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In ‘Napoleon,’ Ridley Scott Prints Neither Fact Nor Legend

Unlike its source material, Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon’ will soon be forgotten.

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“This the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” Maxwell Scott, editor of the Shinbone Star, tells Sen. Ransom Stoddard in John Ford’s 1962 classic “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.” Formerly believing that Stoddard’s past heroic deeds brought order and civilization to his society — and perhaps fearful of running the story or reverent of the mythology he was familiar with — Scott opted not to publish the truth after learning it.

After all, every civilization relies on its legends and myths to remind people what to believe and why it exists. Take, for instance, American history. Since the U.S.’s inception, until just recently, the self-sacrifice, religiosity, patriotism, and intellectual capacity of this nation’s earliest settlers through the Civil War and beyond provided the American people with a shared set of stories and figures on which they could rely for national identity and virtues. Our history provides the basis for our civil mythology; it’s why leftists consistently attack it.

By obsessing over the foibles of men far greater than any contemporary person in both word and deed, we lose sight of why we revere them in the first place. 

It is with this in mind that I say with great disappointment that Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” is terrible.

If we can set aside the film’s egregious pacing (likely a result of having to condense a four-hour-plus film into two and a half hours) that causes it to gloss over massively important aspects of Napoelon’s life, ignore critical character inaccuracies that portray monarchic figures as sophomoric caricatures of themselves (Tsar Alexander as unsophisticated and vain and Duke Wellington as a vindictive curmudgeon), and forgive the omission of events central to Napoleon’s life, we can drill down into the film’s glaring philosophical issues and address how in attempting to mortalize one of the most important people to walk the Earth, it did nothing less than beclown him.

Scott’s film opens with the beheading of Queen Marie Antoinette, but other than a dysgenic Robespierre and 13 Vendémiaire, this is about all we are shown of the French Revolution’s many, many horrors. The consequences of France’s de-Christianization and state-recognized secularism are not thematically explored in any meaningful sense, nor are the dangers of frenzied mob rule democracy.

Perhaps this can be attributed to Scott cutting one and a half hours of footage from the film’s theatrical release, but the entire movie views Napoleon through the lens of his relationship with his first wife, Josephine. There is hardly any substantive exploration of the cultural or philosophical milieu in which Napoleon rose to power.

While moviegoers can’t be expected to sit through an hours-long slog about the consequences of the French Enlightenment, depicting the moral collapse and ensuing chaos of revolutionary France would be a far better use of time and far more interesting than reducing Napoleon’s life to a two-dimensional psychosexual dramedy. Exploring France’s near-total collapse would make for better cinema than the film’s sensationalized cuckoldry.

At no point does the film show how Napoleon won the love and support of France; it simply tells us he is beloved. At no point does the film establish that Napoleon was a man of unique vision and capability; it simply tells us he is great, while his exploits are largely inspired by whomever he spoke to last. His military conquests and prominent political initiatives are inaccurately depicted and reduced for comedic effect when they are shown at all. Yet we are shown in great, inaccurate detail how his first wife and his nagging insecurities were at the forefront of his each and every action.

For instance, Napoleon neither abandoned his post in Egypt after learning of Josephine’s improprieties nor found inspiration to return to Paris from Elba upon hearing she was ill.

It’s inappropriate to assign Napoleon the label “conservative” as he was the sharpest tip of the republic’s sword, enforcing its radicalism when it benefited him. Similarly, he implemented considerable reforms that, by any standard, one might consider “liberal” during his time as emperor. Nevertheless, both labels are irrelevant and fail to portray the reality of the man. But Scott entirely omits this nuance.

We are to take for granted the good of Napoleon — like the Napoleonic Code that guaranteed equality before the law and protections for personal property, which is still in effect, and the general restoration of order and commerce following the Reign of Terror — and assume he is only as Scott portrays him: a temperamental, easily emasculated man-child with little, if any, depth.

Further, Scott’s Napoleon, albeit spastic, is entirely static and two-dimensional when not confined to his relationship with Josephine. He grows in rank and status, but his one substantive moment of depth is an inaccurate loss of confidence at Waterloo.

In On the Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche described Napoleon as the “synthesis of the inhuman and superhuman.” He rightly saw Napoleon as a strong-willed individual who bent the arc of history in his favor through calculated, ruthless ambition.

By any objective measure, Napoleon’s actions were both admirable and abhorrent. Millions of people died as a result of his determination, but he also enriched and inspired just as many, if not more. From humble beginnings, he became the most revered and feared man in the world. He restored order to a dying nation, implemented a series of desperately needed and long-lasting reforms throughout his empire, and inspired generations of people to aspire toward greatness.

Napoleon is rightly revered because he is a testament to the rare great man who harnessed his nature to achieve greatness. Motivated by both self-interest and belief in something larger than himself, he was committed to cause and quite literally changed the world. These are the facts upon which the legend is built.

In failing to depict either accurately, Scott created an awful, unengaging film that will soon be forgotten, unlike its source material.


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