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Napoleon Review: Hollywood Butchers Another of History’s Greatest Epics

Posted on Monday, December 4, 2023
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by AMAC Newsline
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AMAC Exclusive – By Shane Harris

The British director, Ridley Scott, and American actor, Joaquin Phoenix, posed together for the media at the photocall during the premiere of the film Napoleon at the Prado Museum, Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid Spain November 20th 2023

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.

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Robert Zuccaro
Robert Zuccaro
2 months ago

I dunno. If “accuracy” is all there is to complain about… It’s a Hollywood film not a documentary! I mean it could’ve beed a “woke-ivized” where Napolean is a black gay Muslim man using “they” as a pronoun confused over his gender assignment at birth.

Robin W Boyd
Robin W Boyd
2 months ago

We still can’t expect honesty of history from Hollywood. Hopefully this will change as sanity returns to U.S. society.

Stephen Russell
Stephen Russell
2 months ago

May stream later for FREE

Dave
Dave
2 months ago

They could have made it about O’bummer and O’bidon’s presidencies and called it Napolemorons.

Nitecat
Nitecat
2 months ago

I am really amazed that there are almost no movies being made that are worth watching, and almost nothing being put on broadcast television that is worth watching. Kurt Schlichter’s Kelly Turnbull books would make great movies or a series on a streaming service. Maybe a French company could make a documentary series about Napoleon. If they have any that are not woke.

David Campbell
David Campbell
2 months ago

Saw the movie. This critique is accurate.

David
David
2 months ago

Fantastic review, thanks for saving me $24! It confirms my suspicions on watching the TV ads. Napoleon comes across as big on spectacle but weak on story and character development. Joacquin Phoenix is an impressive but limited actor I could never expect to carry off a role like this, even if it was an excellent movie. I have wanted to understand Napoleon the man better, his pros and cons if you will, looks like this is another wasted opportunity. And surely you are right about Ridley Scott’s predisposition as a Brit to hate Napoleon and fail to go below the surface in telling his story.

CharlieSeattle
CharlieSeattle
2 months ago

BRAVEHEART was the worst Hollywood Historical butchery EVER!!
In Braveheart the Battle of Stirling Bridge, one of Wallace’s forces most momentous victories, is missing two key elements: rebellion leader Andrew de Moray and, perhaps more crucially, the bridge. The Scotts allowed only a third of the English army to cross the narrow bridge before advancing slowly in a close packed spear wall, cutting them off and driving most into the river to drown.
The “Brave Heart” is a title used to described Robert the Bruce not Wallace.
Wallace’s father’s name was Alan Wallace, not Malcolm, and he would not have been killed when Wallace was a boy, according to historian Gary Stewart.
Uncle Argyle, portrayed by Brian Cox, was also a complete work of fiction.
William is shown to have romantic relations with Isabella of France, the wife of Edward II. Later in the film it is implied that the future Queen of England is carrying the child of Wallace
In reality, the pair likely never met.
In the film their affair is shown to take place after the Battle of Falkirk, but at this time the real Isabella would have been just three years old and living in France.
Images of Mel Gibson’s face caked in blue paint have become iconic – but scholars have been quick to point out that such war paint wasn’t in use at this time.
Nor was tartan which enjoyed a liberal outing in the 1995 film.
Scottish author Peter traquair described Braveheart’s costume faux pas as a “farcical representation” of Wallace, noting that the folk hero was not “a wild and hairy highlander painted with blue woad (1,000 years too late) running amok in a tartan kilt (500 years too early).”

David Millikan
David Millikan
2 months ago

Hollywood is a joke and has been for years. Keep going Loser WOKE Hollywood and KEEP GOING BROKE.

David Szuch
David Szuch
2 months ago

Another lost opportunity to make a difference in history screen time were you the review were aware also of Napoleon’s relationship with Alexander Dumas father of the author , and his rise in the revolutionary army— son of a slave, and a French nobleman at one time with others of his background called les amerlcains because he was born in Santo Domingo, but schooled with other mixed children in private schools in France. Just saying.! he and contrast was a faithful husband father of two, and died, because Napoleon ignored and covered up his exploits, and left him in prison, when his ship was captured by Kingdom of two Sicilies.  his wife was denied a pension even before he died in 1803 of the results of his imprisonment. What are the negatives of the otherwise notable career of Napoleon

Jerry Meadows
Jerry Meadows
2 months ago

Very good critique, shows how our people are being prepared for ignorant service to socialism and ultimately slavery by Hollywood’s Marxist leaning and the obvious conceit that they consider the masses so gullible as to except such crap. Started to watch this movie, lost interest quickly and will certainly not finish ot

Mike B.
Mike B.
2 months ago

Those great movies Americans watched are a thing of the past. There’s only a handful of Hollywood stars, producers ,and directors that are sane. 9 times out of 10 the movies made today suck. Name me a movie made in the last 3 years that you have to see that comes out of Hollywood? I’m surprised Napoleon wasn’t of Chinese descent with a beard and a rainbow flag for a bicorne . Enjoy watching It’s a Wonderful Life”. Merry Christmas.

Bill Maddox
Bill Maddox
2 months ago

1970 Waterloo was or is a far better movie than the trash just released. Joaquin Phoenix was hampered by poor screen writing. Was not even a decent one timer…….

Doc
Doc
2 months ago

Let the same time be able to shut it off when you’ve had enough

nevadavic
nevadavic
2 months ago

Where to begin?This critic by Harris is 50% spot on. The CODE is important. N.B.’s reforms across Europe are significant. But his weaknesses in character should be obvious to the casual observers. Philosophically, a supposed great leader that cheats on a spouse is actually of low self-esteem. Any Hollywood producer or director cannot put these faults in a big movie. It would smack the ruling party in the face. If the movie attempted to emphasize too much good in a flawed leader of the masses, it would smack of pro-Trump.So, the movie was doomed from it’s day of inception. The ruling party could not have “real” portrial. So, instead we got a caricature, like Tolstoy ‘s philosophical attempt!

Joytotheworld
Joytotheworld
2 months ago

Where are the world history buffs? Napoleon did go to Egypt and was credited for shooting the face of Sphynx! Check with archeologists in Egypt and with Egyptian historians! He wanted his face carved there! Napoleon had a “short-man’s” revenge and desire to be “Emperor” of the world. THAT – is the history I remember being taught in the 50s. Now, people are rarely taught world history much less American history. We can learn so much from history. Yet, we are denied these lessons now. If we knew these things, we could avoid so many world and national offense. There will always be a handful of misguided, mentally ill persons who decide the want to rule the world. If we know how to recognize them by their first overtures, we can circumvent their ride in power. Knowledge provides discernment of situations, crisis, or calamity. It also provides clarity to make better choices.

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