo battlefield.

Has the examples of:

  • Anyone Can Die: Several officers, particularly on the British side, die almost as soon as they are introduced.
  • Artistic License - History:
    • In order to foreshadow his death, General Ponsonby is shown relating Lord Uxbridge the death in battle of his father in circumstances similar to the ones that would befall him a few minutes later in the film: In a fight against French lancers, unable to get away because of the inferior quality of his horse. In reality, Ponsonby's father was a politician who died peacefully in London in 1806, four or five years before the French army started to equip some of its cavalry regiments with lances.
    • A certain Haydn tune is used as the Leitmotif for the Prussian army. At the time in which the film is set, the tune was an exclusively Austrian one, that of the song Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser (God Preserve Franz the Emperor). The other text, the Deutschlandlied, which became the German (not Prussian) national anthem in 1922, was not written until 1841, 26 years after Waterloo.
    • The film creates the impression that Napoleon could observe the entire battlefield and beyond from where he stood and sat. In fact the larger part of Wellington's army was hidden from French view behind ridges etc., so Napoleon would have been unable to see that Wellington "did not move" after the fighting around Hougoumont (which in the film caused Napoleon to reflect on Wellington's qualities as a general). Also, as Napoleon's bulletin of June 20, 1815, and several other reports written shortly after the battle show, he and the other French commanders were not aware that there was a fortified castle behind the wood of Hougomont when the battle began. (The wood was chopped down in 1816).
  • Battle Epic: One of the most extravagant works in this genre ever made, featuring over 17'000 extras. It was said that while filming, director Sergei Bondarchuk commanded the seventh largest army in the world.
  • Bling of War: Some of the uniforms, particularly those of Napoleon's marshals and some units of cavalry, tend towards the gaudy. To some extent, the bling is exaggerated, as despite the rain before the battle few soldiers are shown wearing greatcoats or waterproof shako covers. Or look like they spent said rainy night lying in the mud. Also, Blücher and many other Prussian higher officers habitually wore simple, undecorated peaked caps on campaign rather than plumed bicornes.
  • Britain Wins the War: The only non-British officer of Wellington's army who gets any lines is General von Müffling, the Prussian liaison. The Netherlands, Hanoverian, Nassau and Brunswick units that in fact composed about two-thirds of the army are rarely alluded to and never shown in a way that the audience can recognize them as what they are.
  • Compressed Adaptation: According to Leonard Maltin, the original Russian version is close to four hours long. This may explain why the Black Duke of Brunswick is seen at the Duchess of Richmond's ball, but his death at Quatre Bras the following day is neither seen nor alluded to.
  • Dances and Balls: The Duchess of Richmond's ball, featuring Scottish folkdancing and waltzes.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Wellington. Of course.
  • Death by Adaptation: Cambronne and the Old Guard are seen being shot to pieces by the British cannon (see Rule of Drama).
  • Death Seeker: To a degree, Napoleon by the end of the film. He's badly ill, and wanting something more than to do die in exile, he tries to accompany the Old Guard on their last march. His doctors and generals talk him out of it.
  • Defensive Feint Trap: Wellington successfully does this, getting Ney to lead the French cavalry into being decimated.
  • Everything's Louder With Bagpipes
  • Epic Movie: 15,000 Soviet foot soldiers and 2,000 cavalrymen as extras, lead to some stunning imagery.
  • Fake Nationality: Quite a few. Blücher is played by a Georgian (from the Caucasus), Ney by an Irishman, Wellington by a Canadian, Cambronne by a Russian and Napoleon by an American.
  • Glory Days:
    • Napoleon makes frequent references to past battles and triumphs, insisting that he can do the same again. Not at Waterloo.
    • To an extent, all of France sees Napoleon's rule as their glory days, and are eager to reclaim it when he escapes from exile.
  • Good Colors, Evil Colors: The Prussians seem to be in black mostly for the menacing, sinister effect it has. In actual fact their uniforms were mostly dark blue, rather like the French. Also, contrary to what is shown in the film, the black-clad Leibhusaren were not part of Blücher's army and none of the infantry regiments of the two corps that led the Prussian attacks at Waterloo had black or black-and-white flags.
  • Grave Robbing: Shown briefly in the end, with locals rummaging through the battlefield taking valuables off the dead.
  • Heroic BSOD: Wellington and Napoleon are both in BSOD mode after Waterloo. "The only thing sadder than a battle won is a battle lost."
  • Historical-Domain Character: The entire cast, essentially.
  • Last Stand: A couple of battalions of Napoleon's Guard attempt to make one, but they are too few and find themselves in a wide plain with no obstacles, so they cannot seriously impede the Allied pursuit. When they refuse to surrender, Wellington has no choice but to let the cannons open fire on them with cannister shot.
  • Leave No Survivors: Blücher gives this order when he arrives on the field. A case of Adaptational Villainy - in actual fact Blücher merely ordered his men to pursue the French until their (the Prussians') last breath, and most weren't in the mood for taking prisoners. What Blücher says in the movie comes very close to what General Roguet of the Old Guard according to French sources said at Ligny, two days earlier.
  • Leeroy Jenkins: Ney is the perfect man to lead a charge. He's also the perfect candidate to charge into a trap.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: Towards the end of the battle, Wellington and Uxbridge seem to survive a near miss from a cannon shot intact, when suddenly Uxbridge looks down...
    Uxbridge: (calmly) My God sir, I've lost my leg.
    Wellington: My God sir, so you have.
  • Mauve Shirts:
    • Throughout the movie we follow a couple of veteran troops in Napoleon's Old Guard, giving an insight into these troops. Just before the end of the movie, we see their bodies among the dead.
    • The plundering Irish soldier who gets promoted to lance-corporal.
    • The blond British soldier who ends up leaving his square screaming about the futility of war.
  • Moment of Silence:
    • Averted, for the most part. When an important supporting character dies, there is barely a pause. Only at the end does anyone reflect on the amount of blood that was shed.
    • The end makes things appear more quiet than they were, leaving out the pursuit - the film shows Napoleon boarding his coach, but not that this happened against a backdrop of fleeing French soldiers who crowded and blocked the bridge at Genappe. It also tactfully does not show that he almost immediately had to jump out of the coach onto a horse to avoid being captured by Prussian hussars. You also do not get to see the meeting of Wellington and Blücher at the inn La Belle Alliance.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Ney. Based on his perception of France's needs, Ney changes sides at least twice.
  • My Defense Need Not Protect Me Forever:
  • Napoleonic Wars: Covers the very final stretch of the Napoleonic Wars, between Napoleon's first defeat and exile to Elba to the Hundred Days and Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo.
  • Oh Crap: Quite a few, but particularly memorable ones from Wellington upon being told just how low his men are running on ammo, and from Napoleon when he hears about the Old Guard's retreat.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Looks like they were aiming for the Anglophone market most, so with the exception of a few non-speaking foreign officers on his staff, all you see of Wellington's army is English, Scottish and Irish officers and soldiers. The contingents from various German states and the Kingdom of the United Netherlands (Dutch and Belgian), who in actual fact composed roughly two-thirds of his army, are mostly invisible, although the similar uniforms worn by the Hanoverians would have made them largely indistinguishable from their British counterparts.
  • Precision F-Strike: When offered the chance to surrender, the French General Cambronne simply replies, "Merde!"
  • Rule of Cool: Units with cool uniforms have a better chance of appearing, most notably the Polish Lancers of the Imperial Guard, who get to repulse the Scots Greys (in reality it was two regiments of line lancers) and the Prussian Leibhusaren (black jackets, silver skulls and crossed bones on the front of the shako), who were not even part of Blücher's army.
  • Rule of Drama:
    • As the campaign opens, the Ball in Brussels on the evening of June 15 is intercut with the French Army of the North crossing the border on morning of June 14. Also, in actual fact Wellington received first news of Napoleon crossing the border with his army at least eight hours before he went to the ball. The delay in his reaction was because he still felt he had to be concerned about a possible French thrust further to the west on the road through Mons.
    • Marshal Ney riding from Quatre Bras to the battlefield of Ligny to personally deliver a captured British flag to Napoleon, who then is angry because Ney hasn't launched his troops in hot pursuit of Wellington's army. In fact, Ney was too busy at Quatre Bras on the 16th to waste his time on such an errand, and only met Napoleon on the afternoon of the 17th, when the latter arrived at Quatre Bras with part of the force that had fought at Ligny. Moreover, Napoleon did not send orders to Grouchy and Ney to pursue the two allied armies before noon on the 17th.
    • The foreshadowing of Ponsonby's death through relating the entirely ficticious story of the death of his father in a battle against the French. Also, his own death was 'cleaned up' a bit, according to French accounts he surrendered to a French sergeant of lancers who then killed him when a group of British cavalrymen approached and attempted to rescue him. (The French saw this as admissible as according to them Ponsonby had not yet handed over his sword or dismounted, and he was making a move to bolt at the approach of the British troopers).
    • Towards the end of the movie, the attack by the Prussian 4th Corps at Plancenoit (in the back of the French army, which actually had been going on for the better part of the afternoon) and that of the 1st Corps near Frichermont (on the French right flank) are telescoped into one event.
    • Colonel Cambronne's defiance when asked to surrender was so awesome that he had to be shown to die rather than to reenact what actually happened. In real life he surrendered to Colonel Hugh William Halkett, the commander of a brigade of lowly Hanoverian Landwehr (militia). Cambronne was wounded but still well enough to attempt an escape when an opportunity unexpectedly presented itself a few moments later, and he lived to a ripe old age, dying in 1842.
  • Scenery Gorn: A lot of it. Particularly at the end of the film, the field of battle is shown strewn with corpses of fallen soldiers.
  • Slobs Versus Snobs: Napoleon's simple, dirty uniform and dramatic manner is contrasted with Wellington's calm demeanour and perfect grooming throughout the film.
  • Small Reference Pools: Within the armies, only a few units are singled out, often ones that stick out because of their uniform (e. g. Highlanders, Leibhusaren) or elite status, thus in the charge of the British heavy cavalry, you only get to see the Scots Greys with their bearskin caps, not the other regiments (who wore helmets). The charge of the Imperial Guard is only shown as coming up against Maitland's 1st Foot Guards, the other British, Dutch-Belgian, Hanoverian and Brunswick units involved in the repulse are not seen.
  • Spiritual Successor: Waterloo followed hard on the heels of Bondarchuk's massive Oscar-winning War and Peace, for which they had already trained several divisions of the Soviet Army in Napoleonic tactics. These were now joined by the actual Gordon Highlanders.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: De Lancey and his bride are shown together at the ball. De Lancey is later killed in battle.
  • Thou Shalt Not Kill: Deconstructed. A soldier decides to adopt this attitude in the middle of battle and is promptly cut down. Since this is a movie about a massive historical battle, you expect a lot of killing to go on, and it does.
  • Villainous Breakdown:
    • Napoleon suffers one near the beginning when his marshals plead for him to abdicate the throne and surrender.
    • Marshal Ney has one as the Old Guard begins to break and he desperately screams at them over and over in an attempt to rally them.
  • What a Senseless Waste of Human Life: Wellington's famous quote at the end of the battle sums it up.
    "Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won."

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alternative title(s): Waterloo
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