SEven before Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” hits theaters, it comes under fire. Television historian Dan Snow complained in a viral TikTok post that a military commander never bombed the pyramids. And when Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France, was beheaded, she had shaved hair and no blonde locks, as seen in the trailer. And Napoleon certainly did not stand in person in the crowd and, equipped with Joaquin Phoenix’s most arrogant split lip, took unfazed notice of the terrible spectacle.
Ridley Scott, in turn, told Snow that he should start living his life instead of wasting his time on such nonsense. And Scott, one of the greatest strategists of American cinema, is of course right. For the purposes of the film, it is completely irrelevant whether Marie Antoinette had curly or short hair on October 6, 1793. And the fact that Scott and his screenwriter David Scarpa quickly blend their hero into the crowd is a smart cinematic move: it’s all about compression. Which sometimes is nothing other than poetry.
So much of the life of the man born on August 15, 1769 in Ajaccio, Corsica, is hidden in the fog of war history. “What really happened on October 5, 1795 remains a mystery,” writes his biographer Adam Zamoyski, although the events of that day were crucial for the revolution and for the man, Napoleon Buonaparte, as he was baptized in Italian. “But his role in it is the most elusive,” writes Zamoyski.
We’re talking about the day Napoleon apparently ordered dozens of cannons brought in shortly before sunrise to put down a royalist uprising against a young republic whose military leader had just staged a coup. Napoleon, so to speak, defended the power of the people against a nation that, after many years of revolution and reign of terror, longed for the commanding hand of the king. Napoleon, however, built his career and future on the republic, which was the only one that provided him with unrestricted social mobility. What did he care about the opinion of the crowd?
Historians also argue about the validity of central quotes attributed to him. “A man like me doesn’t give a damn about the lives of a million people,” Napoleon is said to have said on June 26, 1813, to the Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Metternich, who had just successfully dragged him into a disastrous war with Europe’s allies. Metternich spreads this phrase in his memoirs. You don’t have to look at Israel and Gaza to understand that in war the first victim is always the truth, left behind by guerrilla propaganda.
The vast majority of what we know about such a figure of the century, let alone what we don’t know, can’t be covered in less than three hours anyway. Scott, at almost 86 years old and one of the most battle-hardened directors in the world, who has made almost as many films as Napoleon fought battles (56 out of 61), cleverly tells the story of life in its most important moments. These include the aforementioned battle with the royalists in 1795. As usual, outwardly unmoved, Napoleon gives the order to fire. The guns are roaring. Bullets are flying. The smoke clears. Those loyal to the king lie in pieces. Napoleon’s rapid rise continues – once again, as always, over the dead.
It began with the Battle of Toulon, when a young officer came up with a bold plan to capture two forts controlled by the English. The cannons there could then be used to fire at the English fleet in the harbor and the city would have to surrender. The young commander, then less than 25 years old, showed brilliant calculation, but was also a daredevil. As was his custom, he jumped into the fray. A cannonball shot the horse out from under him. This historically documented scene can also be found in the film. After the victorious battle, Napoleon rummages through the animal’s intestines, fishes out a bullet, throws it to his brother Lucien and says: “To the mother.”
Women play a key role in his life. “Say you are nothing without me – and without your mother,” Joséphine de Beauharnais (absolutely brilliant: Vanessa Kirby) whispers to her husband. Napoleon, played by Phoenix as a strange sociopath, according to his biographers, courted her in monosyllables until she – equally no stranger to social ambitions – agreed to marriage. A few scenes earlier, he had stormed home in a rage after the Egyptian campaign, which was going rather poorly, whether he actually shot at the pyramids or not. The way the modern tabloid press spread rumors about Joséphine’s affair reached Cairo. The Phoenix has just stood in front of the Sphinx (here Scott respectfully copies Jean-Léon Gérome’s famous painting “Bonaparte before the Sphinx”) and had a quiet conversation with the mummified pharaoh. Now he angrily hits the newspaper on the folding table. Now we are away from home, risking the accusation that he has deserted.
“Whose country is this?” – he shouts to the Directorate, a short-lived puppet of the government after the fall of the revolutionary leader Robespierre, who wants to reprimand him for his unauthorized departure. “My”. A shameless coronation as emperor will soon take place. In fact, there are years in between. The movie is gaining momentum. This is definitely in keeping with the spirit of the main character. “I found the crown of France in the gutter,” Napoleon curtly shortens the enthronement ceremony, “and I put it on my own head.” The Church plays for better and for worse and is glad that it survived the revolution relatively unscathed. Noble houses across Europe turn up their noses at the Corsican tyrant who has made his way to the top without any restraint.
Complete battle paint
Scott said in an interview that Phoenix had trouble getting into this role for a long time. They met two weeks before filming and discussed everything in detail. The whole book has changed and become bigger and better. The movie doesn’t really resemble the general and the ruler. His psyche and true motives remain conflicted. The decision to skip childhood and youth in Corsica and the cadet schools serves the narrative economy, but leaves the most important issues in the dark: the genesis of excessive ambition, misanthropy, the decision to pursue one’s own advancement through cunning, deceit and unlimited escalation of conflicts. violence. Phoenix himself advises interested viewers to pick up one of the countless biographies to better understand this necessarily busy life. Or you have to wait for Steven Spielberg’s seven-episode HBO series, which the other Hollywood giant is currently working on based on Kubrick’s unrealized project.
Nevertheless, Scott’s film is a masterpiece, a complete battle picture the likes of which hasn’t been seen since “Braveheart” or “Gladiator.” In particular, the Battle of Austerlitz, where Napoleon lured his enemies onto a frozen lake only to drown them in a hail of cannonballs, has an intensity and terrible beauty that will go down in history in much the same way as the era – creating the event it illustrates.