Well, I finally saw it. This is going to be a sort of scatter-shot review. I feel weird saying “spoilers included” because Napoleon’s life is an open book, is it not? Well, stay tuned because that’s part of the problem.
Ridley Scott is being publicly defensive about his film epic Napoleon for what I think are good reasons: he’s embarrassed. Just picking a random report about the movie is illustrative of many things: [insider]
Historians seem to be absolutely livid with Ridley Scott’s Napoleon movie.
Wow, that’s a load of waffle. Historians are absolutely livid. Because if you watch the movie as history, it sucks. If you watch it as art, it also sucks. If you watch it as drama, it maybe sucks. Ridley Scott notably directed one of my favorite movies The Duellists (recommended!) which was also set in the Napoleonic wars – but is fairly period-and-attitude accurate including having better costumes and containing credible details. It also features Harvey Keitel as an over-the-top, highly strung, hussar – which he plays perfectly. Napoleon is not like that. But I have to assume that Scott has the basic knowledge and access to historical sources that would have made it only a choice that he made so many horrible faux pas in Napoleon.
Back to the Insider article:
“It ain’t a documentary, we know that much! But it’s going to be a brilliant piece of art,” Dan Snow, a historian and television presenter, said in a 5-minute TikTok post.
Uh, yeah, no. It’s not a brilliant piece of art, either. It has serious flaws that should not have made it to the screen.
Scott, in response, has been unapologetic. Asked by The New Yorker about Snow’s TikTok post, Scott said: “Get a life.”
Historians have said that many scenes in the movie never happened.
This is horrible on so many levels. First off, it tells me that the “reporter” at Insider does not feel comfortable categorically saying “many scenes in the movie never happened,” which anyone with a soupçon of knowledge about the Napoleonic wars would have been able to make a simple declaration. Many if the scenes in the movie never happened, many of the things that did happen are not in the movie, and many things did not happen in history the way they happened in the movie. For example, the entire Battle of Waterloo. And the Battle of Austerlitz. And Borodino. And Toulon. That sounds pretty bad, except it’s worse because those are the battles that happen in the movie. I.e.: every single fucking one of them is not just a little bit wrong: they are horribly wrong.
Why is this important? Should I “get a life”? Here’s the problem: Napoleon Bonaparte was a military genius of a high order (I can defend that point) in spite of his many mistakes – and a biopic about his rise to power cannot bypass that fact. Once the biopic engages with Napoleon’s military genius, it has to explore at least a bit what was genius about the many battles he fought and won. Which means that the biopic must somehow represent a little bit of that on the screen, which – unfortunately – brings in the problem of how do you represent subtle genius on the screen? Napoleonic warfare was damned complicated stuff (he says, having played many games of Bowden’s Empire with miniatures on my high school friends’ ping-pong tables.)[wik] For example, anyone with knowledge about Waterloo would tell you that the distracting action around La Haye Sainte pulled the French forces into a position where they doubled down and the center of the field became a sort of mosh-pit into which various forces were committed for various reasons. The logic of the battle of Waterloo was that the French committed this, and the British reacted with that. Then the French did this and the British did that. etc. Napoleon lost the battle because the call and response of the battle led him to allow his subordinates to make some horrible mistakes that the British simply avoided making. So, Wellington won. In the real battle, Drouet D’Erlon’s corps deployed in columns and were slammed by the Scots Greys heavy cavalry (because columns of marching infantry are what cavalry love more than buttered pasta) and the Scots Greys in turn were flanked by French light cavalry and lancers and cut up quite badly, etc. I remember hours of happy fun trying to balance the “can my hussars mash those guys and recall before they can bring up cannon?” – questions that are simply left out of Scott’s ham-fisted rendering of Waterloo. Are you ready for it? Here comes the “reveal.”
In Scott’s rendition of Waterloo, we see briefly a burning building that may be La Haye Sainte, off on the side of the field, but the battle takes place mostly between two big lines of troops that charge each other like a movie rendition of Granicus River in 334BC, or the Greeks at Plataea – times when maneuver warfare and combined arms had not been invented yet. We can excuse the Greeks and Persians for mostly charging at each other and duking it out, but that is not how Napoleonic battles were fought. Not the ones where he won, anyway. But in Scott’s Waterloo, it’s like a parody of Napoleonic warfare, “up and at ’em over the top!” and Napoleon himself participates in one of the charges, pointlessly riding out, sabreing a British soldier, and then punking out and withdrawing from the field, leaving the remains of his army to fight and die (not shown) – it jumps from the critical moment of the battle when Napoleon loses it all, to – now he’s on the Bellerophon snarking wittily with Wellington and negotiating his exile. What the fuck?! Wellington and Napoleon never met in person. But wait, it gets worse: Scott adds a mysterious rifleman (OK, there were riflement) with a telescopic gunsight on his rifle, uhhhh, what!? (There were no rifle scopes on the field at Waterloo) who offers to Wellington to shoot Napoleon and Wellington tells him “no.” As if a rifleman would dare open his mouth uninvited and say anything to Wellington, but more importantly, riflemen did not stand anywhere near Wellington in a battle. In Cavalie Mercer’s account of Waterloo (going by memory here) there was a moment when some gun commander (Mercer was commanding cannon and wound up down in the squares when the French cavalry charged) thought he had a shot at Napoleon in person, but didn’t take it. Perhaps Ridley Scott absorbed that bit of detail and thought it would be “entertaining” to today’s brainless hordes who grew up watching superhero action movies. I suppose we should be grateful that Scott didn’t have Hawkeye from the MCU show up to take a shot, then get pasted by a 6lb-er ball. But it gets worse: after Napoleon gallops in the wrong charge at the end of the battle, he is riding off and the rifleman takes the shot anyway and blows a hole in one of the wings of Bonaparte’s bicorne hat. What. The. Fuck. OK, look, Napoleon was hardly a coward but because he was the most important person on the French side on the field, he stayed well back from the forward edge of the battle because if he got hurt, it was all over. Wellington, likewise. Though, even then, a cannon ball could hit a commander – as happened to Marshall Lannes at Essling, and to the Earl of Uxbridge, who was on his horse right next to Wellington when a fragment from a cannon hit and mangled his leg, Uxbridge exclaimed, “by God I’ve lost my leg!” Wellington replied, “By God so you have!” Scott could have put that little vignette in his movie but he was perhaps interested in showing French failure more than British.
It is impossible to have a battle like Waterloo or Austerlitz without a bunch of dramatic moments, so it was unnecessary for Scott to add his own, especially given how ahistorical they were.
I feel like I could go on for pages and pages about how the battles were all done wrong. I don’t mean “a bit wrong.” I mean “all wrong.” The battles in Napoleon are childish pastiches of what actually happened – which is problematic when we’re talking about Napoleon. In history, Napoleon’s battle of Austerlitz was perhaps his greatest turn on the field. The Russian/Austrian main force was well-established on a more or less unassailable position, and Napoleon positioned his main force away from it, more or less out of sight, then allowed an engagement to start on the Russian/Austrian flank. As Napoleon had hoped, the established force on the heights began to re-deploy to participate in the feint battle, and the French main force slammed into their flank at the critical moment when the Russian/Austrians were out of formation. Typically of Napoleonic warfare the attack was parceled out nicely, with cavalry hitting infantry and pulverizing them, then line infantry arriving to clean up the mess. The allied forces broke and ran and some of them rather stupidly tried to retreat across a frozen lake. A couple round-shot into the lake ruined their day, but the battle was already lost and that was mostly a footnote. In Scott’s version, Napoleon leaves a token force as a lure, lures the allies onto the frozen lake, and the main battle is when the French uncover their hidden cannons and blow up the lake. This reduces one of the greatest battles of maneuver warfare into a battle that hung upon a cheesy trick. It’d be like doing a biopic about Muhammad Ali and introducing a secret kung fu punch taught to him by Bruce Lee that was the real reason he was champion – he wasn’t the greatest, he just had a cool trick up his sleeve. It’s that bad.
I forgive Scott for leaving out one little event in the Napoleonic wars, that had a certain effect, namely The Battle of Trafalgar, which put paid to any chance the French had of landing troops in England. Obviously, that was of crucial strategic importance, but the idea of rendering 60-odd ships of the line and assorted other stuff, in a battle, is daunting. It would have to be CG and it would cost about a bazillion dollars. So, in Scott’s Napoleon it just didn’t happen. Of course the march on Moscow happened in the movie, though it was weirdly over-simplified, and the Battle of Borodino is just a kind of brief vignette of cavalry and infantry running around. They probably used left-over clips from the other battle scenes. Borodino, of course, was immensely important because it was probably the nadir of Napoleon’s field battles, and he promoted it as a victory (“the battle of Moscow”) but when you fight a pyrrhic battle at the long end of a logistical train, it’s a loss and it set the scene for the horrible winter retreat from Moscow. More importantly, the French were getting really sick of Napoleon’s wars and the retreat from Moscow was a 16-ton weight, not a nail, dropped on the coffin of the 1st Empire. In Scott’s movie we are treated to the fleeing Napoleon dictating a letter to Josephine, uh, something something I don’t remember. That brings me to the other parts about the movie that sucked: Napoleon’s relationship with Josephine, and the cinematography.
We don’t really know what Napoleon was like as a person, though there are accounts. We do have his letters and there are some amusing bits like, “don’t bathe, daddy’s coming home!” in there, but Scott portrays Napoleon as a kind of worshipful goober who loves/hates Josephine. Uh, OK, but it doesn’t play for the drama of a great love affair that moved Europe, it’s more like “wow, this guy is sad and stupid.” There are other bits of modern drama lifted in to the relationship that don’t make sense while weakening the story, like Josephine’s first sit-down meeting with Napoleon, she hikes up her skirt and shows him her vagina, and declares that once he’s had that he’ll never forget it. I was genuinely embarrassed for Scott, who appears to have felt that was something a minor French noblewoman would do on meeting a suitor, or something. There is also a vignette involving a sword and a child recovering the sword of his father – and Napoleon just gives the kid a random sword, “here is your father’s sword.” If I had been directing the movie I would have had the kid look at the sword and say, “but General my father was a cuirassier and this is a hussar’s sword.” Everyone in Scott’s movie is stupid, basically. And there are little moments that reinforce that. In Egypt, Napoleon goes to examine a mummy (oddly, unwrapped) and nearly knocks it over. At the Battle of the Pyramids Napoleon wins by shooting at the top of the pyramid with cannon, which routs the enemy because the commander’s horse shies and he falls on his ass. I’m not making this up. It’s like Scott is trying to humanize Napoleon by making him out to be a stumbler, but there was plenty of material for that in historical Bonaparte. In fact, Scott introduces Josephine having a lover (a splendidly turned-out hussar in green velvet kit, WTF) who is named, brought in as a character, and who then vanishes without any interest or closure. Maybe Scott did that because they had a lot of green fabric in the costume pool, or something. It literally makes no sense. It’s noisy and eventful, but there’s very little to care about because none of it is connected to what is happening that matters. That’s how I felt: here you had one of the more consequential people in Europe at the time, and Scott turns him into an episode of The Kardashians that is less interesting than The Kardashians. Oh, but we can admire Vanessa Kirby’s magnificent nose and breasts and she actually can act. In fact, she’s a pleasant distraction but hardly a replacement for the movie having an interesting story arc.
I see that Scott appeared to be trying to explore the relationship between Josephine and Napoleon, and make it interesting, but – … why was he trying to make the life of Napoleon into a romantic event? Sure, there was interesting romance there, but the thing about Napoleon that made him so fascinating was all of the other people who he surrounded himself with. Talleyrand appears a few times. At one point the camera pans around the group of Napoleon’s marshalls while he is surrendering, and I recognized one who had to be Davout, but the others are all ciphers. Napoleon’s marshalls, collectively, were damn near as interesting as he was and he’d have been nothing without them. But instead, Emperor Alexander, played as a swishy dilettante (OK probably accurate enough) gets more camera time than, for example, Berthier, who was his Chief of Staff, and an interesting and very powerful person in his own right. I’m probably guilty, here, of taking the military view of Napoleon, which is to look at him from himself and his staff on down to the commanders of his units and his troops – which I admit tends to turn Josephine, Talleyrand, and a host of other interesting characters into footnotes.
This is where I again forgive Scott: it is impossible to reduce the scope and interestingness of Napoleon Bonaparte into a film about his relationship with his wife, or a film about a guy who won it all and lost it all and then took it back and lost it again. Just that last phrase in the preceeding sentence took me 15 minutes to assemble: how much can we distill Napoleon into a 2 2/3 hour movie? It’s impossible. I wouldn’t try it. Scott probably shouldn’t have tried it. Most of us would look at the battles (including Trafalgar, please!) and recoil in horror at the task, but they really represent only a few days when the general extreme interestingness of Napoleon’s trajectory congealed to be incredibly interesting. I know it can be done – Shakespeare managed to distill Julius Caesar into a comparatively short play. Unfortunately, Scott is no Shakespeare. He took on a task that most humans would shy away from, and he failed for good reason.
Now, let’s talk about the art.
There are moments that took my breath away. Specifically, the coronation scene. Scott plays fun with us by having Jacques-Louis David in the crowd with a sketchpad, recording the event to make the painting that he eventually did. Clever. Scott re-creates the scene with incredible depth and detail and lighting. It’s so crisp I thought my retinas were going to fry. In fact, I was staring so hard that I think my eyeballs dried out a bit. It was when I was watching that, that I started thinking about the camera work. That was when I noticed that the whole movie is sharp but dark and desaturated. Nowadays, of course, that’s all digital correction applied atop digital captures, there’s no need to involve film, which means that the dynamic range in the scenes is established exactly where the director wants it to be. Scott’s version of the coronation scene is blue/gray, dark, hyper contrasty, hyper detailed. Obviously Jacques-Louis David was working with different constraints, but as I kept watching, I realized that a lot of the scenes are blue/gray and dark – so, I started looking for white points. That’s an old film photographers’ thing – is the scene recording a full tonal range from base white to deep black? Are there details in the blacks? Are there details in the highlights? Then, you’re using the whole tonal range of the film. You probably know what I’m going to say next. Stanley Kubrick. With those dark color shifts and details, Scott is trying to out-Kubrick Kubrick.
As a former film photographer, I have to say I’d love to see the negatives of Doctor Strangelove because Kubrick literally shot miles and miles of absolutely bang-on perfect negatives. (So did Kurosawa, but I want to not digress) So Napoleon has this agonizing color shift and tonal range that made my eyes start to hurt after a while. It’s really beautiful. But it looks a lot like Barry Lyndon. That is far from a bad thing. Except Barry Lyndon could be a perfect counter-weight to Napoleon: it wallows in the interestingness of the main character, his flaws, his one virtue, his time, and how he operated within it. If you like this kind of cinematgraphy:
… and I do, you can smile through Napoleon and just ignore all the other stupidities that Scott commits. I’m not saying that Napoleon is as good as Barry Lyndon, not by a 6-pounder shot, but it’s visually lush and I’m going to say that Scott must have been thinking of Kubrick a lot while making his movie. In fact, if you haven’t seen Barry Lyndon go watch that, and forgo Napoleon.
There are other problems that I can’t really figure out my feelings: since today’s movie theaters are going the way of the dodo bird, and film is mostly dead and gone, a director can no longer predict what their film will look like on any given screen. I’m sure that was the case in film days, too – the projectionist had to calibrate the movie to the projector and theater fairly carefully especially if you’re talking about something like Doctor Strangelove or, well, anything Kurosawa and Kubrick did. Napoleon is going to have the same problem: will it look OK on Apple TV, which is where it will end up? Watching the compressed tones and color shift of Napoleon made me wonder if it was designed to be watched on flat panels with god-knows-what effects processing going on, on a screen that is back-lit. I don’t know how a director is supposed to deal with that problem, especially because a flat panel is basically a direct positive rendering, so the white-point is less critical than the shadow detail. See how engaged I was in the emotional byplay of Napoleon and Josephine’s relationship? I was trying to figure out cinematography problems that are best left to Ross Lowell. [worldcat] and then I began to have a sneaking suspicion: Scott reportedly did his battle scenes much less expensively than expected by using between 6 and 11 cameras running simultaneously, then cutting the scenes apart and together. So you get different views and consistent lighting and rhythm. I compare that, again, to Kubrick and Kurosawa, who visualized exactly what they wanted, lit it, put the camera in exactly the right place, and shot the scene. 100 times if they had to. But if you watch Napoleon remember this, when you begin to get bored by the endless underwater views of cannon balls crashing through ice at the Battle of Austerlitz. “Yeah, whatever” I wanted to yell it halfway through the scene. Again, we must compare that with Stanley Kubrick, who built the walk-around cylinder for 2001, and used it for, basically, a few seconds, after spending hours and millions on it. Again, we must compare that with the candle-lit dinner scene in Barry Lyndon in which Kubrick shot by candle-light after waiting and watching till the candles burned down the right amount, then yelled “Action!” and shot one take. [The story of Kubrick’s camera for that shot is fascinating in its own right]
Back to the art.
This is painful. I told my friends, “I will probably hate the movie, but at least I can go drool over the costumes.” I love Napoleonic fashion (in fact I have several complete period-accurate reproductions of Hussars’ outfits… because) but Scott shot in HD (probably using a RED camera or something like that) and consequently the shots have absurd detail. So, you can see that the findings on the uniform are cheap shit, not even as good as the costumes from Ridley Scott’s earlier effort The Duellists. You can see the hand stitches. You can see how the shoulder of his dohlman has broken in nicely. His shoulders are square and, basically, his costume completely sells the period hussar look. Most importantly, his outfit fits. In Napoleon the costumes all look bulky and lumpy. To be fair, Napoleon Bonaparte, himself, was kind of bulky and lumpy, but his marshals absolutely were not. His subcommanders, like Marbot, were peacocks around the throne. But in Napoleon everyone’s costume looks badly made, and the findings appear to have been ironed on or something like that. I had the pleasure of viewing the Age of Napoleon exhibit at the Metropolitan Art Museum’s Costume Museum [met] and let me tell you, their bling was the bling’est. They had one of the marshals’ frock coats, with all the gold braid, and I was able to examine it and you can see how you make napoleonic gold braid for a marshal: you take gold, run it through a wire mill, chop it, hammer it to disks, pierce the disks, then sew the disks down to the wool in little patterns. Simple, dimple. The marshal’s uniform total weight: 6lb, mostly gold. Fuck it, if you gotta go, go big.
It was OK for Phoenix to look frumpy, but I started to resent how frumpy everyone looked, given it was a time when frumpiness had been banished. I’ve worn Napoleonic collars and I agree that they tend to bury your neck and make your shoulders look conical, but that was a look that worked mostly on ageing men, or portly men. In Napoleon Louis XVIII pops in for a moment, chowing down at a buffet, and his neck-cloth is clearly arranged to rein in some major dewlaps – the costume designer sure got that part right. But it was a mixed bag and I was disappointed. I suspect the budget only went so far and it was spent on battle scenes and the coronation scene, or something like that.
I could go on, but why? If you’re the kind of person who can enjoy a deeply flawed movie, because you enjoy flaws or don’t see them, then by all means, enjoy it. If you’re looking for history, art, drama, the character arc of Napoleon’s life? Get a life.