Monday, 04 March 2024

‘Napoleon’ turns up short in its depiction of a historical era


Military commander and then Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the most notable persons of world history, arguably ranking with some of history’s utmost despots in the universe of notoriety.

This is not to say that the French tyrant was as inveterately evil as say Hitler or Stalin, both of whom were responsible for mass murder on an unimaginable scale. Undeniably though, Napoleon’s authoritarian rule would hardly count as benevolent.

The casualties of the Napoleonic wars almost pale in comparison to other tyrannical atrocities, which the end credits of “Napoleon” attempt to tally. Still, his jingoism resulted in the deaths of millions of his own countrymen.

Nevertheless, the Corsican-born Napoleon was a man of short stature which gave rise to the folklore that his lack of height was compensated for by a quest for power and conquest. The idea springs forth that a “Napoleon Complex” was his driving force.

As a subject matter for cinema, Napoleon first gained prominence in Abel Gance’s 1927 silent film epic “Napoleon,” running more than five hours and covering his early life and military career. Intended to be the first of six films, the director couldn’t raise the funds to make the other five.

For a comedic approach, time travel in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” featured a scene of Napoleon going bowling in the 20th Century as the film’s titular characters played by Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter were meeting important historical figures so they could pass their history class.

Ridley Scott, who has directed his share of historical dramas, knows that the prominent military commander and political leader remains a fascinating historical figure that Abel Gance once thought was deserving of extravagant scrutiny.

Scott’s “Napoleon” runs slightly more than two-and-a-half hours and delivers a condensed biographical effort that is epic in sweep only insofar as the battle sequences are executed with well-deserved grandeur.

As a figure from the French Revolutionary period, Napoleon is first seen at the beheading of Marie Antoinette, a brief preface that is quickly followed by his impressive battlefield victory at the Siege of Toulon, which is rendered as one of the film’s stunning highlights.

Victory at Toulon brings a heroic sheen to the General deemed to be a strategic genius, and this garners the attention of Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) whose meeting with Napoleon leads to a romantic passion that is the stuff of legend.

You might say that the marriage of Napoleon and Josephine is the emotional core of Ridley Scott’s film. From the battlefield, the General wrote passionate letters, but when they were together the passion seemed more muted except for the occasional food fight at the dinner table or hurried copulation.

Yet, during battle in Egypt, word came to Napoleon that gossip back home was about Josephine’s philandering, and the General quickly departed the battlefield, or so it is told in the film, to confront his unfaithful spouse.

The marital passion dims over time as Napoleon’s mother and others in his court grow concerned that Josephine has not produced an heir. Divorce follows and Napoleon remarries so that his new wife will deliver a baby boy, and yet he still carries a torch for Josephine.

More interesting than domestic life is what awaits on the battlefield, particularly the strategic genius behind the decisive Battle of Austerlitz where cannon fire plunges enemy troops to their deaths in the frigid waters of a frozen lake.

Historical figures with whom Napoleon interacts include the smug Russian Tsar Alexander (Edouard Philipponnat) and the Duke of Wellington (Rupert Everett), the latter turning out to be most pivotal though his presence here is limited.

Fortunately, more fabled battles are brilliantly realized, though not in Napoleon’s favor. The failed 1812 invasion of Russia ends up with the emperor in brief exile to Elba, returning to fight again in the ill-fated Battle of Waterloo, which results in his final days in exile in Saint Helena.

Few places in America have as much history, outside of several major East Coast cities, as New Orleans with its founding by the French in 1718 through a period of Spanish control, then briefly back to French rule before the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

To this day, the French influence remains pervasive in the Crescent City, the nickname for New Orleans for its curved shape along the Mississippi River, because Napoleon made the deal to sell the Louisiana Territory to the United States.

A visit to New Orleans should include a stop at the legendary Napoleon House in the French Quarter. Now a place for drinking and dining, the building was a residence in the early 19th century that was offered as a refuge for Napoleon after his exile that he never got to enjoy.

Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” is not the last we shall hear about the Emperor since Steven Spielberg is apparently working to bring Stanley Kubrick’s lost biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte to a limited series on HBO. This endeavor could be worth the wait.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

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