Streetwise Professor

November 30, 2023

Ridley Scott Screws the Pooch

Filed under: History — cpirrong @ 3:24 pm

I saw Ridey-Scott’s Napoleon on Thanksgiving. I am not thankful.

The film has been savaged by numerous reviewers, so perhaps it is gratuitous for me to put the boot in, but I figure I have to get my money’s worth somehow.

I went in ready to grant liberal artistic license and overlook some historical inaccuracies. For instance, yeah Napoleon didn’t shoot cannon at the Pyramids of Giza, but whatever.

But the movie definitely violated the terms of its license in ways that are grossly misleading. For example, Napoleon was a spectator of the Battle of Waterloo–when he wasn’t taking a nap, that is–and fled after watching “la Garde recule” and the Prussians crushing his right flank. He definitely did NOT lead a cavalry charge–especially given that he might well have been suffering from hemorrhoids at this climactic moment of his military career. Depicting him doing so gives an extremely distorted picture of Napoleon the man and the historical figure. (Napoleon’s departures from his armies in Egypt, Russia, Germany–after Leipzig–and Waterloo were the subject of criticism, but the film only mentions the criticism regarding Egypt.)

This is not a minor rewriting of history.

The battle scenes were painful to watch because of their comic book unrealism. My groaning began at the very outset. Napoleon’s attack on the British at Toulon was nothing like the actual thing. He didn’t assault a masonry fortress (which I think was depicted by the Vauban fort at Collioure, one of my favorite places): he assaulted earthen fortifications. His leadership there was valiant, widely admired, and oft remarked upon: in Ridley-Scott’s version he was just part of the crowd.

And speaking of earthworks, the French at Austerlitz and the British at Waterloo didn’t have them, let alone trenches festooned with fraise.

Yeah, I get that it is hard to depict on the screen the surprise that Napoleon pulled at Austerlitz by abandoning then assaulting the Pratzen Heights, but to convey surprise by having French cannoneers hide under white tarps pulled over their (non-existent in reality) trenches is just silly. Better to describe Napoleon’s tactical coup through dialog.

I could go on dissecting the battle scenes, but will leave it at that.

These failings are minor compared to fundamental problems in plot and character development.

Most notably, the real Napoleon was amazingly charismatic, and that never comes through in the film. Not only is Joaquin Phoenix too old by far to play anyone but the dying Napoleon, his Bonaparte comes off as something of a loser closer to the shlub living with mom in The Joker than a world striding colossus. Who would follow this guy to the concessions stand, let alone into the frozen wastes of Russia? Maybe a more accurate depiction of Toulon, or a scene of Napoleon at the Bridge of Lodi, would have helped convey why Napoleon could move armies and nations.

For understandable reasons–not least that it is easier to portray inter-personal dramas than sweeping historical events like epic battles–a good deal of the plot revolves around Napoleon and Josephine. We know that Napoleon was smitten by her, and often acted like an idiot about her especially in his absence, but Napoleon Dynamite seems like a manly chick magnet in comparison to Phoenix’s Napoleon Bonaparte the lover. And the depiction of Josephine also makes one wonder what Napoleon–and the many other men in her life–and I do mean many!–saw in her.

As another illustration of Ridley-Scott’s fundamental distortions of history that goes well beyond justifiable artistic license, in the film’s telling Napoleon leaves Elba because he reads in the newspaper that Josephine was canoodling with Tsar Alexander. FFS. (His departure from Egypt was also supposedly in response to being informed of Josephine’s infidelity.)

Napoleon thought much more above the neck than below the waist. This film would have you believe otherwise.

Casting was uniformly odd. The character playing Robespierre, for example, would have been better suited as Danton :P. (That said, the scene in which Robespierre was accosted and shot himself–unsuccessfully–was one of the better ones in the movie. Another was the assault of the Council of Five Hundred on Napoleon’s person during the Brumaire coup.)

Another minor but repeated and therefore annoying irritation was the atmospherics. The weather in most scenes was depicted as cold, cloudy, and/or rainy: scenes in sunny places (like Egypt or at Tilsit) take place largely in tents. You would think that France was Ridley-Scott’s native Yorkshire. He has said that the dreary, ever-raining atmospherics of Blade Runner were inspired by memories of his Yorkshire childhood. So I guess in Napoleon he gave us have Blade Runner meets Bonaparte.

But maybe that’s the point. Maybe Ridley-Scott is trying to say that Napoleon’s world was dystopian. There are certainly many–and have been since he exploded on the world stage–who believe that Napoleon led the world to perdition, and that is a valid stance for Ridley-Scott to take. But it begs the questions of what drove him to it, and why people followed him to the dystopia to which he led them. Ridley-Scott and Joaquin Phoenix provide no answers.

All of these liberties–to characterize them kindly–could be excused if they were taken in the cause of conveying fundamental truths. But they do the exact opposite. They give us an inverted Napoleon.

Successful biopics, like say Lincoln or Patton, succeed in this despite departures from the literal truth. Yes, Ridley-Scott made a daring choice of attempting to cover virtually the entire sweep of one of the most eventful lives in recorded history, and one that spanned more than two decades, unlike Lincoln which focused on a few months or Patton which covered barely three years. But that choice means that he had to be all the more precise and creative in his choice of how to convey accurately Napoleon’s personality and conduct. By choosing dramatic devices that uniformly deceive and distort, Ridley-Scott fails his audience, and fails the history he claims he wants to portray.

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  1. Say what you want about this Bonaparte guy or Ridley Scott, but we will not drag Napoleon Dynamite’s reputation through the mud here. Have you seen his dance skills? Pure masculinity.

    Comment by [email protected] — December 1, 2023 @ 10:08 am

  2. Apparently there’s a movie in the works about the Second Punic War, with Denzel Washington as Hannibal. I anticipate a progressive farce.

    Comment by Pat Frank — December 1, 2023 @ 1:17 pm

  3. The farce would be Denzil Washington playing Rollo storming Paris with Whoopi playing the Queen that didn’t exist.

    Comment by The Pilot — December 1, 2023 @ 3:21 pm

  4. “Lincoln” was a successful biopic?

    Comment by Tom Kirkendall — December 2, 2023 @ 11:02 am

  5. I don’t care how unhistorical the film is.
    Have you seen Napoleon’s sarcophagus? Enormous, when the guy was (by modern standards) practically a midget.
    Meanwhile his penis resides in a box in a suitcase stored under the stairs in a suburban house in New Jersey.

    Comment by philip — December 4, 2023 @ 4:14 pm

  6. Agreed = the character development was terrible. As were the battles.

    Waterloo shows a scene where the French cavalry charge the British. To respond, the infantry advance, yes advance to form squares and then the cavalry run around them. “Hé camarades, should be attack les undefended British cannons behind the infantry?” says no one in the French cavalry. The cavalry retreat and then the whole French army including Napoleon on horseback advances to have a big mud wrestling match. It’s risible. Compare it to the 1970s film Waterloo.

    Comment by TDK — December 5, 2023 @ 1:07 am

  7. It’s insulting to Josephine as well. Her life’s agenda was the welfare of her children, Eugene and Hortense, and when she met Napoleon she was decidedly his social superior. She acquiesced to marriage beneath her because she sensed he might be useful for her children. She saw Napoleon as uncultured and uninteresting, with scant social skills, no wide breadth of intellectual interest and a gauche tendency to overshare in letters to her, which she read aloud to her mates.

    Once he became First Consul and then Emperor, it was clear that in picking him she had done the right thing for her children. Eugene de Beauharnais became a reliable and effective general. He defeated the Austrians independently in Italy in 1809 and retrieved Napoleon’s own disastrous mess when he abandoned the army in Russia in 1812. Hortense married a Bonaparte brother, became queen of Holland and then after 1815 largely lived her life out in comfortable exile in a mansion overlooking Lake Constance.

    Josephine herself was a major figure in arts patronage, style, and horticulture and among the main drivers of the style now known as First Empire.

    Scott chooses to depict this remarkable and complex woman as just a whore.

    Comment by Green as Grass — December 7, 2023 @ 8:05 am

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