The Tall Short Man
Not long ago, legendary filmmaker Ridley Scott told historians to shut the f–k up. It’s been my experience that one does not tell others to shut the f–k up in a vacuum, not usually. In this case, there was a pretty compelling reason. While promoting his new film Napoleon, Scott was asked in an interview* to respond to criticisms of historical inaccuracy in his work. Scott responded, “When I have issues with historians, I ask: ‘Excuse me, mate, were you there? No? Well, shut the f— up then.'”
Does Scott have a point? I think he does, but we need to be clear about that point. Did Ridley Scott make a movie where Napoleon invaded Egypt while riding wooly mammoths? He did not. Did he depict Napoleon as a serial killer, or as a secret baker of eclairs, or as the actual creator of the works of Shakespeare? Not so much! Quite a lot of the criticism leveled toward Napoleon has to do with things that don’t have much to do with an effective narrative, clear themes, or characterization that is somewhat reflective of the historical record.
“Ah hah!” I can hear an imaginary reader sneering, “You just said historical record, so you do admit historical accuracy is important!” I care about accuracy a) inasmuch as it serves the story and b) as long as the film is accurate enough.** That’s where our suspension of disbelief comes into play. At the end of the day, all I care about is a good movie, and Napoleon is a good movie.
We’re introduced to Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) as a young officer in the French army. He sees Marie Antoinette get the most famous (and last) haircut of her life. He sees the passions of the people stoked to the point of revolution, and sees how the revolutionary fervor comes to claim its own, as so often happens.
Napoleon, the Little Corporal, rises swiftly through the ranks of the military due to tactical skill and ruthlessness. He repels British forces at the Siege of Toulon and fires cannons at his own countrymen during an attempted insurrection by royalists. At the end of the film, we’re reminded by brutal mathematics that Napoleon was very, very good at killing people.
What he wasn’t so great at was interpersonal relationships, as evidenced by his alleged “romance” with the aristocrat Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). Their years-long connection is less about love and mutual respect, more about obsession, jealousy, and some seriously weird power dynamics.
Napoleon and Josephine marry, fail to have children in some hilariously passion-free sex scenes, and divorce. While that’s going on, Napoleon invades Egypt, becomes Emperor, spanks both the Russians and the Austrians at the Battle of Austerlitz, tries to invade Russia, gets exiled, returns to power, and gets his ass thoroughly handed to him by the Brits at Waterloo.
Based on what you just read, you might think that Napoleon is little more than a $200 million Wikipedia entry. At two hours and thirty-eight minutes, there are moments of exactly that, and you can feel Ridley Scott sprinting to cover the major milestones of a very major life.*** It’s not all rote checking of boxes, and Scott takes his time to create a textured, detailed, lived-in world. All the production design details, from props to costumes to set design feel immaculate. In particular is the sequence of Napoleon’s coronation, inspired by the famous painting “Le Sacre de Napoleon” by Jean Louis David. Scott was more inspired by art of the time rather than books, since art is more cinematic and more immediate. Speaking of immediacy, Scott’s battle sequences plunk us right in the middle of the carnage. We see the raw power of cannonballs, men and horses plunging into a frozen lake, Moscow aflame and much more. Scott has always been adept at depicting both the chaos and tactics of warfare. By the end of this film, I had a better understanding of Napoleon’s tactical genius.
Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa are not stupid people by any stretch. I say that to mention two things. The first is that they’re cognizant of how revolutions and their responses shaped the personalities and worldviews of these characters. They’re constantly jockeying for power, always cognizant that the state can turn against them in seconds, and very rarely does Napoleon have a “It’s good to be the king” kind of moment. The second is that the script is frequently very funny in juxtaposing Napoleon’s tactical brilliance with his horrible people skills. In one scene, he yells at the English, “You think you’re so great because you have boats!” It’s a moment of positively Trumpian pettiness that had me cackling in the theater, and there’s a good amount of that humor.
That pettiness is one of the things I liked so much about Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. I can imagine a movie about Bonaparte made in the 40s or 50s, where he’s a Great Man standing atop history like a colossus. The guy Phoenix is playing is both a brilliant military strategist and a pathetic dweeb. His “great love” of Josephine is tangled up in insecurity cloaked in bluster, infidelity, and emotional repression. Napoleon isn’t shown to be physically short, but in terms of emotional stature, he’s definitely lacking. The great love as portrayed here is definitely one-sided, and as Josephine, Vanessa Kirby makes some interesting and complicated choices. She never pines for her Little Corporal while he’s off ransacking Europe, nor does she solely treat him as a joke. Kirby shows moments of affection mixed in with moments of clear-eyed practicality. When Josephine met Napoleon, she was a widower with a couple of kids and a scarcity of good options. She made the best of a frequently volatile situation, and Kirby does excellent work in showing us those sides of her.
Ridley Scott has made a handsome and entertaining film with no small degree of skill. I walked away from this film having felt satisfied. As far as the accuracy is concerned, as I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m just some clown that likes movies too much. I lack the historical knowledge of the Napoleonic Era to tell you what percentage of Napoleon squares up with reality. A certain kind of historian will feel differently, and to paraphrase a great filmmaker, those historians can shut the f–k up.
*Which you can read more here.
**Should biopics and movies based on historical events strive for as much accuracy as possible? Kind of, but that’s the wrong thing to primarily focus on. Tell a compelling story. If accuracy is important, then focus on a documentary or a non-fiction book.
***Quite a lot of Ridley Scott’s films have other, better director’s cuts released later. I’ve heard that a three-and-a-half hour director’s cut of Napoleon will drop on Apple TV later in 2023.