There is no single historical character between the American Revolution and World War II about whom more words have been spilled than Napoleon Bonaparte.
The two-time emperor of the French, genius military commander, and cultural juggernaut has been a figure of fascination, scorn, or respect — depending on your political views. He was a paradox in many ways: conservative yet reformist, protectionist yet expansionist, and strategically patient yet temperamentally mercurial. He was a brilliant leader of men, especially on the battlefield, but could be quite demure in private. He ended the French Revolution, began to restore the church, reinvented the nobility, and, unfortunately, brought slavery back to the French Empire. At the same time, he cemented many of the progressive policies of the Revolution — retaining the emancipation of the Jews, codifying a neutral rule of law, centralizing and growing the state, and retaining national institutions like the levée en masse and the tricolor. He was a man of contradictions.
Ridley Scott’s newest historical film, “Napoleon,” is just as paradoxical as the Great Man himself. It is stunningly beautiful, rich in sound and score, and contains some of the best battle scenes in recent memory. But it also includes some of the worst dialogue in years, makes a hash of history, and dashes so rapidly through time and space that it gives viewers whiplash.
The film is not a biopic of Napoleon, nor is it a film about the Napoleonic Wars or the French Revolution. Instead, it is an intense character study of a toxic marriage between Bonaparte and his first wife, Josephine. This could be interesting, but the importance of this relationship is wildly exaggerated, and the details are pure invention. The most unforgivable failure of Scott’s epic, however, is its complete warping of Napoleon himself.
There is a lot of good in the film, but it is all superficial. The cinematography of Dariusz Wolski, a frequent Scott collaborator, is visually compelling and elevates the often-vapid writing. The scene setting is excellent, with great lighting and grand scope, something especially obvious during the battle scenes. These sections of the film are real edge-of-your-seat moments and partially make up for the dialogue. Martin Phipps’ score is wonderful and feels in sync with the on-screen action. Some of the performances stand out, specifically Vanessa Kirby’s Josephine, which is a tour-de-force. The costumes and set design are outstanding.
One minor bit of character development for Napoleon himself is also cleverly done: Over the course of the film, Napoleon’s increasing comfort with warfare is depicted by his reaction to artillery fire. At first, he covers his ears and darts around madly, but by Austerlitz and Waterloo, he is shown with ears uncovered, calmly managing his troops. This is a skillful way of building a character by showing instead of telling.
And… that’s pretty much it.
For each positive aspect of “Napoleon,” there are several negatives. There are bizarre choices made as to what events to include and what to leave out. Even at two and a half hours, there is not nearly enough time to tell the whole story of one of history’s most complex figures — hard choices must be made, many of which Scott whiffed.
Instead of focusing on Napoleon earning the love of France, expostulating his motivations, or adding in more battles like Marengo and Leipzig, he chooses to spend over half the movie on dull, nonfactual romantic drama. None of Napoleon’s myriad accomplishments off the battlefield are mentioned, which is a shame given his paramount influence on European governance and law. His leadership in government was transformative, he fundamentally reshaped the map of Europe — arguably creating the German and Italian unification movements — and he rescued France from this mismanagement of the Revolutionaries. This is all ignored in favor of awkward romantic scenes. That’s a bad trade.
The battles that are included, although exciting, are detached from historical reality. Again, the way the battles are shot is spectacular. Their scale, violence, and intensity bring these clashes to gripping life. But they aren’t relevant to what actually happened on the battlefield. Napoleon did not shoot cannons at the Pyramids, nor did his invasion of Russia fail entirely because of hubris, nor were the tactics of Waterloo so badly managed.
The worst offender here is Austerlitz, which looks incredibly cool on screen but is entirely made up. In “Napoleon,” Scott has the French laying a trap to drown the enemy armies in a frozen lake; in reality, although there were ponds near the battlefield, very few enemy combatants drowned, and through no deliberate attempt by the French.
It makes for good cinema but bad history.
For the history buff, “Napoleon” is a “Where’s Waldo?” exercise. It was enjoyable picking out the random military and diplomatic figures thrown in as scene dressing, but they are rarely given dialogue and have no characterization. This is a missed opportunity, as Napoleonic-era diplomats and generals are some of the most captivating characters in all European history. The shifting loyalties and divergent personalities of Napoleon’s famed marshals played a critical role in decades of European geopolitics, but this is left out of the film entirely. Diplomats are treated similarly badly. Talleyrand, the most famous diplomat in Napoleonic Europe, is portrayed as dealing more with his superior’s love life than with European affairs. The time spent on the Josephine/Napoleon dynamic, which was both ridiculously over-the-top and deeply tiresome, could have been better used by fleshing out some of these figures.
The most painful aspect of “Napoleon” is the ridiculous portrayal of the man himself. Joaquin Phoenix plays Bonaparte like a 19th-century Joker, complete with the same ineptitude toward women and bipolar behavior. To Scott, Napoleon was a sleepy autistic incel who was dominated by his wife. When he wasn’t a submissive mouse, he was engaged in fits of impotent rage.
None of this is remotely related to the contemporary descriptions of the French Emperor. On the first contention, Napoleon was famous for his ability to work well on almost no sleep. This is mentioned in nearly every contemporaneous account; to depict him as the opposite is a dereliction of duty. Napoleon’s personality was in some ways hot-headed and thin-skinned, but he was far more measured, domineering, and strategic than the film allows.
The depiction of his cuckoldry was similarly false. Not only was he not cowed by Josephine, but he was also quite sexist and thought very little of women. Josephine did have an affair, but so did Napoleon. In fact, he fathered multiple illegitimate children and slept with women in nearly every country he conquered. His description as a tantrum-throwing toddler verges on the absurd. In a few scenes, it crosses into outright farce. Two lines stand out for their silliness: In a dinner scene, Napoleon yells, “This lamb chop is my destiny!” while another standout has him screaming about the British, saying, “You think you’re so great because you have boats!” The theater I saw it in audibly chuckled. Not the effect you want from a serious historical drama.
The effect of his relationship with Josephine on Napoleon’s decisions is hyperbolized. Napoleon is depicted as leaving Egypt in order to return to his unfaithful wife to reprimand her. Actually, he left because the expedition into the Levant was a debacle, with thousands of troops succumbing to disease and the obliteration of the French fleet at Aboukir Bay. Leaving before complete failure was an opportunity to save his reputation and be in Paris for a coup d’état.
Even more clownishly, the 100 Days — the period when Napoleon returned from exile in Elba — is shown as being motivated by desire for Josephine. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Napoleon was bored out of his wits in Elba, and it was close enough to the mainland to make a last pass at returning to power. And that he did — successfully — until he was defeated at Waterloo by the combined forces of European monarchy. Suffice it to say, as important as Josephine was, Napoleon’s “destiny” easily eclipsed her.
The most stimulating aspect of this otherwise confused film is its underlying conservatism. This is not a saving grace, but it is a silver lining. “Napoleon” shows a strong preference for order over chaos, especially in its loathing of mob violence; the famous “whiff of grapeshot” is one of the best scenes in the film.
There is an undercurrent of chivalry, where gallantry and courage in the face of death are honorable. This doesn’t just apply to the title character, but also to the men who do the fighting.
The elevation of the national over the personal, most aptly seen in Napoleon and Josephine’s divorce, is another conservative theme. The difficult choice of whether to suborn oneself to the national interest — in this case, producing a viable male heir — is handled deftly. Scott’s vision is not one of radical self-love but of national duty. There are moments in which “Napoleon” is pro-religious, especially as inmates are released from revolutionary prisons and saved from the guillotine.
The treatment of the French Revolution as a whole could be cribbed directly from Edmund Burke, the tempest’s earliest and fiercest foreign critic. The film depicts it as the genuine horror that it was, with political foes executed on a whim by an increasingly paranoid government. The tyranny of Robespierre is rightly portrayed as destructive, totalitarian, and evil. Plus, it was truly magical to watch the architect of Terror blow his jaw off in a failed suicide. In the progressive world of Hollywood, treating the Jacobins as terrorists is about as conservative as it gets. Whether purposeful or not, “Napoleon” has a decidedly conservative bent.
Still, it is sadly not enough to redeem what could have been a glorious film about an epochal man’s rise and fall. Ridley Scott tries to tell an interesting story about Napoleon but falls flat in both respects. The story is bland and spastic, with seemingly random jumps between unrelated scenes that confuse more than clarify. The movie treats its central figure with scorn, making it an uncomfortable experience for the average viewer and a positively infuriating one for the historically inclined. The battles are enjoyable but are not worth the price of admission. You’d be far better off waiting for it to come to streaming or skipping it altogether.
The Great Man deserved more than this falsification of his fascinating life. The audience does, too.