One can only go wrong in making a movie about Napoleon by choosing the wrong storyline, and this is precisely what director Ridley Scott did in his recent “Napoleon.”
This error in storyline, however, does not concern historical accuracy. After all, it is a Hollywood production, so one should temper expectations. Regardless, in the months, weeks and days leading up to the film’s Thanksgiving Day release, online historians and history enthusiasts scrambled to capitalize on the upcoming movie by irritatingly dissecting the film’s trailers. Trying to divine context from a two-minute trailer based off a film nearly three hours in length is truly an exercise in futility.
Ridley Scott is one of the great directors of our age and has been behind the camera for some of the most successful and memorable films (“Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Gladiator,” and so on). But he’s not the type to concern himself with historical accuracy. Scott, however, does concern himself with getting the right shots. Beautiful shots. Absorbing shots. And doubtless he accomplished this often in “Napoleon”; but cinematography could not save this film.
Love or WarWhat is Napoleon Bonaparte known for? War. Anyone who says otherwise, whether Scott or a YouTube historian droning on about possible historical inaccuracies in a trailer, is either lying or ignorant.
Napoleon is one of the few military geniuses that have ever graced the battlefield. I am not referencing the long line of generals who have achieved great success. I am referencing geniuses who changed the methods of warfare. It is a shortlist, and Napoleon, along with Alexander the Great, are atop that list. And even Alexander is probably second since he directly inherited a primed and ready war machine created by his father Philip II of Macedon. War, however, is not the focus of this film.
The focus of Scott’s film is Napoleon’s relationship with Josephine, his wife and queen. Or perhaps it is Josephine’s relationship with Napoleon. It became difficult at times to decipher who the film was about. A more appropriate name would have been “Napoleon & Josephine.” At least this would provide clarity to the viewer before they buy a ticket.
Anyone who has studied Napoleon knows about Josephine and their rather incompatible marriage. Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Napoleon (with an American accent, I might add), and Vanessa Kirby, who plays Josephine (who, along with everyone not named Napoleon Bonaparte, has a British accent), portray, quite accurately, the awkward and ill-fitting duo. There is no chemistry between the two, nor should there be. It was a marriage built on obsession and necessity. And the viewer is subject to viewing their interaction while hoping that Napoleon will eventually return to battle.
However, returning to battle is a rarity in the film; although Napoleon, in reality, did it with regularity. Of the scores of battles Napoleon led during his decade reign, only a few made the script: the Siege of Toulon (when Napoleon was merely a captain), the Battle of the Pyramids (which begins and ends, oddly, by firing French cannons at a pyramid), the Battle of Austerlitz (considered Napoleon’s crown jewel), the Battle of Borodino (which lasts about 10 seconds), and Waterloo, the one battle the film takes its time with, although it hardly makes it look like what the Duke of Wellington called the “nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.” There is no mention at all of France’s naval defeat at Trafalgara—a British victory so complete that it ensured their naval superiority for the next century.
Missing NapoleonThis frustration stems from Scott and his writer David Scarpa, choosing a subplot for the driving narrative. Yes, Josephine played a significant role in Napoleon’s life. His obsession with her, which also led to his frustrations and heartbreak, is important in order to understand the core of who Napoleon was. His treatment of her in many ways reflected how he treated his army―demanding, loving, controlling, unselfish, and cruel. His methods changed according to need, but obsession was always at the core―his obsession with her and his obsession with war. Though he loved Josephine, he divorced her to secure an heir. He loved his soldiers, yet he recklessly sacrificed them in his march through the Russian winter.
The rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte is a story told during the heat of bloody battles, not during the heat of dispassionate sex. It is called the Napoleonic Era because of the Napoleonic Wars, not the Napoleonic spats with his wife. There is tremendous depth to Napoleon which is absent in the film.
Scott’s film misrepresents a man who changed the face of the globe, the methods of warfare, and the course of history. Actually, I hardly think he represented him at all.
The “Napoleon” Napoleon is not the Napoleon of history because too much of history is missing. While historians and history enthusiasts dig through the size of uniform epaulets, flag designs, and how aligned the French cavalry’s horses were, they are missing the bigger picture. They are doing just as Scott and Scarpa did. They have missed the man, the genius, the hero, the villain. They have missed Napoleon Bonaparte altogether. And it is such a shame for there is so much there to see.