Napoleon (dir. by Ridley Scott) Back

When a director begins the press tour for his latest film by telling historians pointing out its factual inaccuracies to ‘get a life’, you know you’re in for a somewhat bumpy ride. Ridley Scott’s Napoleon (2023) is the latest in the director’s spate of historical epics; at a whopping 157 minutes, the film aims to chart the spectacular rise and similarly spectacular fall of one of history’s most polarising figures.

Despite Napoleon’s frequent appearance on screen—from everything from traditional historical epics and period dramas to the Minions movie (2015) —there exist fewer direct biopics of the Emperor than one would expect. The scale and breadth of Napoleon’s rise and fall have meant that most cinematic depictions of the Corsican have focused on singular moments or battles (such as Waterloo, 1970), key relationships (1954’s Desiree, in which Marlon Brando plays Napoleon, is a personal favourite), or limit Napoleon to a background character (everything from Tolstoy’s War and Peace to the waterpark-loving Napoleon in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, 1989). There is even cult status given to Napoleon biopics that never materialised. Charlie Chaplin famously worked for years on the concept, which would eventually become instead his 1940 satirical film The Great Dictator. Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon epic, for which he reportedly wanted Audrey Hepburn to play Josephine, has famously been dubbed ‘the greatest movie never made’ (in 2023 Steven Spielberg was reportedly developing Kubrick’s concepts into a mini-series, but news of its development has since gone cold).

Scott’s Napoleon opens at the height of the French Revolution, in which a ‘young’ Napoleon (one of the glaring problems of the movie is its attempt to convince you that Joaquin Phoenix could be a believable Napoleon in his 20s) is rising in the ranks of the military. He meets a newly-released-from-prison Josephine de Beauharnais (played impeccably by Vanessa Kirby) with whom he falls passionately in love. From this, Scott focuses on two main aspects of Napoleon’s life: his rise to power, and his relationship with Josephine, interlinking the two as the two great features of his life. The film follows some (but unsurprisingly not all) of the most important moments in his military and political career, such as his invasion of Egypt, the Coup of 18 Brumaire, and his self-appointment as Emperor of the French at his Notre Dame coronation. The dramatic battle scenes such as the Battle of Austerlitz, if not historically accurate, are beautifully shot and emotionally charged, reminding you just why Ridley Scott is so good at these kinds of sweeping epics. The remainder of the film packs in the invasion of Russia, his exile to Elba, the Hundred Days, and of course the Battle of Waterloo, ending on Napoleon’s exile to the remote island of St Helena where he spent the remainder of his life.

Considering the film places so much importance on his relationship with Josephine, one glaring absence is the lack of women in this movie. It certainly wants to package itself as (perhaps one-sidedly) the love story between Napoleon and Josephine, or at very least Napoleon’s obsession with his first wife (and as such neglects to mention any of Napoleon’s own extramarital affairs). But there were many other women who played important parts in his life who could have been integrated into the film. His mother Letizia, known as Madame Mere, appears fleetingly to tell him to dump Josephine. Even his second wife —the Austrian Princess Marie Louise, with whom Napoleon would have his long-awaited son —appears fleetingly as a starstruck girl, and doesn’t feature again. In this vein there is a distinct lack of Napoleon’s family in the film. None of his three sisters, particularly Pauline with whom he was incredibly close, appear in speaking roles. And of his four brothers only Lucien has any substantive presence in the film. Napoleon’s family were incredibly important to him, not only personally, but also as political tools – arranging marriages and placing them in positions of power throughout Europe to create a familial network through the nobility of Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany. The result is a narrative which clearly aims to show some of the ‘private’ life of Napoleon, but saying that this private life revolved solely around his relationship to Josephine.

The glaring problem with Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is not the historical inaccuracy, but that it is never quite sure what kind of Napoleon Bonaparte it wants to depict. Pheonix’s portrayal seems laboured and almost sleepy, perhaps an attempt to seem aloof and calculated, but instead just appears rather bumbling, panting after a Josephine who could not care less. The decision to show Napoleon’s death, as he rather comically falls off his chair in the gardens of St Helena, seems to reinforce this (when in fact he died in bed surrounded by various doctors and statesmen after a period of intense and painful illness). These moments seem antithetical to the parts of the film aiming to depict Napoleon’s military and strategic genius. Events such as Napoleon’s encounter with the Fifth Regiment in 1815, when a newly-returned Napoleon won the support of the men sent to capture him, seem unearned.

This problem is one which has plagued Napoleon’s reception since his ascendency. He famously hated sitting for portraits, with many works created for his imperial propaganda machine being made to suit an imperial iconography, rather than a direct likeness. And famously, the idea of Napoleon as a short man with anger issues was born out of British propaganda wishing to minimise his threat through political cartoons. During his exile on St Helena, Napoleon actively tried to shape his own narrative of his life, spending much of his time dictating his memoirs. Since his death, countless biographies have been written which shift and change the idea of who Napoleon is, from Walter Scott in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, to Frank Richardson’s Napoleon: Bisexual Emperor in the 1970s, and more recently Andrew Robert’s 2014 attempt to claim Napoleon the moniker of ‘the Great’.

In other words, our idea of Napoleon Bonaparte is one largely fictional, a rich tapestry of experiences, fictions, and ideas from his life to the present. To create an ‘accurate’ biography or biopic of him is simply impossible. Despite Scott’s rather mean-spirited ‘get a life’, there is merit to his stance that this is a work of fiction and historical license. Even during his lifetime, both pro- and anti-Bonapartists were shifting narratives to suit their aims; and now, over 200 years since his death, he remains a figure of almost mythic storytelling. So why let little things like historical accuracy get in the way of a story?