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Disjointed, rushed, inaccurate: historian reviews Ridley Scott's Napoleon

Napoleon (2023), Ridley Scott's new historical drama starring Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby, tells the story of the rise and fall of the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Dr Michael Rowe, Reader in European History, reviewed the film and shared his thoughts on Scott's portrayal of this complicated period of modern history.

Dr Michael Rowe

March 2022 witnessed the appearance of a guillotine in the courtyard of Somerset House. Surrounding evidence of a working film set, including gantries for lighting and actors in period costume, calmed fears of a radical new criminal justice policy: Ridley Scott’s Napoleon had come to the Strand!

An inspired list of locations including Somerset House is one of the few strengths of an otherwise disappointing film. Disappointing, not least, because its director, Ridley Scott, knows how to do the Napoleonic period: see his early masterpiece, The Duellists (1977), whose authenticity captures the Zeitgeist with its depiction of the cult of honour that infused the French army. Scott’s recent foray released a few weeks ago, in contrast, doesn’t feel right. There are the numerous inaccuracies: details of Napoleon’s coronation; French bombardment of the pyramids on the Giza Plateau; Wellington’s use of topography at Waterloo; Napoleon leading cavalry charges in person; his presence at the execution of Queen Marie Antoinette; and so on and so forth. Some of this can be justified as artistic license, with liberties taken to better illustrate a greater truth. But most simply misread the spirit of the age and obscure Napoleon’s wider historical significance.

Napoleon Premiere Shutterstock Licence

Then there is the issue of the movie’s structure. Essentially, we have here a collection of largely disconnected scenes. These cover a span that is too ambitious, even for 157 minutes: nearly three decades, from the siege of Toulon (1793) to Napoleon’s death on Saint Helena (1821). Many scenes are rushed and under-developed. Compare for example Scott’s feeble depiction of the defection of the army sent to arrest Napoleon after escaping Elba (in 1815) with the equivalent scene in Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo (1970). Put bluntly, with Scott’s version, one is left wondering why thousands at the time enthusiastically followed this ‘hero’. Admittedly, the overall incoherence is somewhat mitigated by the Napoleon-Josephine romance, one of history’s most famous. The relationship is potential film-making gold-dust, and its drama certainly has greater box-office potential than the lives of the portfolio-wielding bureaucrats who better epitomised the age. Still, Ridley Scott might have done better even here, using the couple’s relationship to illustrate wider issues, not least of which was the nature of Napoleon’s personality and rule.

Napoleon banner
Banner in a cinema theatre in Bangkok, Thailand

Instead of Napoleon the weirdo, we should have been treated to either a villain or a hero. Given today’s sensibilities around race and gender, one might have expected treatment of Napoleon as the classic political villain: the ultimate example of the corruption of power, resulting in the destruction of a liberty-affirming republic in favour of a repressive empire. Josephine’s dumping in favour of Marie-Louise of Austria (grandniece of Marie Antoinette, no less), might at a stretch have served as a metaphor for this Darth Vaderesque transition, as indeed it did to an extent for contemporaries. A second, more intriguing and for our age also pertinent interpretation, might have portrayed Napoleon as a kind of radical centrist hero, struggling to bring together a traumatised society polarised by two extremes. It’s not quite clear how Josephine could have fitted in here, beyond the fairly obvious one as an impediment to durability given her inability to produce an heir.

French historians unsurprisingly dislike Ridley Scott’s film. They see it as yet another Anglo-Saxon outrage, in the tradition of great cartoonists like Gillray and Cruikshank who at the time belittled Napoleon mercilessly. This criticism of Scott is a bit unfair, given that the British in general and Wellington in particular don’t come across that sympathetically either. But the larger problems with the film are undoubtedly stark: a confused storyline, disjointed and undeveloped scenes, and that fatal lack of authenticity when it comes to Napoleon’s world. What a missed opportunity!

Napoleon with Dr Michael Rowe: A podcast

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Michael Rowe

Michael Rowe

Reader in European History

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