Photo of Jeff and Willard holding up Napoleon Books

"Napoleon" (2023) Review

The Historians and the Emperor

Professors Jeff Zalar and Willard Sunderland met at the local cineplex over winter break to watch Ridley Scott’s newly released historical epic “Napoleon” (2023). The good news is…they lived to tell the tale. The bad news: It was a close call! And that was even with a couple of glasses of good French wine and some brie during the show.

Once they recovered from the cinematic experience, the two sat down for a post-mortem about the movie. Zalar, a specialist in modern German history, teaches a course on Napoleonic Europe. Sunderland specializes in Russian history and teaches courses on Napoleon and Russia. They’re also admitted Napoleon nerds, who have spent decades reading about “the little corporal” who became, for a time, ruler of almost all of Europe.

Should you skip their courses and just watch the movie instead?

Please, no! Read on for more details….

Sunderland: Well, we finally did it. Though everyone who loves us told us not to, we saw the movie. The reviews are pretty terrible. To be honest, we expected the film to be terrible. What do you think? Did the film at least live up to expectations?

Zalar: The reviews have been so negative, I didn’t have high expectations, but even my low expectations turned out to be too much! What a disappointment. Dreadful script, flat acting, threadbare throughline: my grade is a D, and that’s inflated.

Sunderland: Of course, even terrible movies can have good moments. Is there anything the movie gets right?

Zalar: The pope in the coronation scene is Italian, so there’s that. And the general order of events depicted in the film accords with history. The costuming is true, as are the ghoulish images of the Paris mob. The Josephine of the film is in step with the Josephine of history: comely and a willing adulterer.

Sunderland: We know that feature films never show us what “really happened,” but Ridley Scott almost seems to go out of his way when it comes to not bothering with historical facts. What are some of the biggest howlers for you?

Zalar: I still lie awake at night trying to erase the images of Napoleon leading cavalry charges at Borodino and Waterloo. Never happened. And in those stupid scenes, I swear Joaquin Phoenix reminded me of Michael Dukakis riding in that tank during the ’88 campaign: a bonehead appeal to military bravado that just didn’t come off.

Sunderland: Personally, as soon as Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) made her appearance, I thought to myself: This movie should be called “Napoleon and Josephine.” How do you think the movie deals with their relationship?

Zalar: The film does a good job in showing the pain Napoleon suffered when he learned, in Egypt, that Josephine was cuckolding him (repeatedly). His relationship with her was never the same after that. He became only more dismissive, demanding, and rough. The film’s sex scenes between the two, which Scott offers coarsely as comedic relief, pretty much sum up the man as a lover (cringe).

Sunderland: So, who was the “real” Josephine? In Ridley Scott’s interpretation, her influence on Napoleon is personal rather than political. In fact, her only political role in the movie is as a failed queen. Napoleon needs an heir, and she can’t give him one. Is that the whole story?

Zalar: No, that’s not the whole story. She was a woman of intrigue. For example, to solidify her position, she wanted the civil marriage into which she had entered with Napoleon to be solemnized by the church. That way, divorcing her would be more difficult. And so shortly before the coronation in 1804, she went behind Napoleon’s back to ask the pope for the sacrament. The pope refused to anoint Napoleon as emperor unless he agreed to a sacramental marriage in church. Napoleon had no choice but to go through with it the day before the coronation. She had utterly outmaneuvered him as well as his family, who despised her.

Sunderland: Let’s return to the battle scenes, such as they are. The film’s marketing offers the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 as an audience hook. What did you think of Scott’s depiction of what many military historians consider Napoleon’s greatest victory?

Zalar: It was a missed opportunity. Napoleon’s tactical and strategic brilliance throughout the War of the Third Coalition (1805-1806) was everywhere to be seen: his withdrawal from Boulogne on the Channel coast, his leadership of the Grande Armée on a forced march into Central Europe without sacrificing combat élan, his envelopment of the Austrian army at Ulm and, of course, his seizure of the Pratzen Heights at Austerlitz to split the Allied line. We don’t see any of this in

the movie. Instead, Scott’s emphasis is on the sinking of Russian soldiers in the frozen ponds, which historians agree was an event massively overblown by Napoleon’s own propaganda. It’s like focusing on the one-yard run over the goal line when the real story is the daring drive down the length of the field.

Sunderland: Napoleon’s two greatest catastrophes were Egypt (1798-1801) and the Russian campaign (1812). Does the film get them right?

Zalar: I suppose there’s something in showing the geographic range of Napoleonic warfare. My guess is that not many people know that Napoleon invaded Egypt. But the film doesn’t give either of these campaigns the attention they deserve, especially as to what they say about Napoleon’s character. He was a callous commander who more than once dishonorably abandoned his troops after leading them to the edge of annihilation.

Sunderland: Among other omissions, the film doesn’t deal at all with the Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal (1807-1814), which was so costly in both lives and treasure that it effectively checked Napoleon and kept him from achieving his strategic ambitions. Can you still use film to teach history when it leaves out the important stuff?

Zalar: I think the film’s pedagogical utility is nil. The whole plot is cherry-picked. As Napoleon aficionados, the two of us can fill in the gaps, but most viewers will end up more confused than enlightened. For example, the film takes us from Napoleon’s abandonment of his army at Vilna in December 1812 to the first abdication in Paris in April 1814. In between these events was the War of the Sixth Coalition in German lands, the great bloodletting that destroyed the Napoleonic Empire in Central Europe and brought Allied soldiers hungry for vengeance to the French frontier. How the director expects his audience to connect the dots without addressing this war is anyone’s guess.

Sunderland: Now to my home turf: Recent scholarship emphasizes the Russian campaign as critical to Napoleon’s ultimate undoing. What are your thoughts about the film’s depiction of Tsar Alexander? The movie makes him seem kind of wimpy.

Zalar: Alexander has been written off as a wimp since Tilsit in 1807, when the crafty Napoleon is thought to have manipulated him into an unwise alliance. But Alexander was no pushover, and he had his own reasons for seeking a realignment at Tilsit. Plus, let’s face it: He proved his toughness in 1812-1815, when he lent backbone to (wimpy) Allied governments and basically forged them

into a final coalition to destroy the Napoleonic menace once and for all. Lots of people, including Americans like John Quincy Adams, who was the US ambassador to Russia at the time, hailed Alexander as the “liberator of Europe.”

Sunderland: John Quincy definitely saw Alexander as an impressive leader. You’re right about that. Then again, like so many other contemporaries, he saw Napoleon as even more remarkable. Not in a positive way, as far as John Quincy was concerned. But Napoleon seemed nonetheless extraordinary. Larger than life. I got this feeling from Ridley Scott, too. A kind of awestruck reverence for Napoleon and the power he held over his times. But can you capture this kind of almost mystical sensibility on film? And is it what we should be focusing on in any case? Aren’t there other good cinematic ways of coming at Napoleon’s story? Personally, I think the world is ready for a new consideration of the Napoleonic Age.

Zalar: I agree. Hollywood could definitely give us a better understanding of Napoleon than it’s given us so far. As I see it, there are four developments of titanic significance in European and world history between 1450 and 1918: the formation of European overseas empires, the Protestant Reformation, the Napoleonic Wars, and the First World War. People still know who Napoleon is, but, outside of France, I wouldn’t say that either he or his times are anchored as centrally as they should be in our general consciousness.

Recently, I overheard three high-school boys talking about wanting to see the movie. They saw the trailer and thought the battle scenes were “cool.” But historians applying the methods of War & Society Studies and the New Military History over the past thirty years give us a Napoleonic Age that was anything but cool. The popular suffering at the time was immense and unrelenting, not only for the peoples Napoleon conquered but for the French as well. Massive loss of life, violations of human rights and dignity, lethal reprisals, economic devastation, famine, brutal neglect of the sick and wounded, rape, the theft of artistic masterpieces on a scale that would make even Hermann Göring blush, and every other conceivable abuse.

Napoleon didn’t do all of this personally, of course, but he presided over the age, and his era introduced a whole series of destructive ideas and practices, including the practice of “total” war, which, ironically, we don’t see much of in the film. It’s a war movie, but war for Ridley Scott seems to be mostly battles, not the “total” war of social destruction and misery.

Sunderland: I agree. The movie is a poor guide to the full horrors of Napoleon’s time. But I’d add that it’s even worse at showing any of Napoleon’s more positive influences. For example, the Napoleonic Code, which profoundly reformed legal practices not just in France but across Europe and elsewhere, including Latin America. No one in the film even utters the word “code.” But back to your basic point that this movie leaves a lot to be desired as a historical treatment. Is that, in a sense, to be expected? Wouldn’t you say that this is true of all film? Should we expect a movie to get history “right”? Are there any historical films that do possess “pedagogical utility” in your view?

Zalar: As I see it, worthy historical films are composites of facts, art, and interpretation. Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” fails on all three counts. It disdains facts, has almost no artistic feel, and it’s very hard to understand if it offers an interpretation. What is Scott trying to tell us about Napoleon? To be honest, I still didn’t really see it by the time the film ended, and it’s over two and a half hours long! That’s why I was fuming when we left the theater.

Sticking just to war films, which is pretty much what this film seems to be about, films that hit closer to the mark are “The Pacific” (2010), which adheres tightly to the memoirs of American WWII veterans who fought against the Japanese, and “Schindler’s List” (1993), whose depiction of the genocidal process is borne out by careful scholarship. We should expect a good historical film to bring us closer to the truth of the past. “Napoleon” does not.

Sunderland: Last question: Are you brave enough to watch the extended “director’s cut” version of “Napoleon,” which is now available on Apple TV+? Only four hours long, and Ridley Scott says it’s “fantastic.” I guess I’d be up for it, though we’d need more wine…

Zalar: Oh no, even a barrel of wine won’t be enough! How about the new history of the oceans provided by “Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” instead?