“Waterloo” (1970) was an epic rendering of the battle by acclaimed Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk (“War and Peace”). The movie covers the Hundred Days, but concentrates on the climactic battle. The film gives equal treatment to Napoleon (Rod Steiger) and Wellington (Chrisopher Plummer).
1. Compare the leadership styles of Napoleon and Wellington
Napoleon is depicted as using his charisma to get and retain loyalty from his soldiers. He has a great acting ability and a flare for the dramatic. When he takes leave of the Old Guard before leaving for exile on Elba, he bids adieu by saying “With this kiss remember me. Good bye my soldiers. Good bye my sons. Good bye my children”. When his path is blocked by Gen. Ney’s force that has been sent to arrest him as he returns for the Hundred Days, he advances alone and opens his coat. “If you want to kill your emperor, here I am.”
Napoleon is forgiving of the generals who had switched sides when he was forced to abdicate. This is particularly true of him putting Ney in a command position after he had pledged to bring Napoleon to King Louis XVIII in chains. He takes advice from his subordinates. For instance, he postpones the assault due to concerns from his artillery commander about the rain-soaked ground. He delegates authority. He assigns Grouchy to tail Bloucher and keep him from the Waterloo battlefield. These leadership traits are going to haunt him in the battle.
Wellington is depicted as cool and calm even in a storm (which there literally is when word arrives at the ball that Napoleon is on the march). He is unflappable. This is clear when he does not react to the death and destruction around him. More than Napoleon, he believes that soldiers need to see their leaders facing the same dangers as themselves. The movie reenacts the famous moment when Wellington’s subordinate loses his leg and Wellington matches his stoical reaction of “By God, sir, I’ve lost my leg” with “My God, sir, so you have.”
Two leadership traits the film features are Wellington’s vaunted feel for the terrain. His reverse slope strategy is represented. He also keeps his plans close to the vest. When asked by his second in command what his plans are, Wellington responds “to beat the French”. The movie also throws in some references to Wellington’s upper class benevolent snobbishness towards the “scum” that were his soldiers.
2. What are Napoleon’s strengths and weaknesses as shown in the movie?
Napoleon has a brilliant mind. One scene has him dictating various letters all at the same time. The speed of his movement is alluded to in the movie, but we get little impression of that great strength. In fact, the movie does not catch Napoleon at his best. The best that can be said is that it clearly shows the strength of his personality.
What could be considered strengths actually backfire on Napoleon at Waterloo. Taking advice from his subordinates results in the disastrous decision to postpone the start of the battle. Giving his commanders responsibility leads to Grouchy’s incompetent tracking of Grouchy and Ney’s premature cavalry assault. Conversely, Wellington’s refusal to share his plans does not bite him in the ass.
Napoleon is overconfident and disrespectful of Wellington and the British army. His theatricality that had served him well before comes off as unhinged emotionalism at Waterloo. The movie does explain some of his behavior as the result of unspecified health problems. We need a good movie about Austerlitz to show us the real leadership qualities of Napoleon.
What do you think?
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