Bonaparte movie fails to capture the true Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806 painted by Édouard Detaille.Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The opening line in Charles Dickens’ much-loved novel, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ is the often quoted one – ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’. Has it ever been any other way? The narrative of the book spanned the run-up to the French Revolution, an event that would become a turning point for humanity and governance. The cries of the revolution, ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, ushered in the dawn of modern society before it descended into the darkness of the bloody aftermath. Twenty thousand people were massacred and executed under the rule of one of the architects of the revolution, Robespierre. It had such a profound effect on a young Daniel O’ Connell, who was studying in Paris, that he vowed never to condone physical force, or try to use it as a means for change. His numerous monster marches in the 1840s around the country, attended by a quarter of the population, could have swept away any British resistance had the great man given the word. He wanted the ‘Act of Union’ repealed, politically, and not through force. This philosophy of non-violence, copied by Martin Luther King and Gandhi, were inspired by O’Connell and forged from the horrors of the French Revolution. A revolution that sought to break from the bonds of the dominant aristocratic ruling classes. It was the best of times it was the worst of times.

It heralded in the rise of Napoleon, who benefitted from the meritocratic pathways that French Revolution opened up, giving the young capable commander the opportunity to rise up the ranks that would otherwise have been closed due to his birth. Napoleon is back in the spotlight, after the dramatic but misleading historic movie ‘Bonaparte’, hit the big screen this year. It has prompted me to write about him this month, in fear of the Hollywood portrayal becoming ingrained as the truth. I have written before about my concern with historical movies because it can be hard to sift the Hollywood narrative from reality.

The director, Ridley Scott, has produced some of the great movies over the last thirty years. His science fiction films in particular have been groundbreaking, from his stellar ‘Alien’ to the ‘The Martian’ which was not only strong on story and drama, but on science too. Perhaps he should have paid more attention in history class! Yes, he produced the brilliant ‘Gladiator’ movie, but that was based on a fictitious gladiator, Maximus, placed loosely in a certain Roman era. Scott didn’t let us down with Bonaparte’s world either. He captures the period superbly, and there is some great cinematography and, no doubt, buckets of CGI, poured into resurrecting early 19th century Europe. Yet the movie lost an opportunity to really explore this most complex of characters. Instead, we are treated to a man, portrayed by an aging Joaquin Phoenix, as an imbecilic, pompous brat, who slouches and mopes throughout the movie, like he’s been told to sit on the naughty chair once too often. And then there’s the blatant historical errors. Poetic license, I hear you say? More like a license to kill!

Finding a dramatic hook is an essential tool of good storytelling, so Scott didn’t have to look too far, with all the upheaval the French Revolution brought with it. Yet he overcooked that too. How theatrical was it, when Ridley Scott placed Napoleon in the crowd that witnesses the beheading of Marie Antoinette? If only it were true. The fact was that he was actually commanding troops in Toulon against an occupying British force. There are more ludicrous insertions, such as his decision to abandon his army in Egypt to deal with a marital spat with Josephine or his encounter with the Duke of Wellington on a British ship (they never met). For a man who, to this day, has commanded more field battle victories than any other general before or since,  the partial reenactment of just three battles, in a long movie, was baffling. But what of the real man?

Napoleon certainly wasn’t the buffoon that Scott portrays him as. Like Winston Churchill, Tom Barry and Dan Breen, he was clever enough to understand that writing your own version of history was a way of preserving the truth – your truth. With nothing but time on his hands, when exiled on the inhospitable island of Saint Helen for six years, until his death, he wrote his memories. They would become bestsellers and ingrain the heroic portrait that has endured, particularly in France. Yet on balance, he presents the very best attributes of the French revolution. He is the embodiment of the rise of the ordinary man. No, he was not a Corsican peasant, but born into a petty noble Corsican family. Indeed, his father tried to resist the French invasion of Corsica, a year before Napoleon was born. Pre-revolution, those lowly credentials would have stifled any promise of an elevated career in the military at the highest level.  

He also represents the face of many who despised the power of the church and bishops, whose wealth and corruption were a blight upon France. When he took the crown from the Pope and coronated himself the French Emperor, he was telling the world, ‘It is I, not God, who put me here’. There is also a lot to be said of his stance against the great royalist powers of the times, Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia. Bonaparte also appeals to the underdog, taking on the great European powers and undermining the concept of divine monarchy, that kings and queens were God’s representatives on earth. He had an eye for a good general and was quick to promote men who proved their worth on the battlefield rather than by their birth. Jeanne Lannes was the son of a farmer, yet one of Napoleon’s bravest and most trusted campaigners who fought with him across the continent. It was in Italy, at the Battle of the Bridge of Arcole, that Lannes saved Napoleon’s life, despite being fatally wounded himself. He promoted Michel Ney to the head of the ‘Grande Armée’ and was rewarded time and time again, with brilliant leadership; declaring Ney, the ‘Bravest man in France’.  Napoleon certainly was a leader who inspired his soldiers, so much so that when he returned from his first exile, he was rejoined by former generals and soldiers who supported his comeback. In 1800, he consulted and gathered the best minds in France, whatever their political background, to formulate new laws and rules in France, which would be called firstly the ‘Civil Code’ and later re-dubbed the ‘Napoleonic Code’. Based on the ideals of the French Revolution, they replaced the feudal laws, including those on property, family, the judiciary, and provided the base for law in France for the next century. Even the restored Royal Bourbons, did not attempt to remove the code after Napoleon’s demise. There were 2,281 articles in total, though women’s family rights in marriage was one of its failures.

But there is the other side. An unyielding, autocratic, megalomaniac, narcissist. Only a decade after the revolution removed the monarchy from political life, Napoleon, with the aid of a few cunning politicians, started a coup d’état over the governing and democratic body that had ruled France, since the revolution. He goes one further by removing his co-conspirators and became an autocratic ruler, with all the powers of a king, matched by all its abuses. Like a throwback to King Henry of England, he gets an annulment from his wife Josephine, because she can’t produce an heir who can rule when he dies. He was by then, declared France’s de facto ruler for life. So much for equality? In 1802, he reinstates slavery, which had been abolished at the start of the French Revolution. So much for liberty? His growing megalomania and desire to increase his empire, meant he needed slaves to build his overseas kingdom in the Louisiana territory, a landmass that ran from the Gulf of Mexico to the borders of Canada. He sold it for a mere fifteen million dollars to the Americans when his war chest was running low for more important ventures in Europe. His battles were bloody and brutal. He has a deserved and respected reputation as an ingenious general. He mastered the art of artillery in battle which stood him well. Up to Waterloo, he had, for the most part, been strategically sound and mainly victorious. But he sacrificed 800,000 to a million French soldiers in his career as a general. So much for fraternity?  Add another three million deaths, including enemy soldiers and civilians, and you get a shocking picture of the times. 

You won’t get a fully-formed picture on the man from the movie, but oftentimes, these movies can be a motivational tool to find out and learn more about the topic. Many are still divided by this character. He brought change and destruction. ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’. 

Kieran Doyle

Kieran Doyle is a playwright, a historian & author, and the produce of the History Show on

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