AMAC Exclusive – By Shane Harris
Napoleon, the latest historical epic from director Ridley Scott (The Martian, 2015, Robin Hood, 2010, Kingdom of Heaven, 2005, Gladiator, 2000) falls far short of its lofty ambitions and ends up as yet another cheap Hollywood attack on one of history’s greatest figures that fails to explore the complexity and full dimensions of the titular character’s life and career.
In all of Western history, there are few men whose lives were as consequential – for better or for worse – than Napoleon, a French artillery officer who harnessed the chaos of the French Revolution to become Emperor of France, led a series of brilliant military campaigns against the great powers of Europe, and ushered in a wave of reforms that continue to influence Western society and government. More than 4,500 books have been written exploring Napoleon’s legacy, and this year’s film is just the latest effort to bring his life to the big screen.
The movie begins promisingly with Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) calmly observing the chaos in revolutionary France following the beheading of Queen Marie Antoinette. In the opening scenes tracing Napoleon’s victory at Toulon, Phoenix’s characteristic taciturn and unnerving detachment creates an aura of mystery and austerity that leaves viewers eager for a deeper dive into what motivates him.
Unfortunately, we never get much of an answer to that question other than vague references to mommy issues and jealousy over his first wife Josephine’s (played by an alluring Vanessa Kirby) many reported dalliances.
The rest of the film is a confused and frenzied kaleidoscope of battles and politics that follow Napoleon’s rise and fall interspersed with bizarre sex scenes that catalogue his volatile romantic life. Despite a run time of 158 minutes, we never fully understand the context of what’s happening, and the film never gives us a reason to be emotionally invested in any of the characters. By the end, it feels like a drag.
Phoenix’s portrayal of Napoleon remains flat and underdeveloped throughout, and viewers never see the charisma that made Le Petit Caporal so beloved by the troops under his command – and by the French people. One of the defining moments of Napoleon’s life was when, following his escape from his first exile on Elba, he strides toward the soldiers sent to arrest him and opens his jacket while declaring, “Here I am. Kill your Emperor, if you wish!” only to see them respond “Vive L’Empereur!” and turn with him to depose the restored Bourbon King Louis XVIII. The film’s depiction of this spectacle lacks any of the drama and emotion that must have characterized the real event.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given Scott’s English heritage, the only character who comes across as remotely likable is Rupert Everett’s portrayal of the Duke of Wellington, the Brit who bested Napoleon at Waterloo. While Kirby makes a valiant effort to infuse the film with some excitement and emotional color, we never see what defines and motivates Josephine as a character. The rest of the star-studded cast melts together in a sea of forgettable performances.
The military elements of the film are visually appealing, but the overtly anti-war message distracts (perhaps intentionally) from Napoleon’s genius on the battlefield. We never learn why Napoleon launches a campaign in Egypt, why his victory at Austerlitz was so brilliant, or why his final defeat at Waterloo was so significant for the geopolitical balance in Europe. The stakes for the audience are simply nonexistent.
There are some moments that will excite history buffs. Scott brilliantly depicts the famous scene of Napoleon taking Charlemagne’s crown from Pope Pius XII and placing on his own head (and includes a nod to legendary French artist Jacques-Louis David). Wellington’s use of square infantry formations to fend of the vaunted French cavalry at Waterloo is another welcome detail. However, these brief instances of historical accuracy may be offset by laughable scenes like Napoleon’s canons firing on the pyramids, which were nowhere near the battles he fought in Egypt.
Napoleon’s obsession with Josephine is the film’s least compelling and most head-scratching element. The pair’s interactions feel forced, and we never see why Napoleon remains loyal to a woman whose sexual exploits are routinely the subject of French tabloids (in real life we know that Napoleon also had numerous lovers).
All of Napoleon’s most pivotal decisions in the movie, from his return to France following his Egypt campaign to his escape from exile on Elba, are predicated on a blind lust for Josephine and constant worrying about her infidelity. Although filmmakers always take liberties with character motivations, Scott’s treatment of Napoleon, one of the greatest political and military leaders the world has ever seen, feels reductive and borders on insulting.
While busily jumping from battles to the bedroom, the film entirely ignores what is Napoleon’s most important and lasting contribution to Western civilization – his rule as “first consul” and then emperor. The real Napoleon fundamentally reshaped civil law around the world through the Napoleonic Code, introduced the principle of equality before the law to conquered lands, freed serfs, and led a meritocratic revolution in the governing and military structure of Europe – none of which get any mention in the film.
That is not to understate the appalling side of Napoleon’s legacy. He restored slavery to the French Empire, committed a series of horrific atrocities throughout his military career, and seized absolute power through an armed coup.
But such breadth of action and consequence is precisely what makes Napoleon’s life so fascinating. Scott chooses to avoid the difficult task of exploring both sides of Napoleon’s polarizing legacy in favor of a far more pedestrian and transparent character assassination that comes across as shallow and cheap (ironic given the film’s reported $200 million+ budget).
In doing so, Scott dooms what could have been a remarkable film to being an unsophisticated and ultimately uninteresting blanket condemnation of ambition and the drive for personal success. Rather than a commentary on the duality of human nature and the dangers of unchecked power and ego, it becomes a cynical screed against one of history’s most iconic individuals.
Shane Harris is a writer and political consultant from Southwest Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @ShaneHarris513.