I was patient this summer, when all the internet was abuzz with fascination over the pink doll movie and the nerd scientist movie. I was biding my time, waiting for the moment when cinema-goers’ eyes would turn to the tale of the Corsican artillery officer.
It’s been a while since I’ve been actively anticipating seeing a movie. It brought back memories of when I was a lad, waiting for Star Wars I – III to premiere. Of course, I am not comparing Napoleon to the prequel trilogy. Those films are about a gifted but emotionally unstable young man, trying to balance his military and political ambitions with his turbulent love life, while all around him a dying republic is giving way to an authoritarian regime. Whereas Napoleon… hey, wait a second! Maybe my tastes haven’t matured as much as I thought.
But seriously, folks; who doesn’t love a good sweeping epic, with massive battles, steamy love scenes, all telling a tale of destiny and struggle, heroism and villainy, and all the different shades of poetical feeling that form the kaleidoscope of the human experience? And who better to direct it than the versatile Ridley Scott, the director of such classic films as the sci-fi masterpiece Alien and the historical opus Kingdom of Heaven?
Then again, he has also directed such turkeys as the inane sci-fi mess Prometheus and the historical snoozefest Exodus: Gods and Kings. Would we be getting Good Ridley or Bad Ridley for this outing? It only added to the suspense.
In case you can’t tell by now… this is going to be long. If you want a quick review, or even a moderately lengthy review, look elsewhere. Here at Ruined Chapel, we believe reviews are meant to be a little bit winding, even meandering. There’s nothing wrong with taking the long way.
Napoleon begins in the French Revolution, with the grisly execution of Marie Antoinette. In a bit of artistic license, the young officer is witness to the morbid spectacle. Unlike the jeering crowds, he seems rather put-off by the whole thing.
We then see him bravely leading the French against the British forces at Toulon, for which he receives a promotion to brigadier general and catches the eye of Josephine de Beauharnais, a striking widow with whom the youthful officer quickly falls in love.
Okay, pause right there. I said “youthful” because Napoleon was 27. Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Napoleon, is 49. I’m not in favor of this business of “de-aging” actors, but it’s pretty disconcerting to see a middle-aged man portraying a brash young officer who is becoming infatuated with a woman who is supposed to be six years older than him, but in fact looks about 15 years younger. (Because the actress is.) I’m not saying it ruins the movie or anything, but it’s odd.
Oh, well. That’s why they pay these actors the big bucks, right? To play someone they’re not. I won’t get mired down by a little detail like this. There are much more important things by which to get mired down.
Like the already-infamous pyramid scene. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it treatment of the Battle of the Pyramids, the film shows French artillery blasting the top off one of the iconic monuments. This didn’t happen. It is seemingly a riff on a story that French soldiers shot the nose off of the Sphinx, which also didn’t happen. Ridley Scott, however, claims it’s a fast way of communicating that Napoleon took Egypt. And Lord knows he wants to be fast, because this movie gallops along at an insane pace. Hardly are Josephine and Napoleon married before she’s cheating on him with another officer while he’s in Egypt, so then he has to come back from Egypt and confront her, but then they make up, sort of, and then…
It’s a tall order to compress 20 years of history into a 2.5 hour movie. Which is one reason I would have been in favor of not doing it.
The famous director David Lean once said that a mistake filmmakers make when adapting a book is to try to give audiences a little sample of everything in it, but the end result is no one aspect gets its due. The better approach, Lean said, is to find the core of the story, and tell that as richly and fully as possible. I’d argue this applies also to adaptations of historical episodes generally, not just particular books.
Lean directed a number of historical epics, including Doctor Zhivago, A Passage to India, Ryan’s Daughter, and, oh yes, a little picture called Lawrence of Arabia, which I consider to be one of the greatest films ever made, and certainly the bar against which all historical epics must be judged.
Now, in all fairness, Lawrence of Arabia is close to four hours long, and Scott plans to release a cut of Napoleon that will exceed even that. But Lawrence covers only a period of a couple years, whereas Napoleon is attempting to cover the entire career of one of the most accomplished soldier-statesmen in history. It would take 50 hours to do justice to the period Scott is tackling.
Or… it would take judicious thought about what the story really is. I know we’re only a little way into the synopsis yet, but it’s not too early to ask the question: what is Napoleon about?
Well, obviously, it’s about the titular emperor. But what about him? What we want to know is why he did the things he did.
The film has an answer. Sort of. But it hasn’t given it yet, and meanwhile, we’re getting scenes of Napoleon bit by bit working his way up the ladder in France. First, it’s a coup against the French Directory, then it’s his coronation as Emperor of the French.
About this coronation: indulge me while I tell a little story not depicted in the film. Originally, Ludwig van Beethoven dedicated his third symphony, the Eroica, to Napoleon. (BTW, it’s an absolutely gorgeous piece and in my opinion old Ludwig van’s second best, trailing only the incomparable Ninth) But when the composer got word of Napoleon declaring himself Emperor, he just about had a fit, and angrily struck Bonaparte’s name from the score, supposedly saying:
“So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of Man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!”
Man, when you’ve lost Beethoven, you know you’re in trouble. More seriously, this quote points us towards discovering the theme of Napoleon’s story. Namely, that he rose to incredible heights, and then lost it all.
And it’s worth pausing to reflect on how he rose to those heights. As the film depicts pretty clearly, the French Revolution was a disaster. While on paper it may have been for liberty, equality, and fraternity, in practice, it was a hellish orgy of psychopathic mass murder and weird cults. Anyone with a good head on his or her shoulders, (something the revolutionaries tried their best to eliminate) would obviously prefer being governed by the competent administration of a successful military officer to the so-called Committee of Public Safety.
To seize control of a society that has essentially collapsed into anarchy takes a certain level of drive and will and energy, all qualities which Napoleon possessed. Whenever I am accused of harboring unduly pro-Bonapartist sympathies, it is to this period in his career that I will point. Someone had to govern France. And frankly, in such a dire situation as that, it is quite believable that no amount of committee meetings or parliamentary votes would do the trick. The state of nature, Hobbes tells us, is a state of war; and who better than a daring officer to win a war?
So, we can see why Beethoven admired Napoleon up until his coronation. Even more interesting, though, is the fact that Beethoven instantly recognized that this moment signified a seismic shift in Bonaparte’s career, and not for the better. Events were to prove his instincts exactly right.
The coronation is the great turning point, and the film indeed uses it as such. Not least because it’s the last time in this movie that we get to see a glimpse of color. Enjoy those red robes and glittering jewels, because after this, we slide straight into blue-gray filter hell. They actually did the meme.
What has happened to modern filmmakers? Where does this absolutely hideous palette come from? Personally, like so many of our present social ills, I blame it on the Harry Potter films. They made a ton of money with this horrible washed out aesthetic, and now all the studios unthinkingly copy them. Talk about a situation where we need a heroic figure to break the fetters of unthinking consensus! Where is the brave director who will stand up and give us once more the vibrant hues of color cinema?
Anyway, back to Napoleon. After the coronation, things go wrong in a hurry. It does have a certain Faustian irony to it: the point the film makes consistently is that Napoleon loves Josephine; that she is the main guiding force in his life. And yet, when he “finds the crown of France lying in the gutter, and picks it up with his sword,” his political ambitions ultimately lead him to distance himself from the one person he cares about most. In his quest for an heir, he divorces Josephine and marries Marie Louise of Austria, who bears him a son. In a very telling moment, and possibly my favorite scene in the film, when Napoleon gets his heir, the first thing he does is run off and show him to Josephine.
From there, the inexorable downfall begins, as Napoleon learns that the Tsar is cheating on his continental embargo against English goods. Naturally, in Napoleon’s mind, the only reasonable thing to do is raise a massive army and invade Russia.
You know, I’m not as much of a free trade absolutist as I was in my younger days, when I bought unreservedly into what the Econ books told me. I think there can be good arguments for restricting trade. Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile to understand the Ricardian arguments against barriers to trade. And it’s especially worthwhile, if you find your barriers to trade can only be maintained by marching across Europe and into the desolation of Russian winter, to ask yourself whether the whole thing needs to be rethought.
And this is where I want to say a word about the little-heralded heroes of the story: the French Army. We don’t see much of the ordinary French soldier; they’re just a mob of extras that the Emperor directs with waves of his hands. Yet, once you realize that those gestures could be translated into deeds only by the well-practiced discipline of thousands of men, all drilled to work together as a unit in the face of gruesome death, do you understand the sheer awesomeness of his army. Whether it’s overthrowing the Directory, crushing the Austrians at Austerlitz, or the iconic moment on the road to Grenoble, the French soldiers loved their commander, and they came through for him time and time again. Napoleon may have been nothing without Josephine, but he was also nothing without his soldiers. If there isn’t anything else that may serve as evidence of his greatness, I think the fact that he had the loyalty of these men right up through Waterloo says quite a lot.
As Napoleon’s final words suggest, the three things he loved most were France, the Army, and Josephine. And here again we see the tragic irony of his life: France was left weakened at the time of death, its army shattered after the losses in Russia and at Waterloo, and its great enemy Britain ascendant. Josephine died during Napoleon’s first exile, without even being able to call herself his wife. Everything that Napoleon loved, he unwittingly destroyed.
By the time the film is slogging through Waterloo, which takes place in some sort of Mordor-esque hellscape with, again, NO COLOR, you can feel the weight of the inevitable bearing down. It feels like a chore, not helped by the one-dimensional and hammy performance of the actor playing Wellington, who seems like a sneering British aristocrat from central casting. Christopher Plummer did so much better in the film Waterloo.
Waterloo feels more like a doomed last gasp than a legendary clash of great generals, and so in short order, Napoleon is packed off to St. Helena to ponder where it all went wrong.
And where did it all go wrong? I found myself musing, if I could go back in time and give Napoleon some advice, what would I tell him? (Curiously, this is also the premise for an episode of I Dream of Jeannie.)
Remember how I said that it takes a gifted individual of tremendous talent to build something out of nothing, to craft a working society out of an anarchic horror show like the French Revolution? Well, I very much believe that’s true. But the corollary to that is, after the functioning society has been built, it takes more than one person to maintain it. Once the rule of law and order has been restored, and peace and stability established, it is beyond the abilities of anyone, no matter how supremely gifted, to keep it all running for long.
And this is where you need to have a good succession plan. I once read in some philosophy book somewhere about the importance of a great leader having a good officer corps; someone to whom he can hand off what he has built. Napoleon wanted to do that with his heir, which is why this became such a fixation for him, but this was because he had fallen into his enemies’ way of thinking. He was still in the mindset of the European aristocracy he so despised, believing that this was the only way to ensure his posterity.
What if, instead of crowning himself emperor, he’d just retired to the countryside with his beloved Josephine, secure in the knowledge that he had saved his country, and turned over the administration to the most capable hands in his officer corps? Probably the allied coalitions would have tried to crush France anyway, but maybe a true republic, governed by the people who had fought alongside Bonaparte for the security of France, would have been more robust, and better able to cope with the threat. And Napoleon could have gone down in history as a man who knew when to hold ’em, knew when to fold ’em, and knew when to walk away.
Well, c’est la vie. Hindsight is 20/20, and it’s easy to say all this from the viewpoint of an armchair historian 200 years later. I’m sure at the time, there were good reasons why Napoleon did what he did. It’s hard to stop once you’re riding the tiger.
The movie is good to the extent it makes the audience ponder questions like these, but too often, it just gets lost in trying to show all the highlights of Napoleon’s career, and ends up not giving you enough time to process it before we’re on to the next thing. Vanessa Kirby is fantastic as Josephine, and Phoenix does a solid job as Napoleon, but it’s all so hurried it’s hard to get to know them as characters. Maybe the Director’s Cut will be better. Maybe with the miracle of modern science, they will even discover a way to capture the full spectrum of visible light.
Ultimately, everything hinges on whether this movie is the beginning or the ending of your study of the Napoleonic era. If everything you know about Napoleon comes from this movie, then I’m sorry to tell you you’ve just been given a wildly distorted version of history. But if it sparks your interest to learn more about the story of the Corsican officer and the woman he loved, then it’s well worth the time and money.
Making a film is rather like building an empire, come to think of it. It takes a director leading a motivated crew to make it in the first place, but it is ultimately up to the masses to determine whether it has any lasting impact.