When Napoleon escaped from Elba in 1815, his march to Paris was stopped by 6,000 French soldiers under the command of Marshall Ney who had promised Louis XVIII that he would bring “the monster” to the French capital in an iron cage. Napoleon marched toward the soldiers, opened his coat, and declared, “If there is any man among you who would kill his emperor, here I stand!” The soldiers responded with, “Vive l’Empereur!”
If those soldiers had seen Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon,” they would have helped Ney stuff Bonaparte in the cage with pleasure. It’s not that the movie looks cheap (the $200 million budget is obvious) or that it lacks star power. It’s that Scott has made not so much a movie but a husk in period costume.
Take the theme. All good movies can be wrapped up by one simple PSA-esque sentence. “Casablanca”? You have to think of the greater good. “Star Wars”? Good will triumph. “The Prestige”? Your obsession will destroy you.
But the theme of Scott’s “Napoleon” remains bafflingly obtuse. Is it about how hubris will destroy you? Maybe, except that Joaquin Phoenix’s Napoleon does not come across as ambitious. He does things, yes, but almost always after someone else has put the idea in his head. Ultimate survivor, Tallyrand, suggests that Napoleon declare himself king, and presto! — three scenes later we see his coronation as emperor (why emperor and not king we are never told).
Is it about the dark side of destiny? This Napoleon seems to believe that destiny has already written his life (“Destiny has given me this porkchop,” he tells his wife, Josephine, after he has been crowned), but again, we are left with a declaration and nothing to back it up. The victories of the French army in the Napoleonic Wars would be the ideal place to explore this idea, but for all the hype heaped on the movie for its battle scenes, Scott actually gives us very little in this department. Toulon and Austerlitz are given short shrift, and Borodino is over after one slow-motion cavalry charge. Waterloo is given the most attention, but at that point, it’s too late to build up the theme.
Pressed for Time
Part of the problem here is the movie’s length. Love him or hate him, Napoleon’s life was one of those rare, Carlylian “great men of history” lives, stuffed to bursting with actions, achievements, and losses. A movie that aims to tell his life from 1798 to 1821 would need to be either six hours long or divided, “Dune” style, into two parts, with Napoleon’s coronation marking the end of the first movie and his death on St. Helena finishing the second.
Instead, at 158 minutes, the movie is only 30 minutes longer than 1970’s “Waterloo,” which, as the title hints, dealt only with the titular battle and its lead-up. As such, we’re rushed from one scene to another, jumping over entire major events (the entire 14-month-long War of the Sixth Coalition, which many scholars site as one of Napoleon’s most brilliant campaigns, is ignored entirely), and with Scott taking the lazy way out to compensate for the insufficient run time. The entire Egyptian campaign, for example, is condensed to one cannonball fired into the pyramid of Khafre (which never actually happened) simply because it economically shows that Napoleon took Egypt.
Hyperventilating on the Battlefield
Ironically, even if we were given sufficient time to know these characters, the movie would suffer even more. Directors of biopics may not like their subjects, but they should strive to understand what makes them tick and, with that, try to elicit some sympathy from the audience. Scott foregoes this and, rather than replace the Man of Destiny with a Man of Complexity, settles for a Man Baby.
This is a Napoleon who hyperventilates on the battlefield and struggles to kill a single British soldier, who plays stupid games in his office instead of planning campaigns, who throws food at people who anger him during state dinners, and who screams impotently when outmaneuvered. None of his good points — his curiosity, the Napoleonic Code, his patronage of art and science — are even hinted at. In fact, watching Phoenix’s Napoleon, one often thinks how a guy like this could have been a threat to the great houses of Europe.
That thought is reinforced by Scott making the nucleus of strength Josephine, portrayed throughout with stoic ice by Vanessa Kirby. Napoleon does not so much pursue her as Josephine allows herself to be taken by the weird “hero of Toulon” who stares creepily at her before denying the fact when confronted in true incel fashion. While Napoleon constantly dabs his eyes during their divorce (a barren empress is a liability to the empire) Josephine laughs at the pompous propaganda produced for the official decree.
“You are just a brute who is nothing without me or his mother,” she tells Napoleon, a mantra she makes him repeat and which then becomes prophecy: The Russian defeat comes immediately after their divorce and Waterloo after her death. Even death cannot hold back the power of Josephine. “Shall I take you back?” she wonders in voice-over while Napoleon sits on St. Helena, the upper hand with her as always. Scott even makes it that Napoleon’s life is snatched away from him by his ex-wife, Josephine’s voice whispering, “Come to me, Napoleon,” before the exiled emperor’s body falls out of frame.
Making a Caricature of Masculinity
All of this is symptomatic of the greatest flaw in “Napoleon.” The early Soviet director, Dziga Vertov, articled the idea of kinopravda — Film-Truth. According to Vertov, Film-Truth demands filming real environments (rather than “bourgeois” ones) and then editing the scenes so that a deeper truth, impossible to see with the naked eye, is revealed on screen. In other words, Vertov demanded that cinema be visual poetry, scraping off layers of the material world to allow audiences to see the transcendental truth underneath.
Many of Scott’s earlier movies — “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Gladiator,” even his “Robin Hood” — embraced this idea and incorporated Film-Truth within themselves to varying degrees. Here, though, there is none. All the opportunities to dive into the metaphysics of man, destiny, pride, ambition, the course of history, and the interplay between it and will, are sidestepped so that we can laugh at a two-dimensional caricature. And maybe that was the point all along.
It’s no coincidence that Scott‘s Napoleon beats his hat — the preeminent Napoleonic symbol — in a symbolic emasculation while Moscow is burned around him. The distinct impression one gets is that Scott’s real target was not Napoleon but strong, ambitious men. It’s bad enough that men today are thinking about the Roman Empire and drawing lessons of masculinity from Athens and the Middle Ages instead of the rainbow mafia. We can’t risk having them thinking about a military genius who remade the world. He must be crushed, Great Man squashed down to Little Man. Democracy demands it. Film and history do not.