Many filmmakers have attempted to follow in Napoleon’s footsteps, chasing after glory. However, it may be that only a rebellious defeat truly holds any glory. But Ridley Scott, the cinematic counterpart to Wellington, has crafted an incredibly entertaining film, charging ahead for a full two and a half hours without getting stuck in the mire of historical accuracy or philosophical implications that have hindered other directors.
Scott playfully envisions Napoleon attacking the pyramids during his Egyptian campaign and witnessing the execution of Marie Antoinette (although he may not have been present for the humiliating treatment of Louis XVI by the Tuileries mob). In addition, Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa choose not to mention Napoleon’s reinstatement of slavery in French colonies as a sign of respect. However, the true highlight of the film is Joaquin Phoenix’s sly portrayal of the doomed emperor, complete with a bicorne hat and a jaunty tricolour cockade. Phoenix portrays Napoleon as a military mastermind and charming peacock, who happens to be skilled on horseback. While others may depict Napoleon as a solitary dreamer, Scott presents him as one half of a passionate and tumultuous power couple, with Vanessa Kirby’s sensually pragmatic Josephine as his partner. In this way, Scott casts them as the Burton and Taylor of imperial France.
Rod Steiger portrayed Napoleon in Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1970 film Waterloo as a weary leader exchanging witty remarks with his advisor. In King Vidor’s War and Peace from 1956, Herbert Lom portrayed him as a fading absurdity, unable to accept that he no longer holds power in the Russian capital. In Abel Gance’s 1927 silent masterpiece, Albert Dieudonné depicted him as a stoic and emaciated figure, similar to Joan of Arc or Rasputin. However, in Phoenix’s portrayal, he is the ultimate satirist and cunning mastermind, an outsider who keenly observes and exploits the weaknesses of others. He is a proto-capitalist, driven by greed and power, boosting confidence and manipulating the value of printed money. While others may earn the nickname “Napoleon of Crime,” Phoenix’s version of Napoleon is already embodying this title.
Scott directs an exciting scene of action showcasing Napoleon’s initial triumph as a novice artilleryman: the bold assault on the British at Toulon in 1793, solidifying his renown as a skilled strategist and anti-English sentiment. Scott frames the event with a vision of a vanquished Napoleon having a conversation with Wellington on the HMS Bellerophon, casually complimenting the breakfast served to the Royal Navy.
Britain’s naval dominance is the source of Napoleon’s feelings of inferiority. In a fit of frustration, he complains to the British ambassador about their perceived superiority due to their possession of boats. This moment is reminiscent of the character Commodus in the film Gladiator. Napoleon’s self-coronation as emperor also echoes Commodus, as he realizes the crown does not fit comfortably over his laurels reminiscent of ancient Roman emperors. With the help of his patron and friend Barras, Napoleon navigates the opposing forces of revolution and royalism and becomes the embodiment of raw power. He ruthlessly suppresses the angry mob with his “whiff of grapeshot”, a scene famously depicted by Scott.
Napoleon has always been seen as a captivating figure, both as a symbol and an icon. Since Tolstoy, the retreat from Moscow and Napoleon’s subsequent defeat have been seen as a representation of Russia’s miraculous deliverance, similar to the resurrection itself. Even Hitler was intrigued by him. However, the postwar admiration for Napoleon still exists for those who wish to forget the atrocities of the 20th century and romanticize war. In Kubrick’s abandoned film project, it was expected that Napoleon would carry a great deal of significance. However, this is not the intention of Ridley Scott. He does not burden the audience with deep philosophical meaning and instead provides traditional pleasures of grandeur and excitement. Phoenix’s performance is the key to the film: strong and robust, just like the glass of burgundy he enjoys. He exudes confidence, broods with intensity, seethes with emotion, and ultimately triumphs.