Note from the Editors: This essay is part I of “The Inverted Great Men“, a III-part series on recent Hollywood & mainstream media depictions of great historical figures.
How Ridley Scott took one of the most dynamic, remarkable figures in history and made him boring
From the moment the first teaser photos were released showing Joaquin Phoenix scowling underneath a bicorn hat, a great clamor was raised in anticipation of Ridley Scott’s Napoleon. In a desolate media ecosystem that seems unable to produce anything other than reboots and sequels (comic book franchises, endless Star Wars spinoffs, an octogenarian Indiana Jones, etc), an ambitious epic about one of history’s most dynamic characters was like water in a desert. Scott’s Napoleon, along with Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, promised to demonstrate that there is still an appetite both among filmmakers and audiences for mature films about serious subjects that entertain audiences without infantilizing them.
It was a pleasant dream. But then the movie was released, and people saw it. And now the kindest thing that one can say about Napoleon is it was a regrettable mistake. Unlike the real Napoleon Bonaparte, the movie lacks intellect, a coherent vision, and a clear motivation. Mercifully, it will be forgotten. Any resemblance that the events of the movie bear to the real Napoleon are cosmetic at best, and students of history will struggle to recognize the great man.
Filmmakers, of course, are not necessarily obligated to rigidly stick to their source material, whether that source material is fictional or historical. Obsessively monitoring movies for deviations is a bad way to watch them. Creative liberties are acceptable but they should be taken with an eye to improve the story. The problem with Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is that all of his liberties make things worse.
Take the aesthetics of the film. Among the film’s few bright spots are the production values. From start to finish, the sets and costumes are visually appealing and largely historically accurate. But they are buried underneath a stygian grey filter – no doubt intended to impart a gritty historical realism – which makes the whole film look grim. Depicting the past as inherently sterile has never made sense – paintings of the period are filled with light and color. It’s not as if the sun was darker 200 years ago. But it’s become a standard practice, and makes Napoleon dull and depressing to look at.
And the flaws are not just with the color scheme, but in the conception of the project. It seemed that Ridley Scott wanted to make a comprehensive single-volume Napoleon biopic, and nobody was able to explain to him this was a bad idea. The film attempts to cover no less than 28 years of Napoleon’s life in 158 minutes of runtime – a feat which is accomplished by moving through it at light speed and excising vast portions of it. Napoleon’s Italian campaign, which first vaulted him to prominence, is not even mentioned. Explanatory context is not provided. We get a vague sense of what is going on, but not why.
Ultimately, a story as colossal as Napoleon’s demands a prestige TV miniseries, or at least a trilogy of big-budget films. Scott’s movie manages to be both long and rushed. There is a constant feeling of disorientation as scenes jump forward years at a time, with little explanation of background events: this confusion lasts hours. Among the events portrayed, only the Battle of Waterloo receives meaningful screen time, perhaps half an hour. Other huge battles and coups fly past in minutes. As someone intimately familiar with the life of Napoleon and the geostrategic events in the background, I found the pace of the movie irritating and I can only imagine the experience is worse for a Napoleonic novice.
Ridley Scott clearly recognized that the vast scope of events would create a disjointed movie, and saw the need for a central narrative element to cohere the whole thing together. His choice for this all-important narrative spinal cord was the romance between Napoleon and Josephine. In principle, this had the potential to work. But the driving force of Napoleon’s life was not, in fact, his love for Josephine – therefore, certain creative liberties had to be taken. In the film, many of Napoleon’s critical decisions – like his evacuation from Egypt in 1799 or his escape from exile in 1815 – are depicted incredibly as motivated by his desire to seek Josephine. This is not necessarily damning – one can imagine a compelling film that cleverly used a captivating Josephine romance as a plot device to tie together a sequence of epic battles and political gambits. The problem with Napoleon is that the romance is not captivating, and the battles and politics are not epic.
The real relationship between Napoleon and Josephine was quite cinematic in its own right. Josephine was an aristocratic widow in search of protection in a violent and tumultuous political landscape – flinging from lover to lover, she found herself the object of the amorous desire of a somewhat frowny but charismatic young Corsican in the process of conquering his way to the crown. The real Josephine was considerably older than Napoleon (the dynamic is reversed in the film with the casting of a 49-year-old Phoenix and a 35-year-old Vanessa Kirby) and somewhat indifferent towards him, while he professed undying love for her and showered her with eloquent and effusive love letters.
This is actually a very good story – an older widow who seeks protection and stability by marrying a lovesick young officer, slowly warming up to him only for the relationship to steadily devolve as he grows ever more powerful. Even after their divorce, Napoleon felt strong affection for her, insisted that she be treated well, and at the very end, her name was among the last words on his lips. That’s a good story. But it’s not Ridley Scott’s story. His Napoleon is not an eloquent, passionate suiter, but an autistic and awkward simp who literally whimpers when he wants sex. It’s not a love story but an awkward lust story – devoid of romance, and as grey and cold as the film’s color palette.
In short, the romance serves as neither a useful plot device nor a strong motivation for Napoleon but rather primarily functions to humiliate him, as Josephine mocks his desire, cuckolds him, and feigns indifference to his military exploits. It offers a distinctly contemporary retelling, which forces the great man to grovel before the feminine, informing us, in no uncertain terms, that Napoleon – Emperor, master of war – is utterly powerless before the dominant Josephine. This is encapsulated most vividly when Napoleon abandons his army in Egypt to rush home because he learns that Josephine has taken a lover – betraying his army for pity sex. Mars, God of War, prostrates himself before Venus. If even mighty Napoleon cannot escape the longhouse and the enslaving fertility goddess, what hope is there for you?
This abysmal romance is the connective tissue intended to lend coherence to the vignettes of geopolitical drama, but unfortunately these are not very good either. The film does nothing to help audiences understand why these colossal wars are occurring. Filling in the gaps ourselves, we’re led to the conclusion that Napoleon was personally responsible – a conclusion reinforced by the black screen at the end of the film informing us that Napoleon’s wars killed millions of people, just to make sure we don’t accidentally admire him.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Napoleon appears to possess no motivation – he seems completely lost in the role, without a creative vision for the character. That’s a shame, because Napoleon was a captivating figure with contradictory sides to his personality. He was charismatic and megalomaniacal, with elements of a world-historic genius and a tyrant. As a geopolitical agent, he was not particularly hard to understand. He rose to power in a context in which France was rocked by endless war and political instability, with Paris unable to either form a stable government or bring peace. On the momentum of his own tremendous military successes, he came to believe that he could personally bring stability through victory. But peace was destined to elude him. Napoleon thought that France could know security by winning decisive victories over her enemies, but those same victories made France too powerful to peacefully coexist with her neighbors.
Napoleon’s challenge was essentially the same faced by every would-be European hegemon. Anyone who manages to establish dominance over the European core immediately finds that they face intransigent adversaries on two flanks – Britain in the west and Russia in the east, both certain to view any European superpower with anxiety and trepidation. The long game of European geopolitics is simple: can anyone simultaneously accumulate enough naval power to defeat Britain, and enough land power to defeat Russia? So far, Napoleon, Wilhelmine Germany, and the Third Reich have all tried and failed.
A superior movie might have focused on Napoleon’s growing obsession with solving this merciless geopolitical problem with his extraordinary skills on the battlefield. That would be a compelling story, showing how Napoleon’s desire to deliver security to France became distorted by hubris. By presenting the real stakes and incentives at play, one could potentially draw a useful lesson about geopolitical realism, and the difficulty of crafting lasting international stability at the point of a sword. This film would present a compelling picture of a gifted but flawed character and explore the two sides of Napoleon’s personality – both the military genius and statesman and the terror and “Corsican Ogre” whom Tsar Alexander called the “Monster of Europe.”
Unfortunately, Ridley Scott’s Napoleon portrays neither the heroic nor the villainous side of the man. Phoenix’s Napoleon has nothing gallant or admirable about him, but neither does he come across as megalomaniacal or bloodthirsty. Instead, he’s merely petty – a whining, awkward, and emotionally stiff character with no strategic direction. His habit of whimpering for Josephine is extrapolated to international affairs when he throws a tantrum at the British ambassador, whining “you think you’re so great because you have boats.” Ultimately he comes across as so weak and pathetic that one is left completely baffled that this man-child brought Europe to its knees.
Especially puzzling, in a movie about a man who built his entire career on his aptitude for warfare, is that there is no effort to communicate tactical logic in the battle scenes. Waterloo – the most fully developed battle in the movie – is portrayed as a brutal frontal attack, with Napoleon personally attempting to lead a cavalry charge. Austerlitz – Napoleon’s tactical masterpiece – is turned into a gimmick predicated on luring the enemy onto a frozen lake, a conceit bearing no resemblance to the true events. We are supposed to believe that the Austrian army, fighting on home territory, was not aware there was a lake there. The Battle of the Pyramids is hardly shown at all – instead, Napoleon shoots at one of the pyramids with a cannon, and the enemy general falls off his horse. Armies are presented as disorderly, with men breaking formation to charge wildly. The film does an effective job of vividly portraying the gruesome effect of Napoleonic artillery, but the logic of eighteenth-century warfare is very badly portrayed.
Why? It’s perfectly possible to demonstrate tactical logic in battle scenes. As Peter Jackson’s presentation of the Battle of Helms Deep in LOTR’s The Two Towers shows, it’s possible to do this even in night scenes while still showing the audience what’s going on. We also know that Ridley Scott himself knows how to do this, since the iconic opening battle in Gladiator, while not a particularly accurate depiction of Roman warfare, does a good job of presenting a sequence of tactically meaningful actions, with infantry, archers, and cavalry shown working together in a synergistic way. But that Ridley Scott is MIA on the set of Napoleon.
The 1970’s classic Waterloo does an excellent job demonstrating the systematic nature of Napoleonic warfare. Scott’s Napoleon depicts the same battle as a brawl between mobs clubbing each other to death at close range. These battles all feel small and feeble – Napoleonic battlefields stretched for miles, with a complex system of staff officers and couriers distributing orders. In Napoleon, the scale is radically downsized, a choice that seems needless given the use of CGI. One is left wondering what the film’s giant budget was spent on, given how boring and constrained the set-piece battles feel.
In short, all the components of this movie are broken. The romance with Josephine is awkward and passionless; the political dimension is without context or motivation; the battle scenes are boring and devoid of tactical meaning; Napoleon himself is completely uncompelling either as a hero or a villain. If any of these elements had landed, it might have at least partially redeemed the movie – dynamic battles compensating for a meaningless romance or vice versa, or a knockout performance by Phoenix carrying the entire thing. But none of them do, resulting in 158 minutes of nothingness.
And this, ultimately, is the strange result of Napoleon. Ridley Scott took one of the most dynamic, remarkable figures in history and made him boring. His Napoleon fails to compel either as a general, a statesman, a lover, or a personality. He pouts, he stares and fidgets awkwardly, he lusts for Josephine with all the sensuality and confidence of a pubescent boy, and he fights small, boring battles for incomprehensible reasons. Many of us who are admirers or aficionados of Napoleon would forgive the film for playing up Napoleon’s villainous aspects or overemphasizing the Josephine factor, for skipping major events in his life for the sake of time, or for taking creative liberties with the history. What we cannot forgive is being bored.
Napoleon fails and bores because its creators, finally, do not believe in the subject matter. This is a film about an archetypical great man, who created world-historical events and changed the world through force of will, prodigious skill, and his genius. Napoleon’s contemporaries – both his followers and his adversaries – acknowledged his extraordinary qualities both as a battlefield maestro and a magnetic personality. Yet for some reason neither Ridley Scott nor Joaquin Phoenix can.
When you set out to make a film that humiliates and deconstructs a great man, you are left with a boring story about a pointless figure. This humiliation is completed with Josephine, with the man of action reduced to a whipped dog, as she mocks him with her spread legs. Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is small, petty, and uncompelling – and so is his movie.