Posted on: February 18, 2024 Posted by: admin Comments: 0

(Image Credit: Alamy)

Muhammad Jalal Yousaf Tarar

“I’m the first to admit when I make a mistake. I just never do,” says Napoleon (played by Joaquin Phoenix) when Arthur Wellesley informs him that the Congress of Vienna had decided to exile him to the island of St. Helena. These words were also probably spoken by Director Ridley Scott when asked about the film’s historical accuracy. 

Of course, films can never be history. In all fairness, ‘Napoleon’ had never claimed to substitute for history.
Still, suggesting historians don’t know what they’re talking about because they weren’t there is not only strange comment for a director who specializes in historical films to make but also slightly snobbish. Not to mention, it’s an awful take on Baudrillian historiography and can be explosive in the wrong hands, but that’s a story for another day.

‘Napoleon’ attempts to capture the life of the French revolutionary general-turned-emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, from his meteoric rise to the highest echelons of power to an ultimate exile to the South Atlantic. There, like the audience of ‘Napoleon’, he picks out flies from his wine.
A film with so much promise – even Stanley Kubrick couldn’t make a Napoleon biopic, though not for lack of trying – turned sour, with audiences picking out a host of problems from the final product. It starts from the end of revolutionary terror in late 18th century France, when Robespierre just about lost his nerve and his power (and also his head). He follows ex-Queen Marie Antoinette to the guillotine. Assumption of power by Paul Barras promotes Napoleon from a lowly colonel to cannon-blasting interior sentry to General of the Army of Italy, a brief excursion to Egypt and finally as coup master general at Saint-Cloud, near Paris. His swift self-coronation as Emperor is followed by a series of lengthy and messy wars with European coalitions, repeated attempts at fatherhood including divorce from his beloved Josephine and remarriage, before he is ultimately dragged down by the Russian winter and exiled to Elba. A brief return is followed by comprehensive defeat at Waterloo and final exile to St. Helena, where he eventually dies. 

We see Le Tondu’s passionate and ultimately tragic love affair with Josephine, an ex-mistress of Paul Barras, interspersed with battlefield genius. Crucially missing were two of his most lasting contributions: the Civil Code – whose updated version is in force today – and the German Confederation, which eventually morphed into today’s Germany. Also in the inventory of losses was Tsar Alexander’s prayerbook, the Spanish Ulcer, so crucial in bringing Le Petit Colonel down, Robespierre’s virtue, the Corsican abandonment, and his antics at Campo Formio.  

Now I know what you might be thinking: it’s just a film, and selectivity is foundational in making a historical film. But how does Ridley Scott justify spending a mere 62 days making a film on someone who won 67 battles? Summarization, too, has its limits, which have been breached here. The narrative is hurried, maybe because it got bogged down with unnecessary scenes like the one where Josephine gets smacked in the face for not signing the divorce papers quick enough. If the aim was to show toxicity with the Empress, why not a scene exploring one of the many episodes of the emperor’s violent mommy issues? It makes infinitely less sense to replace that with the surprising anatomy scene degrading for everyone involved – though mainly for the poor Vanessa Kirby.

It’s also unclear how Scott justifies casting Joaquin Phoenix to play a man who fathered the Napoleon Complex. Not to take away from the genius that is Phoenix’s talent, but it raises questions about casting. Phoenix at Waterloo is hardly distinguishable from his presence at Marie Antoinette’s execution (another inaccuracy) when he was a mere 24 years old. Or the fact that he looks fifty at Saint-Cloud right before suggesting the deputies vote. When you factor in the American accent, no wonder the French consider their “Anti-Woke Emperor” smeared beyond recognition.

And the haste is not limited to the narrative: Ridley Scott seems unable to make up his mind about the approach he wants to take.

Consider this: this is a sombre film, that much is clear even from the trailer. Why, then, does he have Napoleon scream, “You think you’re so good just because you have boats!” to the British ambassador in a temper tantrum similar to that of a five year old. If that is intended as comedy, the planning is poor and the execution worse. But if Scott was being serious, that is even more worrying. 

Of course Ridley Scott is an established master of battle scenes. Doubtful? Go watch Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven. But unfortunately for avid history fans like me, he even gets those wrong in this film. That is not a comment on his ability but on his approach. If gruesome hand-to-hand combat is to be sprinkled with vociferous lovemaking, then narrative-wise it shouldn’t look like a college project. Scott is all over the place. And that is because he prioritizes war and cuckolding over so many fragments that made Napoleon who he was. Austerlitz had been fought on daring chance, feigned weakness, mobile artillery and vicious counter-assaults, not a mere ice trap. Napoleon’s 14 Marshals were feared across Europe, buried in a sea of victories, not stammering yes men.

But not all is lost. Sparkles of brilliance routinely show up in the film. One of them goes by the name of Vanessa Kirby, who delivered a flawless performance. From her initial appearance in Barras’ ear to the solemnity with which she whispers to Napoleon’s son, her artistic talent is there for all to see. To that extent, Ridley Scott must be congratulated for casting the perfect actress to perform such a tricky role while avoiding directorial landmines such as attempting to do too much all at once. The scene where Josephine forces Napoleon to acknowledge his nothingness without her is possibly the film’s most accurate and moving scene, and the credit goes to the actors. 

However, beyond the main cast, performances left much to be desired. Viscount Talleyrand was given too few scenes, which simply did not capture the essence of his intrigues. The same could be said about Emmanuel Sieyes and Lucien Bonaparte. Napoleon’s mother was reduced to a scheming antichrist, adamant on getting her helpless son a divorce from the barren Josephine. There was extraordinary potential to explore the triple dynamic there, but it was glossed over.

Ridley Scott’s talent  for capturing the heat of the battle is much praised, and the standard has been met in ‘Napoleon’. Joaquin Phoenix’s attempt to break through the stubborn British square defences at Waterloo is proof of that, as is the carnage of Austerlitz. But Napoleon was not just a general. That fact was not sufficiently represented in the film, where he is reduced to his trench coat, softly singing orders. Most people forget that Napoleon pioneered the mobile artillery, thanks partly to his genius in mathematics and physics. This was left unexplored in the film. The capture of Toulon became a guerrilla-style storming rather than the masterstroke in artillery that it was. Ridley Scott, therefore, manages to simultaneously pay too much attention to Napoleon’s military genius and look away at the crucial moment.

Also worthy of praise is the costume accuracy, right down to the button on Napoleon’s uniform and the ripple on Robespierre’s breeches. That is a testament to Scott’s knowledge of the subject matter and willingness to go the extra mile in accuracy wherever possible. The fact that Joaquin Phoenix crowned himself rather than allowing the Cardinal to crown him is evidence for this assertion. These minute details thrilled those in the audience who knew their history. 

But in the grand scheme of things, it was Napoleon, unfortunately, who was subjected to the film, and the film was not subjected to Napoleon as it should have been.

The emperor had once said, “I am the most important thing in the world.” Not war, not Josephine and her affairs, not the Duke of Wellington, not even Comrade Winter, but Napoleon alone was at the centre of his universe. That alone explains his mammoth ambition, electrifying rise and tragic fall. The irony is that while Ridley Scott included this dialogue in his film, he never understood what it meant.