Waterloo on film

Hi, it’s me again, hoping I did as good a job being Cara yesterday as Cara did being Diane. 🙂 Today, the actual anniversary of the battle, I’m going to talk about documentaries and films of Waterloo you might want to watch for research and/or to commemorate the event.

Like many of you, I like visuals. When reading about battles, I find myself frequently flipping to the maps as I try to visualize who attacked from which direction, etc… So I got onto Netflix and ordered the documentary 1815: THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO. At only about an hour long, it is limited in its coverage but it does provide basic descriptions of the roles of infantry, cavalry and artillery, some football-play-style depictions of the movements of armies with arrows and such, and footage from the 1970 epic film below to provide some pretty realistic scenes of cavalry charges, etc… If you want to understand the battle but have trouble picturing what is happening just from text, this is a good starting place.

Next I watched the 1970 epic, WATERLOO, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, with Rod Steiger playing Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as Wellington. It was a box office flop; I suspect that it was not enough of a documentary for military history buffs and not enough of a drama for general audiences. Being as I enjoy a mix of both, I thought it quite good. The main characters were well-cast (yes, Christopher Plummer did bring up memories of Captain von Trapp but the Captain and the Duke do have a lot in common). I am not enough of an expert to comment on the accuracy of the battle scenes, but the scale was convincing. 20,000 men from a Russian army division were used to portray the massed armies. Cavalry and artillery were both depicted on a grand scale. Aerial shots are helpful to anyone who might have difficulty picturing infantry squares. Overall, I recommend it.

(One warning. The version I rented was produced in China and the subtitles were written by someone with little knowledge of English and less of the battle. “Quatre Bras” becomes “Catilba”, “Picton” becomes “Prekton” and in one memorable line of dialogue, Bonaparte says that Wellington has “bred to death.” And you can’t even turn the subtitles off. If you rent this version, I recommend sticking something across the bottom of the screen so you won’t be distracted by the sheer awfulness.)

As for SHARPE’S WATERLOO, well, I love Richard Sharpe and I love Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe, but this film is painfully unconvincing as a depiction of Waterloo. Throughout the series, battle scenes suffered from being low budget and this one is worse than the others. Although much of the action is centered around the defense of the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte, which can be depicted with a more modest cast, there are still many scenes that suffer from a sheer inadequacy of scale. If you enjoy the series and its characters, by all means catch this film. Just don’t expect it to give you a real flavor of the battle.

Have any of you seen these movies and if so, what did you think? If you’ve seen other films or documentaries of Waterloo, please share!


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Janet Mullany
14 years ago

Elena, I saw a History Channel documentary on Waterloo–I wonder if it was the same one? The most interesting part of it was the cavalry charge reconstruction, which was nothing like those depicted in movies–horses at a full gallop, etc. Because of the various obstacles, i.e., corpses on the ground, they wouldn’t be able to sustain anything more than a trot at best; also, horses, however well trained, will not break through a tight line of soldiers but swerve aside.
What the cavalry did have to their advantage was height and reach.
The documentary also had some interesting boy stuff about guns and bores. Todd, have you seen this one?

Louisa Cornell
14 years ago

I actually haven’t seen any film depictions of Waterloo so I will have to check these out. It seems this is an undertreated subject. I would love to see a Peter Jackson or Steven Speilberg version of it.

Cara King
14 years ago

Louisa, love your ideas! The Peter Jackson version would be gorgeous — have brooding bearded men and fantastic New Zealand backdrops. And Josephine Bonaparte played by Liv Tyler. (Yeah, I know, Josephine was out by then, but Hollywood wouldn’t know that.)

And the Spielberg version would be great too: lots of kids hiding out, helping our very stressed-out heroes…

Okay, just kidding. I think both would be very good, no kids, no Liv.

Elena, I haven’t seen any of those that you mention…not sure if I’ve seen any portrayal of Waterloo on screen (Trusty Todd? can you think of one I’ve forgotten?) but I really like that middle one you mention (sans subtitles!)

And of course I will still see Sharpe’s Waterloo, cuz it’s Sharpe. And Sean Bean…

Hey, I bet the Peter Jackson version would star Sean Bean as Wellington/Boromir!


Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

I don’t know how I missed that 1970 “Waterloo,” but I am putting it on Netflix now! 🙂

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

I’ve seen them all! And agree with Elena’s assessment of all of them.

Thanks to Elena for being Cara so Cara could be me.
I’m still writing!!!

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

Trusty Todd. Ah, that’s the moniker. On another post, I was about to comment using truly. Good thing I checked here.

I have the Waterlook documentary coming next on Netflix (edging out Hubby’s some bang-bang-bang movie, well, with mine.)

14 years ago

I am ashamed to admit that I haven’t seen any of these films! Not even the Sharpe one, which we have on tape and could have watched anytime the last several years. 🙁 They all sound interesting in their different ways…

The Sharpe movies always did suffer from not really having the budget to stage large battle scenes, though they mostly did reasonably well with what they had. (The fact that riflemen are skirmishers is helpful there.) But it’s hard to substitute the effect of just seeing masses and masses of men. For example, that amazing tracking shot at Dunkirk in Atonement…worth the price of admission all by itself.


14 years ago

The thing about the battle of Waterloo was that it was actually more than one going on at the same time.
So no, no huge cavalry charges and the actions at Hougemont and Quatre Bras were some of the worst that had ever been seen, and that was saying something considering how terrible the war had been from 1808 to 181r when Wellington and his forces finally got to France.
But thank you for marking this awesome anniversary!

Sorcha MacMurrough
The Rakehell Regency Series

Elena Greene
14 years ago

Hi, Sorcha! Welcome to the Riskies; we’re happy you visited.

I agree about the many battles. Yesterday I blogged about Waterloo references and I think that WATERLOO: DAY OF BATTLE by David Howarth is one of the best at telling the different stories, from the defenses of Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte, to the experience of the artillery, to the French charges, to the Allied infantry in their squares.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

Backtracking to earlier comments (sorry, it’s been a busy couple of days with end-of-school activities)…

Janet, I’m not sure it was the same documentary we saw. I think I’ve read about the cavalry charges being slower than we think, in part due to the soft ground as it rained the night before.

Louisa, I think it would be very cool to see a modern remake.

Delle Jacobs
14 years ago

The one thing I detested about Shape’s Waterloo was how he managed to hop all over the giant battlefield, fighting in every major skirmish and battle scene. There seemed to be no grasp of the enormous scope of the battlefield. Solders did not hop about from one regiment to another. He would not have been fighting at Hougoumont with the Guards. Why didn’t they just dispense with Wellington and put Sharpe in charge? It might actusly have made more sense than the story they filmed.

14 years ago

Very good point, they are hopping about like demented hares!

Also, what galls me about this is that we know so much about the Riflemen from the quite large number of personal memoirs written by them, (which is where Cornwell is getting a lot of his material) as compared with other regiments.

So there is really no need to actually try to sensationalize an already excellent story, and in fact it only cheapens it by making it unbelievable, and thus dismissed as ‘just a movie’. (Or ‘just a novel’.)

We have a duty to be accurate where we can be, and in fact, truth really is a lot more fascinating than fiction at times.

And I just want to remind everyone that the 200th anniversary of the start of the Peninsular War is only a few more weeks away, August 17th, 2008! Yay, Wellington (Wellesley as he was at the time).

Now THAT is a story well worth telling!

S. MacMurrough

Elena Greene
14 years ago

Delle, Sorcha, I so agree with you about that Sharpe movie. I will still read the book which, if my experience with the series holds true, will be more true to history and will have a good author’s note to explain the tweaks.

To a degree, as novelists we are always tweaking history. It’s the degree, perhaps, that separates historical fiction (“it might have happened that way”) from alternate history (“we know it didn’t happen that way but it’s cool to speculate what if”). When historical fiction gets too close to alternate history (and isn’t clearly defined as such) we get into trouble.

I am hoping that the Waterloo scenario I’m dealing with stays firmly in the historical fiction category!

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