Case in Point – Smithsonian Channel’s Napoleon’s Waterloo Documentary

By James Cobb 20 Jul 2015 0

Today we bring you the first in what we anticipate will be a series of columns by Jim Cobb, one of the most respected strategy game reviewers around. In this first offering Jim casts his eye over the Smithsonian Channel’s recent documentary on the Battle of Waterloo and gives his trenchant views of the program and how well it works as a tool for delivering history education. So without further ado, here we go …


Mass media could and should be a venue for teaching military history. Books, film, documentaries, TV shows and – yes - games can expose people to historical issues. Yet, this approach can do more harm than good. True education is an ongoing dialogue that expands knowledge. Readers, viewers and gamers who stop their education with one or two books, shows or games become dangerously one-dimensional in the sense of Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man. When viewers are spurred on to further exploration by a show such as David Suchet’s two-part documentary on Paul/Saul, the goal is achieved. When a show seems to be the end-all-be-all of a topic, learning may stop. When a work is a superficial generalization, intellectual damage has been done. The Smithsonian Channel’s presentation on Waterloo is an example of media capitalizing on an event’s anniversary, cloaking itself in purported scholarship while lulling viewers into thinking they now know all that’s needed on the subject.

Debuting on June 15, 2015, the show uses the first three minutes to summarize Bonaparte’s career up to 1815 with three lesser-known “talking heads” indulging in some description of the Emperor’s character. Focus is lost here because the viewer is pulled into 1799-1814 and not the supposed topic of the program. If the show is about Napoleon, key events like raising the siege of Toulon, the Italian Campaigns and the Middle East should be mentioned. If the subject is the battle, thirteen minutes of the 47-minute program (thirteen minutes are taken up by commercials and credits) are wasted on superfluous topics.

The production values are sub-par. A nice map graphic showing Napoleon’s route from Elbe is ruined by the cheesy use of scenes from the 1970 movie, Waterloo. The frequent use of unacknowledged movies on Napoleonic warfare permeates the documentary, adding to its slap-dash approach. Four more minutes are used in describing the Hundred Days and an ambiguous look at Wellington, described as not having Napoleon’s “Mediterranean warmth” and seeing Waterloo as a stepping stone for his ambition. The first voice-over quoting from British, French and Dutch soldiers is seen here. These excerpts are nice but the visuals, although historical correct, only show the same handful of re-enactors, underlining the cheapness of the production.

The description of Napoleon’s strategy in Belgium is fine, although one wonders why an emphasis is put on Grouchy so early – perhaps a foreshadowing. The preliminary fighting is where the mistakes and generalization begin. Ligny is described as a “bloody initial skirmish” with the Prussians simply skipping back to Wavre while Quatre Bras is seen as Ney’s victory, forcing the British back to Waterloo. While the description of D’Erlon’s back-and-forth between Ney and Napoleon is laudable, the role he would have played in either Ligny or Quatre Bras is overemphasized.

Twenty-three minutes into the program the field at Mount St. Jean is reached. Instead of using CGI, a good contemporary map or even a good screenshot from a game, the horrible, lion-crowned mound over the sunken road is shown, giving viewers no idea what the field was like. The vignette of the rainy night is well-done, underlining the plight of the troops and underscoring how the weather affected the battle. A discussion of Napoleon’s supposed stomach cancer fritters away even more time.

The dawn of the next day begins with another exposition on Grouchy. This fixation on Grouchy stands in contrast to the fleeting mention of Blücher.  Then, the program introduces the idea the positioning of Bylandt’s brigade was Wellington’s bait for Napoleon, ignoring the possibility that it was a mistake of the Prince of Orange. The first shots are fired 35 minutes into the feature leaving around twenty minutes to describe over six hours of fighting. The re-enacting and special effects are very good and show what the producers could have done with more focus and time. Although Hougoumont is described correctly, the scenes about Le Haye Sainte are from movies where they depict Hougoumont. D’Erlon’s attack on the Allied left is described as being in column when it was in line. The effect of shrapnel is described and shown fairly well if simplistically. The charge of the Household Brigade is omitted completely. The narrative is then interrupted by a four-minute discourse on battlefield medicine and psychology. The French cavalry charges against the Allied center is said to have been ordered by Napoleon instead of Ney, even though the Emperor wasn’t on the field at the time. The scenes of the British squares also come from an old movie. The fall of Le Haye Sainte is skipped in favor of a too-long description of Plancenoit. The attack of the Imperial Guard is shown but the enfilade that caused them to fall back is not mentioned. The Prussians just appeared and the French army evidently just dissolved. The end of the battle is shown with the well-known but fictitious scene from Waterloo with horse cavalry surrounding and annihilating an Old Guard square. Factoring out commercials and non-combated related scenes, the battle is described in less than twenty minutes with the last three minutes of the program giving casualty counts and its political and personal aftermath.

What can viewers take away from this program? Historians either regret the waste of time or have giggles over the errors. Less experienced viewers may be inspired enough to look elsewhere for more information but far too many may decide “So that’s Waterloo! What’s the big deal? I now know all about it.” Waterloo was in fact a “big deal” and that the Smithsonian Channel, ostensibly an educational channel, should produce a program so unfocused and riddled with errors and superficial rot just to capitalize on an anniversary is shameful. How many children will be sucked into the downward spiral of lamentable history teaching is unknown but probably sizeable if their parents thought they would learn something. A missed opportunity to teach and learn can never be regained. The media must understand its responsibilities.

Should parents or young people read this column, please get the 1970 movie Waterloo or the 1990 documentary of the same name. Also get the John Tiller’s Campaign Waterloo or Battleground Waterloo or Matrix’s Crown of Glory or Scourge of War: Waterloo.


About the Author
Jim Cobb has been teaching history at Cardinal Stritch University since 2000.



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