From its first frames, director Ridley Scott’s new epic, Napoleon, makes both its political subtext and attitude toward history clear. “1789, Revolution in France,” its opening titles announce. “The French have become disillusioned by food shortages and widespread economic depression. Anti-Royalists would soon send King Louis XVI and 11,000 of his supporters to a violent end and then set their sights on the last Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. Meanwhile, an ambitious Corsican gunnery officer named Napoleon Bonaparte seeks a promotion . . .” A terrified Marie Antoinette is then led to her fate at the guillotine as a braying Parisian mob looks on, hurling insults and rotten vegetables. As the executioner holds her severed head aloft to the cheering crowd, Joaquin Phoenix’s Napoleon Bonaparte observes the scene with an expression of cryptic ambivalence.
Big-budget blockbusters, especially those on well-known historical figures and events, often hedge their bets for the sake of broadness. But, right from its outset, Napoleon proudly brandishes its conservatism. Its French Revolution is neither one of radical possibility and intellectual ferment nor a morally complex historical rupture in which the economic and institutional breakdowns of the ancien régime — not to mention relentless invasion by the monarchies of old Europe — gave rise to violent civil conflict. Instead, operating within a tradition traceable to intellectuals like Thomas Carlyle and Edmund Burke, and more recently the centrist historian François Furet, Scott shows us a revolution whose egalitarian idealism can lead only to grayness, despotism, and blood.
As far as historical accuracy goes, anyone with even a passing knowledge of this period will find the speed of Scott’s opening sequence jarring. Antoinette’s execution occurred in 1793, but Napoleon lurches from the 1789–1792 period of constitutional monarchy to the republicanism of the revolution’s radical phase without missing a beat — among other things setting in motion an absolutely breathless pace that takes us from these beginnings to Napoleon Bonaparte’s final exile on Saint Helena in less than three hours.
Throughout, Scott seems at once deeply uninterested in the details of Napoleonic history and driven by a slightly geekish impulse to structure his film around various well-known incidents, even if they serve no higher narrative purpose. Following Marie Antoinette’s execution, Bonaparte is asked by Paul Barras (Tahar Rahim) to direct the French assault on the Royalist stronghold of Toulon. Thanks to his strategic savvy, the action is successful, and the young Captain Bonaparte — twenty-four during the real event but played by the forty-nine year-old Phoenix — is promoted to brigadier general. In the ensuing 120 minutes or so, we are treated to a potpourri of episodes from Bonaparte’s life and career: his courtship and marriage to Joséphine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby); his expedition to Egypt (1798); the overthrow of the Directory on 18 Brumaire and his ascension to first consul, and later emperor, of France; the battles of Austerlitz (1805), Borodino (1812), and Waterloo (1815).
It would be unreasonable to expect a movie like Scott’s to render history with strict precision, and certain liberties with the established facts were probably inevitable. Kirby and Phoenix, for example, are both talented actors, and there’s no sense complaining that their age difference is so wildly off (Kirby is thirty-five, and Beauharnais was, in reality, six years Bonaparte’s senior). Similarly, it would be pedantic to criticize Scott too much for omitting certain events, even though some of these omissions — like the campaign in Italy that helped establish Napoleon’s reputation as a military genius — are genuinely puzzling. The film’s battle sequences are also grand and entertaining spectacles, even when what’s shown bears little resemblance to reality.
Still, it’s more than a little strange to make a film encompassing one of the most studied periods in human history and be so completely uninterested in what actually occurred. Scott has openly said he “didn’t need historians” and been so brazen about his disregard for the entire field you almost have to admire the chutzpah: “When I have issues with historians, I ask: ‘Excuse me, mate, were you there? No? Well, shut the fuck up then!” The rejoinders to that are obvious, but the real issue with the director’s attitude is that it ultimately renders one of the most interesting and complex eras in modern history as a blandly conservative (and decidedly British) morality tale with a vague thesis about revolutionary excess and the dangers of the mob.
One of the best illustrations is the way Scott chooses to portray the Royalist uprising of October 5, 1795, better known by its date on the French Revolutionary calendar 13 Vendémiaire. In the film, we see a young Bonaparte fire his cannon into a defenseless crowd of civilians who are quickly maimed by the salvo. In reality, the French National Guard repelled a violent assault by a much larger force of armed Royalists whose singular objective was to reinstate the monarchy.
This sequence is a marriage of bad history with bad politics, but it’s also a case in point of how little the film is interested in developing its main character. Joaquin Phoenix is arguably one of the most dynamic actors working today, but, from beginning to end, Scott’s idea of Bonaparte rarely strays from the same static monolith of cold brutality and stoic resolve. He is basically a man without interiority or even charisma: neither an erstwhile revolutionary gradually poisoned by cynicism nor a onetime idealist whose limitless ambition eventually inspires him to bury republicanism and try to anoint himself dictator of Europe.
From the execution of Marie Antoinette, through numerous episodes that carry the same tenor as the scene on 13 Vendémiaire, to his death on the remote island of Saint Helena, Napoleon’s central character has virtually no arc. Bonaparte’s relationship with Josephine is in many ways the film’s emotional and narrative core, but proves somewhat off-putting thanks to a series of bizarre and occasionally cringeworthy sex scenes that suggest little tenderness or affection and are undercut — like most of what surrounds them — by a frantically staccato pace.
Ultimately then, the film’s greatest flaw is less historical inaccuracy or insipidly centrist politics than its failure to provide compelling epic drama. Nuance and complexity are part and parcel of history, but they also make for better and more entertaining storytelling. A movie with the same reactionary conception of the French Revolution, the same cavalier attitude toward the past, and even the same stolidly one-note depiction of Bonaparte could easily have been better executed. But, given the essentially mediocre caliber of Napoleon as drama or entertainment (notwithstanding the beautiful costumes and some genuinely entertaining battle sequences), its spine is ultimately a political one.
Here, we find a familiar story about how mass politics and democratic idealism lead inexorably to tyranny — one that exudes not only the ambient influence of Burke, Carlyle, and the barren liberalism of the Cold War but also that of various post-2016 derangements that have sought to blame democracy for the continued dysfunction of our own dilapidated ancien régime.
What can you even say? With any luck, the forthcoming adaptation of Stanley Kubrick’s aborted Napoleon epic will leave Scott’s effort in the dust.