Yesterday I posted a flash fiction story that involves a fair amount of historical background. I think it’s better if you read the story first without knowing what inspired it, so click here to read it. (It’s really short.)
Most histories of Napoleon’s downfall begin with his disastrous invasion of Russia, and at first glance, this seems appropriate. Napoleon suffered huge losses, failed to gain much of anything, and never won a campaign again after the invasion. It seems like the obvious point where his fortunes turned for the worse.
But the truth is, Napoleon’s downfall started much earlier. And it wasn’t due to any “nearest-run-thing-you-ever-saw” kind of bad luck that happens in battle, either. It was due to the fact that Napoleon didn’t understand economics nearly as well as warfare.
In 1806, the British Empire began a naval blockade against France. In retaliation, Napoleon–who at this point controlled most of continental Europe–enacted an embargo against trade with Britain, forbidding all French-controlled nations from importing British goods.
By all accounts, it didn’t work. Even the Empress Josephine herself purchased smuggled British products.¹ And Britain simply made up the losses in revenue from Europe in other parts of the world.
Finally, it was in an attempt to impose his ban on British goods that Napoleon invaded Russia to begin with! If he hadn’t been trying to enforce the embargo, he would never have had to make such a risky move at all.
At the time, France had a very strong military tradition. Nowadays we tend to stereotype Germany as the most militaristic European nation, but German militarism is heavily rooted in reforms introduced in Prussia following their losses to Napoleon. So in the early 19th century, it was French militarism vs. British capitalism.
Napoleon was a great military strategist and leader, but he seems to have been pretty ignorant when it came to economics and trade. Napoleon fell into the error of regulators everywhere, in that he assumed he could end demand for goods by making them illegal. In fact, all he did was create a lucrative black market for the British and punish his own people simultaneously.
It would have been different if Napoleon had been able to defeat the British Navy. Then he maybe could have enforced the embargo more effectively. But then, if he could defeat the British Navy, the whole problem of Britain would have been solved anyway.
Napoleon was seeing everything in military terms–that was what he was trained to do, after all. British policy was designed more in economic terms, and the military (mainly the Navy) was just a tool used by Britain to secure their material wealth. The results of the differing philosophies speak for themselves: Napoleon got to be in a lot of famous battles, sure; but eventually lost his Empire and died alone on St. Helena. Britain became the dominant superpower in the world for the next century.
Napoleon should have been patient. Yes, the British were constantly financing uprisings against him, but they weren’t working out very well, and they couldn’t keep it up forever.
There are a couple lessons here. First, you can’t ignore the laws of economics, even if you are the greatest military strategist of your time. And second, though it may be more dramatic to depict Napoleon’s downfall with a retreat from a burning Moscow or a failed charge at Waterloo, he sealed his own fate much earlier with a serious error of his own design.
It’s easy to point to one battle or one bit of bad luck as being “Where It All Went Wrong”, but oftentimes, such events are really just the culmination of a less dramatic, more systematic bad decision made much earlier.
So instead of saying “So-and-so met their Waterloo when…”, look instead for when So-and-so made their Continental System.
UPDATE 5/22/2018: See Patrick Prescott’s post on this subject for more info–he has a lot more expertise on this than I do.
- See Napoleon: A Life, by Andrew Roberts. p. 429
In the days before CGI, epic war films were massive and costly undertakings. You wanted a shot of 10,000 guys marching across a field in full battle uniform? Well, you had to get them! You couldn’t just have Johnny the Computer Whiz draw them in after the fact.
As in actual warfare, there are innumerable logistical difficulties with re-creating these battles. You’ve got to have men in position, knowing how to use their equipment, and then film them as they maneuver in the field.
All that’s quite hard enough. But when you are making a film for wide release, you have to have all that plus a story the audience can follow, structured so as to play out in a coherent and satisfying way over the course of two hours.
It’s this last bit that’s really tricky, because while history offers plenty of incredible and compelling stories, they rarely fit into neat three-act schemes that can be concisely portrayed in a couple of hours.
Waterloo starts out well, showing Napoleon’s abdication to Elba in 1814 and subsequent return in 1815. Especially memorable is the moment when the Emperor walks alone to face his former soldiers, now under orders to kill him, and through sheer bravery and charisma wins them back over to his side. This is one part of the Napoleonic legend that seems made for the movies, and it certainly is a high point of the film.
After that, however, problems arise in this dramatization of the final chapter of Bonaparte’s career. There are unnecessary voice-overs in which Napoleon (Rod Steiger) thinks in exposition for the benefit of the audience. Many lines of dialogue uttered by officers on both sides seem like they were lifted from history books and changed to the present tense.
An inordinate amount of time is spent on Wellington’s staff at the Ball hosted by the Duchess of Richmond. This scene also includes the introduction of a totally fictional and pointless love story that goes nowhere. The only upside is the chemistry between Wellington (Christopher Plummer) and the Duchess (Virginia McKenna).
The film dwells on things like this, Napoleon’s illness, and some peculiar episode involving a British soldier stealing a pig, and yet glosses over incidents like the Battles of Quatre-Bras and Ligny with a couple lines of dialogue.
It’s not that the film is inaccurate–indeed, they seem to have gone to some lengths to describe things in historically correct fashion. (Except for the romance and a reminiscence about Major-General Ponsonby’s father) The problem is that the film depicts these events in a strange and sometimes incoherent manner.
The biggest technical flaw is probably the mud. The battle was famously delayed by wet ground after a rainy night, and indeed the film states this correctly. Where it falls down is the fact that the ground we see on screen is demonstrably dry, as evidenced by the huge clouds of dust kicked up by the columns of cavalry and infantry.
The end result is the comical visual of a frustrated Napoleon sinking in an obviously artificial mud puddle while all around him is a vast expanse of dry land. The fundamental historical fact is correctly depicted, but not in a dramatically effective way.
There are lots of issues like this. After Marshal Ney’s ill-fated cavalry charge against the famous infantry squares, Napoleon rushes back to the field from his sickbed, crying, “What is he doing? Everyone knows not to make a cavalry charge without infantry support!”
While completely factually accurate, this seems unlikely to be what Napoleon actually said at the time. It comes across as a line delivered for the benefit of audience members who aren’t familiar with the battle of Waterloo.
And this is the other difficult thing about making historical movies: balancing the history lesson aspect with the need to depict real characters, as opposed to instructional puppets designed to illustrate a historical lecture.
Chances are, if someone is watching the movie Waterloo, they are already a Napoleonic history fan. Sure, there might be the occasional viewer who is an ardent follower of Rod Steiger or Christopher Plummer, but if I were overseeing the production, I would make the executive decision that any viewer who doesn’t already know how the battle went is just going to have to piece it together as best they can–no reason the script should go out of its way to help them out.
Despite all of that, the movie isn’t horrible. As an instructional device, it is not bad, and there is something inherently impressive about seeing huge lines of soldiers and horses advancing across a smoky field. It gives you some vague hint of what it might have felt like to be in the battle.
It’s just that the film lacks a dramatic narrative. Napoleon and Wellington don’t “come alive”; they just repeat their famous quotes and stoically watch the battle. Because of this, it feels more like a recording of an elaborate re-enactment rather than a truly epic historical drama.