Ridley Scott takes on the might of France’s most famous son in predictably brash and thrilling style.
When the first trailer for Ridley Scott’s long-awaited Napoleon biopic dropped in July, various historians had a lot to say about how Sir Rid seemed to be portraying the legendary Frenchman. “Napoleon Bonaparte was a TERRIBLE PERSON.” Tweeted Professor David Andress. “He was a TYRANT. He betrayed every ideal he ever claimed to stand for. He was a shameless pathological liar who killed millions of people for his own insatiable vanity. He is literally one of the worst people in history.” Meanwhile, Dan Snow took to TikTok to break down the historical inaccuracies in the trailer, including the fact Marie Antoinette’s head would have been shaved before her execution.
How did Ridley Scott respond to this criticism? “Get a life.” It seems there’s no hard feelings with Snow – the pair later sat down to record a podcast on their shared interest in Napoleon’s life – and to Andress’s point, he might have jumped the gun a bit. Scott’s film ends with a title card that sets out the death toll from each of Napoleon’s major battles, landing on the estimated figure of 3 million dead in less than 20 years. Hardly hagiography.
Still, it’s understandable why some might have reservations. Scott’s historical drama oeuvre spans the good (Gladiator), the bad (House of Gucci) and the ugly (Exodus: Gods and Kings). Yet he maintains a pace few filmmakers even half his age can keep up with, having made 11 films in the past 13 years (Gladiator 2 is resuming production after halting during the SAG-AFTRA strike, though Scott has already edited the 90 minutes he shot before they downed tools). Perhaps what fascinates Scott about Napoleon – and indeed all the other men of history he’s zoomed in on over the years – is the work ethic.
Either way, in this blood-soaked, rain-streaked account of Napoleon’s life from the French Revolution onwards, Joaquin Phoenix plays the short-lived Emperor of France as an awkward obsessive with an insatiable appetite for destruction. The audacious opening, in which Marie Antoinette walks to the guillotine, sees Napoleon seeking a promotion. His public life is framed as a series of chess moves, but not those played by a grandmaster – rather the insolent whims of an impatient schoolboy hungry for glory.
Little changes when Napoleon meets Joséphine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby on excellent form), a widowed aristocrat with two children. He is instantly infatuated and marries her quickly, before being dispatched on a campaign in Egypt. In the sweltering heat, he thinks only of her, and when he hears rumours that Joséphine is having an affair back in France, he is so incensed he returns to Europe in a rage, risking reprimand for desertion. Napoleon kicks Joséphine out and reprimands her before they are reunited – the relationship between them is complex and often unhealthy, but there is love that exists between them. Screenwriter David Scarpa is keen to frame Napoleon’s twin passions as his wife and his country, but as it becomes increasingly clear that Joséphine is unable to give him an heir, he is willing to sacrifice the former in service of the latter.
Much will be made of Scott’s focus on Napoleon’s great victories and losses – he has proven himself time and time again a master of mounting action scenes at scale. Austerlitz, Waterloo and the Fire of Moscow are recreated in staggering, brutal detail, with hundreds of extras and gallons of fake blood, evoking the climax of his underrated 2021 medieval epic The Last Duel.
On sheer spectacle alone Napoleon delivers, though the whistle-stop tour of Napoleonic politics is a little less captivating – Scott and Scarpa mercifully lift these scenes by frequently allowing them to descend into chaos, a sea of boys pompously pretending to be men as they squabble in courts. In one such moment, an indignant Napoleon shouts at the English envoy, “You think you’re so great because you have boats!” (While this is an accurate assessment of the British Navy’s attitude at the time, it probably isn’t word-for-word.)
This sense of humour ripples through the film – Rupert Everett towers over Phoenix as The Duke of Wellington, nodding to the persistent (though unfounded) rumour that Napoleon was especially short, while the sex scenes between Phoenix and Kirby are as sweaty and strange and deeply unsexy as the contents of Napoleon’s much-publicised correspondence with his wife. Yet there is a sense of deep, unfortunate love between the couple, and the film’s use of Kirby’s knowing purr in voice-over towards the end of the film works particularly well (perhaps a nod to the toxic romance at the heart of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread).
Yet it’s understandable that historians might take umbrage with this fast and loose look at Napoleon. The entirety of the Saint-Domingue expedition is glossed over, despite it costing the lives of an estimated 40,000 men (more than the Battle of Waterloo), and poor old Lord Nelson doesn’t get a look-in either. Perhaps two hours and forty minutes simply isn’t enough time to tell a story as grand and complicated as this – though a four-hour cut is on the way to streaming.
Considering media literacy is at an all-time low, it’s not unthinkable that historians worry the most engagement the masses will ever have with history is watching a heavily fictionalised depiction of events on a streaming service. This is a valid concern – but arguably not entirely Ridley Scott’s responsibility. As entertainment Napoleon delivers without glorifying his military record or painting the man as a hero. It’s a story about power, obsession and exploitation – which arguably is the story of history itself.
Published 15 Nov 2023
Truly could go either way with Sir Rid. Managing expectations.
Cannons! So many cannons!
Bring on the four hour cut.