A director meets his Waterloo ( a critical review of the film Napoleon)

By Mark Lopez

I have admired Napoleon since I was eight. In my library I have many hundreds of books on him, on his battles, and on this period, including memoirs by his soldiers, his commanders, his government officials, his domestic staff, by illustrious women of the court, and by his opponents.  I have gone to France several times, to walk the places he walked and to visit the palaces where he lived and worked.  I even went to Belgium to traverse the battlefield of Waterloo. 

I am also a great admirer of the filmmaker Ridley Scott.  I collect his films.  When I heard that Ridley Scott was to make a film about Napoleon it was like a dream (which I had never dared to dream) had come true.  Ridley Scott is a master at creating alternate worlds and taking his audience on an enthralling journey. This time it would be to Napoleonic Europe, his second journey there since his splendid debut film in 1977, The Duellists.  His low-budget debut feature is one of the best films about the Napoleonic era.  Only this time Ridley Scott would have an enormous budget (about $200 million) and computer generated imagery at his disposal.  I counted the days until the film was finished and the days until its release. 

Unfortunately, all this cinematic account of Napoleon’s life has in common with history is some names and dates, the rest is made up.  More than being an account of Napoleon’s eventful life it is a cinematic hit job on his memory and legacy.  Napoleon is used by Ridley Scott to attack his concept of a tyrant, when Napoleon, a man of the Enlightenment, was not a tyrant, not remotely.  The film says more about Ridley Scott than it does about Napoleon, and it does not put the screenplay writer David Scarpa and its star Joaquin Phoenix (who plays Napoleon) in a good light either.  

This is an ahistorical film from start to finish, supposedly covering Napoleon’s life from 1793, when he got his start as a young artillery officer, to his death in exile in 1821.  Yes, there is room to grant the filmmakers some poetic licence, but there is a limit.  Being virtually fact free goes too far.  You can play around with facts regarding Roman emperors and gladiators and get away with it, especially if you make a great movie, as was the case with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000).  But Napoleon is a figure from modern history and much is known about him. 

Napoleon did not fire artillery at the pyramids at Giza, as depicted in the film.  In fact, as a man of the Enlightenment, he brought over a hundred scientists with him on his Egyptian campaign.  This led to the discovery of the Rosetta stone, which was the breakthrough artefact that facilitated the translation of hieroglyphics and changed Egyptology for the better forever.  The ahistorical act of vandalism towards the pyramids was put into the film to make Napoleon look like a vulgar tyrant and barbarian.  There were no trenches at the battles of Austerlitz or Waterloo, and Napoleon never led a cavalry charge.  The falsehoods are so many they are too numerous to mention.  They constitute almost the entire film.  It is virtually a fact-free and history-free zone. 

If you are going to do a hit job on a major historical figure, ignoring almost all relevant historical facts is not the way to do it.   This approach suffers from the logical fallacy of ‘attacking a straw man’.  This is when someone sets out to demolish the opponent’s argument by first stating a summary of the opponent’s position that is not accurate and is easy to defeat.  That summary is then attacked and defeated and victory is proclaimed.  But it is not a victory at all since the opponent’s actual argument was never attacked, only a misrepresentation of it. The film Napoleon is guilty of attacking a straw man.   

The film focuses on the relationship of Napoleon and Josephine, which is rich territory to cinematically explore.  Ridley Scott loves to portray strong women in his films, and Vanessa Kirby’s performance as Josephine is a highlight.  But Napoleon, the lover, was not the ridiculous twat and abuser that Joachim Phoenix and Ridley Scott made him out to be.  He did not abandon his Egyptian campaign because of domestic issues, as implied by the film.  How could Napoleon have succeeded as a general were he that irresponsible? 

The reality was that Napoleon was out of his depth in his relationship with Josephine.  At that time in history, the young commanders who had achieved military victories were the rock stars of their age, and they attracted similar levels of female attention.  And their flamboyant uniforms added to their appeal, later copied by actual rock stars: think Jimi Hendrix and Adam Ant.  When Napoleon met Josephine he was like a new young rock star fresh on the scene with a couple of hit singles, and Josephine was a super-groupie.  Napoleon, although handsome, was out of his league.   In her presence, he was like a love-sick teenager.  After they were married, he had to rush off to the front to win his first campaign in Northern Italy, thereby assuring his military genius and potential for future greatness.   While he was gone, and at a time when most couples would be having their honeymoon, she had an affair with a handsome hussar. 

Later, Napoleon did get his act together romantically and sexually and had mistresses to even the score.  But there is no evidence he violated his wife from behind, as depicted several times in the film.   Keep in mind that it is common in films when vilifying a character to make them nasty and bad at sex. 

As I said, young officers were the rock stars of their era, and their flamboyant uniforms added greatly to their appeal.  This was a sexually liberated time, followed by the prudish backlash of what became known in Britain as the Victorian era.  Women wore A-line Grecian dresses that drew attention to the bosom while the sheer flowing fabric that covered their bodies could look transparent if lit from behind.  And men wore tight fitting clothes that drew attention to their torsos.  It was an era of sexual display. 

Credit should go to the costume designers, David Crossman and Janty Yates, who created authentic clothes and uniforms that looked lived-in rather than lifted straight off the rack in the wardrobe department and not worn long enough to get them dusty or wrinkled.  The production design, art direction, and set decoration (which provides much of what we see in the film) were equally superb.   And this was enhanced by magnificent digital photography that included some stunning low angle full shots and many authentic-looking interiors lit by incandescent lights that gave these scenes a warm intimate glow.  The film looked fabulous.  Most of the costumes and settings appeared convincingly authentic, but the rest was an unconvincing lie. 

In the closing credits, the filmmakers continued their attack, depicting Napoleon as responsible for the collective deaths of the wars of the period. But almost all of those wars were imposed on France by its enemies. Instead of France being overrun and having another political system imposed on it by its foes, under Napoleon’s leadership, he defeated the enemies, conquered them, and imposed the best of the French Revolution on them. This is why the Code Napoleon (the enlightened legal code he commissioned and sometimes supervised) is still the basis of law in so many European countries and their former colonies in the Third World.  To blame Napoleon for the collective military deaths of an era of conflict that started long before he had a say in what happened is unfair and just plain wrong. 

But Napoleon does deserve criticism for a number of the war dead.  Napoleon was a tragic hero, a military and political genius who reached great heights, only to be brought down by a flaw in his character, his tendency to confuse his personal ambition with the national interest.  This is the film that should have been made.  A man great enough to have the era in which he lived named after him, but flawed enough to not know when to recognise his limitations.  His disastrous strategic decisions in the invasion of Russia in 1812 that lost ninety percent of his army spelt the beginning of the end.  He should have consolidated what was left of his empire, but instead he raised new armies to attempt to win back his losses only to be strategically defeated in costly campaigns in 1813 and 1814.  He deserves blame for that.  

As the greatest general of his era he, understandably, resorted to military solutions to his diplomatic problems.  But so did his opponents.  He was just better at the art of war than his opponents were, which was until they copied his techniques.  Only then did they have a fighting chance. 

The battles he fought were dramatic and spectacular, and they could have been reproduced in this film with a thousand extras in costume and computer generated imagery employed to do the rest.  But instead of following history, the filmmakers chose to make up the battle scenes, which would piss off the legions of military history enthusiasts who could have praised the film to the rest of the world and made it a box office hit to rival Barbie.  But instead Ridley Scott chose to insult their intelligence. 

The battle of Austerlitz in 1805 was not fought in snow.  But fog did obscure the field in the early stages.  When the sun came out all of a sudden (the famous sun of Austerlitz), it was clear that the allies had advanced into danger and exposed their flanks to the French columns of counter-attack that were closing in on them leaving them no chance of escape.  The battle was not about tricking the Russian and Austrian armies into advancing across a frozen lake only to have it shattered by French cannon balls.  That was an invention by the filmmakers.  There was a minor incident on a frozen lake near the end of the battle, where a number of retreating men and horses went under, but not that many, and this was well after the battle had been decided elsewhere. 

Napoleon won this battle by outsmarting his enemy.  It was not an act of callous cruelty as depicted in the film.  The casualties in this battle were substantial but not great, due to Napoleon’s skill as a commander, but the enemy’s ability to wage war was shattered.  The Austrians surrendered soon afterwards and the Russians retreated to regroup to take on Napoleon again the following year only to be defeated at a later date.  The film made Napoleon at Austerlitz look less like a brilliant general and more like a callous war criminal. The film libelled him.  The real culprits were the Austrian and Russian emperors who did not take the art of war seriously enough.  Their unfortunate soldiers paid the price.  These emperors underestimated their enemy.  They were the sinners, not Napoleon. 

The soldiers in this era of muskets and edged weapons fought in formation, columns or lines, not as swarming hordes as depicted in the film. And when they clashed in hand to hand combat, the melee was usually short-lived since these incidents were so terrifying that it was not long before one side broke.  Ridley Scott has directed so many ancient and medieval battle scenes that it seems he just imagined all warfare to be a slugging match.  And the battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo never raged through tent cities.  What was he thinking? 

Ridley Scott also felt compelled to adorn the battlefield with extra flags not linked to any regiments, just to let the audience know who is who.  It looked silly. And the battles were fought in great clouds of gunpowder smoke, not under clear skies, a difficult situation captured by the idiomatic term: ‘the fog of war’.  It was hard to see, and that is why flags were used to signify the regiments, why bugles were used to send signals, and why the troops wore distinctive brightly coloured uniforms rather than camouflage.  Battles were noisy, and it was difficult to communicate.  Commanders did not stand isolated and shout orders into mid-air, as depicted in the film, but commands were given to aides de camp, messengers on horseback, who rode back and forth relaying vital orders and reports on the state of play.  Commanders played a giant chess game under difficult and confusing circumstances.  Their subordinates led the troops into the fray.   It took enormous dash and courage, and many generals were wounded or killed. 

The Napoleon in this film is nasty, unfeeling, pompous, vulgar, barbaric, smug, petulant, tyrannical, and unappealing.  But by depicting him in this way, his achievements are incomprehensible.  How could such a pathetic individual achieve so much in such a short period? Why were so many willing to risk their lives under his command? 

In reality, Napoleon was a military genius, the greatest commander in an age of great commanders.  He was also a gifted political leader, an enlightened autocrat in an era of autocrats, whose approach to government was to do what he believed would work best.  He consolidated the positive dimensions of the French Revolution, an event that had been, for the most part, a calamity.  He made from it a system that was not just viable but triumphant.  He was also charismatic.  The film dodged that fact deliberately, not wanting to give him any redeeming qualities.  This was obvious in the film’s misleading depiction of his return to power after exile in 1815. 

When the Bourbon monarchy, restored in 1814, was failing as a government in 1815, Napoleon returned from exile with his thousand guardsmen and walked from the south of France towards Paris.  He could have been rejected in every town, but French men and women flocked to support him.  When the fifth infantry regiment was sent to stop him, he walked up to them alone, facing their phalanx of aimed muskets.  When the commander of the fifth regiment ordered his troops to fire on their former emperor, not one soldier discharged his musket, each making the individual decision not to do so, having no idea that all their comrades were thinking the same.  This is one of the most extraordinary moments in history, and it is deliberately played down in the film to deprive Napoleon of this indisputable demonstration of his courage and charisma.

Ridley Scott is a filmmaker who can give us masterpieces like Gladiator (2000) and duds like Robin Hood (2010).  Sadly, Napoleon is not one of his masterpieces.  I am so disappointed.  Apparently, the cinema release version at 157 minutes is to be followed by the much longer director’s cut at 250 minutes to be released on Apple TV+ and probably on DVD and Blu-ray as well.  I hope it is better. 

Napoleon, directed by Ridley Scott, screenplay by David Scarpa, 157 minutes, UK and US co-production, Sony Pictures and Apple TV+, released 14-22 November 2023

Published as: ‘A director meets his Waterloo’ [a critical review of the film Napoleon], Quadrant Online, 1 December 2023  A Director Meets his Waterloo – Quadrant Online