Say what you want about the impermanence of today’s media/news cycle, but perhaps it’s a measure of his achievements that we’re still talking about the exploits of old Bonaparte several centuries later. ‘You think you’re so great because you have boats,’ Napoleon sneeringly upbraids the upstart English in Ridley Scott’s bloody epic of the Napoleonic wars, re-uniting the British director with the same time period featured in his initial breakthrough feature The Duellists. With a deeply French subject matter and an imported American lead in Joaquin Phoenix, this is an international epic in the patented old style, following the rise of the little corporal from the siege of Toulon in 1793, through six major battles including ice-breaking conflict at Austerlitz before finally facing his Waterloo, a defining historical event that he couldn’t escape if he’d wanted to.
Napoleon starts with a striking scene that didn’t happen; as Marie Antoinette gets her napper chopped off by guillotine, we see Napoleon watching from the side-lines. There’s zero evidence that this ever occured, but that’s fine; we’re making historical fiction here, and the point is that Napoleon was well aware of the violent climate of change that the French Revolution undeniably was. Scott is prepared to unfold his story in the most dramatic way possible; another of the attention-grabbing opening scenes finds Napoleon on horseback as a cannonball rips through his steed. It’s a gory, horrific visual, but the extreme shock tactics are justified; Scott’s Napoleon isn’t about the glory of war, but about one man’s insane drive to push his country to success. His military mission has a high cost to those around him; up to three million dead just on the French side, you could double that for the complete death toll of the Napoleonic Wars, although while Napoleon was ruthless, instances of what we’d now call genocide are rare. We also run a parallel but interconnected romantic narrative as Napoleon finds the love in the form of Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), but she can’t bear him the heir that he requires, and gets swiftly swapped out a newer, child-bearing model.
The central thrust in all about Napoleon himself, with Phoenix bringing charisma and swagger to one of the great figures of military history; from standing on a box to enjoy his moment of his silent communion with a mummified Egyptian king to petulantly snatching the crown as part of his coronation, the star gets plenty to go on. ‘Whose country are we in?’ Napoleon asks pertinently; ‘L’État, c’est moi’ turns out to be a sentiment that recurs in the history of his country even with the days of the monarchy over. Scott’s aggressive take on venerable material won’t be for everyone; his Napoleon isn’t a full biopic, but a re-telling of key historical incidents, and not via the kind of egocentric caricature that we’re used to, but a driven, desperate leader who sees no alternative to his actions other than ignominious defeat. Despite what you read at school, this Napoleon turns out to be a genuine genius on the battlefield, but the pesky English turn out to be the ‘Benny Blanco from the Bronx’ loose end that comes back to bite him when his collapsing network of alliances and connections leaves him and his armies vulnerable in the closing stages. Phoenix gives the film messianic zeal and sexual frustration, but Kirby pulls her weight as an acidic Josephine, and there’s also a memorable supporting role for Rupert Everett as a stiffer-than-stiff Duke of Wellington.
Napoleon is a proper cinema release with a four hour version due on AppleTV+ due to drop at the peak of awards season; it’s a full blooded historical epic with huge battle scenes and a tight grasp of history told from a modern perspective. This doesn’t suffer from the bloat of many other epics, and has a literate script from David Scarpa with dialogue that sounds modern rather than anachronistic. Scott’s Napoleon lifts elements familiar from previous versions, from the moody US lead of 1954’s Désirée to the intricate battle formations of 1970’s Waterloo, but ultimately is a far better film than any previous model. The four-hour version may solve a few of the more rushed bits of narrative featured here, but Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is likely to prove a proper epic for the ages at any length.
Thanks to Sony for big-screen access to this title. Napoleon is out Nov 22 2023 in the UK.