November 29, 2023
Source: Columbia Pictures, Apple Original Films
The Last Duel, a 2021 film by Sir Ridley Scott with Matt Damon as a mulleted French aristocrat chud battling honorably (if stupidly) a suave Adam Driver in 1386, turned out to be better than expected: not a classic, but quite decent, especially for a director in his mid-80s. (Sir Ridley turns 86 this week.) So hopes grew high when Scott announced he was making Napoleon with 2019 Best Actor Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix (for Joker).
Granted, lots of ambitious directors have contemplated making a Bonaparte biopic, just as Scott’s revival of the sword & sandal genre in 2000 with Gladiator set off a race to make an Alexander the Great movie among Martin Scorsese, Mel Gibson, Baz Luhrmann, and Oliver Stone, with Stone winning (to his detriment when his Alexander proved a dud).
Most famously, Stanley Kubrick contemplated making a Napoleon movie to follow up 2001. But the project proved too daunting for even Kubrick, so he eventually applied his research into the 18th century to Barry Lyndon instead.
By the way, Steven Spielberg has been promising for a decade to turn Kubrick’s unmade Napoleon screenplay into a TV series. Famous movie directors just seem to identify with conquering emperors, whether Alexander or Napoleon.
But Scott is in some ways the anti-Kubrick. Sure, Scott’s best movies match up impressively against Kubrick’s: Gladiator vs. Spartacus, Alien vs. The Shining, Blade Runner vs. 2001, Black Hawk Down vs. Full Metal Jacket, and Thelma and Louise vs. Lolita.
But Scott has churned out 29 movies over the past 46 years (with Gladiator 2 slated to be the 30th next Thanksgiving), while the exhaustive Kubrick made only thirteen over a career of similar length. Unlike Kubrick, Scott frequently misfires with forgettable flicks like Prometheus, Robin Hood, 1492, and G.I. Jane.
And now his Napoleon falls closer to the bottom of his filmography than the top. It’s not terrible (it’s something of a victim of the unreasonable expectations generated by The Last Duel), but don’t drag somebody else to see it who isn’t a history buff or is a film connoisseur.
It’s a weird little epic movie, basically a domestic comedy about the stereotypically French marital troubles of Monsieur and Madame Bonaparte. Elderly Nappy is utterly devoted to his pretty young Josephine, but her eye wanders. He’d forgive her indiscretions, but, having recently crowned himself Emperor of the French, her failure to furnish him with an heir has dynastic implications, with the fate of Europe hanging in the balance.
Visually, the movie appears inspired more by British political caricaturist James Gillray than by French propaganda genius Jacques-Louis David. In 1802, Gillray devised the trademarks of the belligerent bully he called “Little Boney.” Throughout Napoleon, which covers Bonaparte’s career from his first victory in 1793 to his death on St. Helena in 1821, Little Boney wears, through the infinite cycles of fashion going on around him, almost exactly the same preposterous outfit, exactly the way a political caricature would. When he first meets Josephine, she asks him with a laugh, “What’s this…costume you’re wearing?” Indignantly, he replies, “It’s my uniform.”
(Later politicians went out of their way to indulge cartoonists. When caricaturists first seized upon Winston Churchill’s tall Homburg hat to help identify him to readers, he then had his milliner make his Homburgs even more cartoonish in scale so he’d be featured in more cartoons.)
The anti-French point of view throughout Napoleon is traditionally English. Instead of Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon, imagine Benny Hill’s Napoleon, with the Emperor as a silly, pompous, indignant Frenchman cuckolded by his glamorous wife. Actually, that sounds funnier than it is: I laughed a couple of dozen times, but many in the audience didn’t seem to find it amusing at all.
Napoleon might have worked as an English satire on the voluble Latin temperament if they had cast as Napoleon somebody who’s physically capable of speaking faster. The most talked-about man of his age, it was universally agreed that the distinguishing aspect of Napoleon’s personality was his velocity of thought. He could appreciate a battlefield, a diplomatic initiative, a taxation system, or a new legal code faster than anyone else (during the brief peacetimes, he might have been France’s greatest-ever civil servant).
But even though Joaquin Phoenix looks vaguely like Bonaparte, he has some sort of upper lip birth defect (he denies it’s a harelip) that appears to impede his articulation. Hence, while he’s wonderful at depicting deeply defective individuals, such as Commodus in Gladiator, the PTSD victim vet in The Master, and the operatically damaged title character in Joker, he has utterly the wrong affect for Napoleon, the most charismatic hero in Continental European history.
And Phoenix’s diction is extremely American in a film in which most French characters speak with BBC accents. I would guess the high concept was for Phoenix to play the Corsican adventurer as if he were Marlon Brando mumbling as Don Corleone to get across the very British idea of Bonaparte as a gangster. But Phoenix instead sounds distractingly like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation: depressed, self-pitying, sullen, and petulant, with a little Buster Keaton stoneface thrown in during the excruciating early going.
And the 49-year-old Phoenix is not particularly well preserved for a movie star: He looks at least a decade older than Tom Cruise. That’s a problem because Bonaparte was 24 at Toulon in the movie’s first battle and 46 at Waterloo in its last.
I wonder if the underlitness of the movie is a way to get around British film industry diversity quotas that require more blacks be wedged into period pieces. Napoleon puts Josephine’s mulatta servant Lucille in countless shots of parties as if she were a guest rather than a serving maid to lend a Bridgerton aspect to the proceedings, and includes novelist Alexandre Dumas’ half-aristocrat and half-black father, a French general, prominently in the Egyptian sequence. There also appear to be quite a few black extras implausibly sprinkled into the bravura Austerlitz segment, but it’s hard to tell since everything is so murkily lit. Maybe that’s Sir Ridley’s compromise with the recent diversity demands: In my extreme old age, I’ll kowtow to the BAFTA quota-meisters, but I’ll turn down the lights so my humiliation is less evident.
At least the Empress Josephine, who was born in the Caribbean, is not portrayed as being at all black, so we dodged that bullet.
Napoleon is reasonably historically accurate for a movie. (Recall that Gladiator, which everybody looks back on fondly, ends with the Roman Republic being restored, which, to the best of my recollection, didn’t actually happen.) There has been much persnickety criticism of a post-Waterloo scene in which the Duke of Wellington informs his prisoner of his grim second place of exile, a rock in the South Atlantic. Granted, in real life the two generals never got closer than a mile apart at Waterloo, but it’s one of the movie’s better bits.
And there has been abundant scoffing at how at the Battle of the Pyramids during Bonaparte’s extraordinary 1798 Egyptian foray, the French cannons blast the summit of the Great Pyramid for unexplained reasons. My guess is that in the longer version than this two-hour-and-38-minute theatrical version, which will be released on the Apple+ streaming service next year, this memorable if bizarre notion will be justified by the Mamelukes stationing spotters on top of Cheops’ vast pile. In a hectic movie lacking thematic continuity, one of the more interesting through-lines is the recurrent attention paid to the clever ways European armies during the Napoleonic Wars used optical signals to communicate on the battlefield. The Mamelukes didn’t have the opportunity to do that—Napoleon chose the romantic name the Battle of the Pyramids even though the pyramids were off on the horizon nine miles away—but it would have been cool if they had. And that’s good enough for Sir Ridley.
A bigger problem than historical accuracy is the movie’s lack of an opinion on the world-historical events it strenuously depicts.
Scott seems to bring only two opinions: a distaste for the French and a distaste for war. The title card at the end tallies up the death toll from the Napoleonic Wars at 3 million.
On the other hand, was Napoleon’s role in all this tumult truly egregious? Or did he simply play the game of thrones by the rules of his time better than anybody else did?
Because none of the land combatants had major technological advantages, it has been calculated with some degree of confidence that, on average, Napoleon’s command on the battlefield was equivalent to possessing a 30 percent bigger army: an extraordinary margin. It would have been admirable if Bonaparte had foregone this tactical advantage to devote himself to peace, but the current European aversion to aggression only became a consensus after the Great War a century later.
Ideologically, Bonaparte was less a Man of Reason than a reasonable man. France had been the most successful state of medieval Europe, so by 1789 it was encrusted with a convoluted patchwork of obsolete feudal rules, customs, bargains, and whatnot, helping to set off the famous Revolution in 1789. Bonaparte rolled back some excesses of the Revolution but carried on with the constructive reforms, such as his sponsoring the Code Napoleon, a vast improvement in the clarity of laws that currently influences the legal codes of 120 countries.
Ultimately, my objection to Bonaparte comes down to the opportunity cost of his predilection for war over peace: He would have made an extraordinary peacetime ruler, but he was so talented at war that he didn’t work hard enough for peace.