Making a historical film is perhaps harder than watching a historical film with a historian. Because believing that the person in front of you is not an actor but a historical document can ruin your viewing pleasure.
Ridley Scott, who should retire by now, challenges historians, especially French historians, in such a way with his Napoleon that every Frenchman seems to be fuming with smoke.
First and foremost, the biggest criticism is about the language of the film. French historians and the French themselves can’t understand why the mighty Napoleon Bonaparte speaks English with an American accent. Moreover, from the very first scene, the film presents historical discrepancies that can lead to debates as if there is a historical document rather than a work of art.
The film opens with a scene of Marie Antoinette’s beheading, not even a magnificent one, but Ridley Scott manages to turn it into a historical document. Just when you’re about to say, “These things happen, it’s fiction,” you are faced with the defense of how a 20-year-old Napoleon, who should look like, could have escaped so easily. As if that’s not enough, his direct targeting of the pyramids during the Egyptian campaign is cutting the rope.
Failure in comedy films can be painful. Instead of laughing at a failed comedy, you might start feeling sorry for the director, screenwriter, and actors. Failure in historical films leads to humor. After a while, you stop looking critically and start laughing. That’s why the humor in Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is not natural and intentional humor, but rather a result of inexperience and crudeness.
Apologies for diving headfirst into the film. Let’s return to our classic film analysis mode.
The story of the film, focusing on the historical character, tells a story known to almost everyone, regardless of being French, of the rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and his relationship with Empress Joséphine, played by Vanessa Kirby. Director Scott, especially through detailed battle scenes and showing different aspects of Napoleon’s character, narrates his turbulent marriage with Joséphine.
The film covers Napoleon’s rise from a young army officer during the French Revolution, witnessing the execution of Marie Antoinette, to becoming the Emperor of the French. The director emphasizes Napoleon’s turbulent marriage with Joséphine and explores his complex personal life through detailed battle scenes.
The film also includes the inability of Napoleon and Joséphine to have children, which plays a significant role in their later lives. The film covers Napoleon’s military campaigns, including his victories in Egypt and the Austerlitz Battle against Austrian and Russian forces. However, the film does not shy away from depicting his ruthless tactics, including the disastrous campaign to Russia and the Battle of Waterloo, leading to his exile on Saint Helena.
Napoleon (i.e., our film) has impressive war scenes (kudos to the action scene director) and performances by the lead actors, especially Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Napoleon. But, historical inaccuracies and the film’s length make it hard to be tolerant. Apple even announced that the 2-hour 38-minute version shown in theaters is the “short version,” and a 4-hour director’s cut will be available on the platform. French critics particularly harshly received the film, calling it “lazy, aimless, and boring” and even claiming an anti-French and pro-British bias.
Let’s get back to the film within the context of the story.
Ridley Scott’s 2023 production Napoleon is an epic historical drama focusing on the rise to power of French leader Napoleon Bonaparte, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, and his relationship with Empress Joséphine, played by Vanessa Kirby. The film follows Napoleon from a young army officer witnessing Marie Antoinette’s execution during the French Revolution to his ascent as the Emperor of the French. Director Scott, the 85-year-old director of Gladiator, narrates Napoleon’s complex marriage with Joséphine and his intellectual endeavors, showcasing various aspects of his character through detailed battle scenes.
The film, despite impressive battle scenes and the performances of the lead actors, especially Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon, leaves a somewhat underwhelming feeling. The film’s portrayal of historical characters and events, mixed with humor and drama, leaves a bitter and acerbic taste.
Now, let’s delve deeper.
As a historian friend expressed, a separate film could be made to document the mistakes in this film. In Ridley Scott’s newly biographical film Napoleon, Joaquin Phoenix portrays a two-dimensional character who nonsensically asks, “How can you disregard me and my emotions so much?” This strange scene, where Napoleon forces his first wife and greatest love, Joséphine, to say, “Tell me I’m the greatest person in the world,” and gets “sorry” as an answer, is indeed weird. Even if we assume there is no record of such an event in history, and the screenwriter, David Scarpa, wrote such a bizarre scene, what is the point of such a long shot?
Yes, it is a common issue today in Hollywood to have poor screenplay writing, but Scott’s epic attempt is also based on a bad history and rarely deviates from this path.
And as the film progresses, you say to yourself, “I wish there was only this scene that wrinkled our faces,” but what we have seen is nothing.
Phoenix’s portrayal of Napoleon is more credible compared to the exaggerated performances brought by other actors such as Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Armand Assante, and Ian Holm. However, 24-year-old Napoleon at the Siege of Toulon and the worn-out Napoleon ending his days in St. Helena at the age of 51 are indistinguishable. Of course, Phoenix at 49 is much closer to the latter.
It was inevitable that Ridley Scott, as a British director depicting a French subject, would spark controversy, especially after comparing Napoleon to Hitler and Stalin in an interview. Perhaps this is why French critics considered historical inaccuracies either as a lack of understanding or as intentional disrespect. If France’s film industry could produce a biographical film challenging Scott, their arguments would carry more weight.
To sum it up, Ridley Scott’s film, in its cinema version, has found its place in the history of cinema as a film where Joaquin Phoenix plays the French emperor, and Vanessa Kirby almost disappears as Josephine.
As mentioned, the 4-hour director’s version, after the 158-minute cinema cut, will be broadcast on Apple TV+. Historians now have their eyes on this 4-hour version, and if things go worse, pity the old director!
As we finish this article, let’s remember that the master director Stanley Kubrick had a script about Napoleon, even prepared sets, but his life didn’t allow him to shoot it. In the next article, let’s continue to examine Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, especially with a comparative reading with historical facts.