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.

Trafalgar. This does not appear anywhere in the movie.

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.

The charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo. This did not happen in the movie.

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.

Jacques Louis David The Coronation of Napoleon

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.

Still from Doctor Strangelove

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:

Still from Barry Lyndon

… 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.

Still from The Duellists

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.


  1. xohjoh2n says

    What I don’t get is this. Trafalgar was a sea battle. But Waterloo was a land battle. It makes no sense! It’s right there in the name. It doesn’t make sense! Until you can explain that, it’s all just made up bullshit.

  2. says

    Trafalgar was a sea battle. But Waterloo was a land battle. It makes no sense!

    OK, I expected some scene where Napoleon learns about the disaster that was Trafalgar, and freaks out. He wasn’t a naval genius, but he was enough of a commander to know that with his fleet decisively crushed, an invasion of England was not going to happen. I don’t recall ever reading anywhere about Napoleon’s reaction when he got the news of the disaster, but it had to have been an interesting/explosive moment. Because, it meant that he would never command troops against England’s home defenses. Trafalgar was 1805. Napoleon’s massive army that he marched into Russia (and lost) in 1812 would have potentially been his to deploy after the French (I am making things up, now) landed a feint in Ireland, organized, and marched for London. If he had been able to mount a cross-channel attack European history would have changed so profoundly that it’s impossible to guess what would have happened. My high school wargaming group had a great enactment of the battle of Stonehenge, 1807, which the French won decisively… [I do not realistically know how the French or the nazis could have performed a credible reverse D-Day but that’s the realm of military hypotheticals]

    Anyhow, Trafalgar was so significant, it’s mind-boggling that Scott sort of skated past it ever happening. We didn’t need a vast CGI version of Trafalgar, but the dramatic opportunity for a “Napoleon learns of Trafalgar” scene is too great to miss. Shit, it’d be a great meme, like the “Hitler gets bad news about Berlin…” videos.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    I’d like to have seen Danny Devito/Martin Weir as Napoleon. My dim memory of “Get Shorty” suggests that, in-universe, Weir is feted for making a success of a biopic that many considered unfilmable. Scott appears to have proven that correct.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Scott, like Kubrick, has a patchy history. Brilliant or crap (IMO), with little in between. But enough brilliant to leave a legacy.

  5. says

    I also heard Napoleon took a tour of the place the Bible calls Armageddon, and said it was a great place for maneuvers. (Then again, I heard it from a born-again Christian back when the were (smugly) predicting the battle of Armageddon would happen around 1999, so maybe it’s BS.) If true, it might have been more interesting to see that than the staring-down-the-mummy scene.

    Anyway, thanks for all the corrective information. It seemed the movie missed a lot of important battles, and gave pretty short shrift to the whole Russia campaign; but I didn’t know it was THAT far off the facts.

  6. flex says

    Apropos of nothing, reading this post reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay about Napoleon in his 1850 book, Representative Men. Taking twenty minutes to re-read that essay (it’s probably been over 30 years since I last read it) was an enjoyable diversion. Possibly better than going to see the movie. At least based on this review. ;)

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    The first review I read of Napoleon said that Scott & Phoenix depicted him as an incompetent and gross buffoon, which left me thinking the movie was intended from the first as a commentary on a certain ex-President.

    Nothing in this review contradicts that, except for the aside about a sort-of romance – clearly Dolt 45 has never met or seen a woman he thought came anywhere near the beauty he beholds in every mirror. And it makes for a lousy parallel parable anyway – Bonaparte had only a small silver spoon in his mouth at birth, and built his military and political careers on a core of actual talent.

    Does my interpretation make any sense to anyone who has actually seen this flick?

  8. says

    Reading your description of Scott’s treatment of Waterloo reminded me of why I gave up watching ‘Vikings: Valhalla’ after the fourth episode. They actually pay people to advise them on how to recreate historic battles. Either they don’t listen to that advice, or the advice is crap.

  9. call me mark says

    I stopped expecting Ridley Scott to give anything resembling historical accuracy with Gladiator when Marcus Aurelius turned up in “Imperial Purple” that looked more like the colour of Victorian mauve than Tyrian purple.

  10. says

    I feel that I probably should have mentioned: the pyramids were nowhere visible at the Battle Of The Pyramids.
    Napoleon had a flair for marketing.

    One of the things about him that I find fascinating is the energy output of people like Napoleon and Caesar. When they’re engaged, they are everywhere and no problem is too big (or small) for their attention. So Napoleon was not merely content with running massive armies and wars, he also oversaw scientific research, legislation, communication technology, and a host of other things. He would have been exhausting to be around, except that he was followed by highly organized subordinates like Berthier, who kept track of his prodigious output and made sure everything got done.

  11. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#9:
    The first review I read of Napoleon said that Scott & Phoenix depicted him as an incompetent and gross buffoon, which left me thinking the movie was intended from the first as a commentary on a certain ex-President.

    I have trouble buying that. Napoleon had more competence in his left little toe than Trump has in his entire body and legal team.
    I’m more inclined to think that Scott and Phoenix depicted him however Phoenix’ assholish “method acting” felt right, which probably says more about the actor than the subject. As I mentioned, we don’t have a lot of accounts of what Napoleon was like to just hang out with – he was larger than life, so I suppose not many wrote it down. Of course we have accounts of Trump in his down-time and flinging hamburgers, etc.
    I think that the normal way to approach people like Napoleon and Caesar is with a certain amount of justified awe. They certainly expected (demanded?) it while they were alive. So it’s edgy and counter-intuitive to try to look behind the curtain and show Oz the Great and Powerful as a normal bumbler. Caesar and Napoleon were hardly bumblers, for what that’s worth. But it seems to me to be an obvious shot.

    [edit: I am generally disrespectful of “method acting” so I admit my view reflects that. I believe that generally it’s just laziness on the part of an actor who is too lazy, stoned, or stupid to learn lines and blocking and thinks that they’re such great geniuses that they are going to ad lib everything. Of course there are times when that works, and there are times when it doesn’t, which tells me that it’s basically randomness applied to acting – which is, again, lazy and unprofessional and possibly an indicator of over high self-regard or occasionally genius. For every Rutger Hauer Roy Batty final speech there’s a facile and awkward portrayal of some established character, usually fuelled by too much opiates in the actor.]

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    Marcus @14:

    I think that the normal way to approach people like Napoleon and Caesar is with a certain amount of justified awe

    No thanks. Narcissistic, but very smart, sociopaths. Vile pieces of shit who didn’t care how many people had to die to feed their nasty egocentrism. Fuck them (see also Alexander).

  13. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#16:
    No thanks. Narcissistic, but very smart, sociopaths. Vile pieces of shit who didn’t care how many people had to die to feed their nasty egocentrism. Fuck them (see also Alexander).

    All true. People like Napoleon, Hitler, Churchill, Caesar, Alexander, etc. have done tremendous damage to humanity over history.
    I’m also impressed and frankly scared by the energy with which such men attacked altering the civilizations they were born in. There’s something awesome about it, in the same way that a 30-foot great white shark is “awesome” – it’s a fascinating and powerful freak of fate and you just want to hope you’re not swimming anywhere near it. Cool to watch from a distance. I suspect that being in the presence of some of these great violent men had a similar “gosh I hope he doesn’t notice me…” impact.

  14. says

    call me mark@#12:
    I stopped expecting Ridley Scott to give anything resembling historical accuracy with Gladiator when Marcus Aurelius turned up in “Imperial Purple” that looked more like the colour of Victorian mauve than Tyrian purple

    I actually have not seen Gladiator because I read a review of it that was of the same tone as this one I just posted of Napoleon.

    I think Scott does OK when he is dealing with purely fictional situations. Then, he can cater to his baser instincts.

  15. says

    So, still better than Braveheart then?

    I avoid Mel Gibson movies like they are tainted with maggots, so I don’t know. I read something about the sadomasochistic excesses of the ending, and decided I didn’t need to see it.

    So, I’ll say Braveheart may be better, on the principle of “the devil you don’t know….” Also, I know a lot about the Napoleonic wars, and relatively little about Scotland. I’ve watched Culloden and thought it was brilliant, for what that’s worth.

  16. Dunc says

    Let me put it this way: even the name is wrong. “Braveheart” is Robert Bruce, not Wallace. As a professor of Scottish history once put it to me: the best and most historically accurate bit of Braveheart is when Tom Hanks has to repair the air scrubber with cardboard and duct tape. Literally everything about it is wrong. It couldn’t be any more wrong if you tried.

  17. Dunc says

    To put it in a way that will appeal to your military mind: Wallace’s first great success was the Battle of Stirling Bridge, which hinged on his tactical use of the choke point of the bridge over the river Forth at Stirling. The depiction of this battle in the movie omits both the river and the bridge.

  18. says

    the best and most historically accurate bit of Braveheart is when Tom Hanks has to repair the air scrubber with cardboard and duct tape

    That’s a good one! Even I know the Scots wouldn’t take on England without plenty of scrubbers. Duh!

    Wallace’s first great success was the Battle of Stirling Bridge, which hinged on his tactical use of the choke point of the bridge over the river Forth at Stirling. The depiction of this battle in the movie omits both the river and the bridge.

    Oh, wow, that’s bad. [By the way, in his military maxims collection, Napoleon gives a great logistical breakdown of the considerations in play during a contested river crossing, including whether there is or is not a bridge. Often, a bridge just becomes a chokepoint for artillery and if someone charges out thinking the bridge will let them cross the river, they forget to check if they can retreat if the bridge is blocked or damaged. I always took this as a sly signal from Napoleon that yes of course he had read Caesar’s Gallic Wars.]

    I am not sure how to evaluate whether or not that is worse than relocating the Battle of the Pyramids to taking place literally at the base of Cheops’ pyramid or not. Also, in that scene we see the sphinx, which has its nose damaged – which is funny because the actual rhinolithoplasty on the sphinx was performed by Napoleon’s artillery, but they were bored and practicing. In Scott’s movie, we are spared that scene because apparently it happened hundreds of years before, somehow.

    Scrubber, forsooth!

  19. says

    The aliens who built the pyramids halfassed it so badly that a small battery of 12-lb’ers could knock the cladding off the structure which was made of, you know, rock. Napoleonic artillery was impressive, but, still…

    Those shots were enough to sow terror and consternation in the hostile ranks and we don’t see any more of the battle because Napoleon decides to go home because his wife is cheating on him. [A lot of ink has been spilled on that topic and mostly the consensus is that he was cut off and threatened with disaster after the British navy defeated the French at the Battle of the Nile which was fought at Aboukir Bay not the Nile, Napoleon’s troops were left in the lurch while he rushed home, having realized that Egypt could not be annexed as a French colony with the British navy blockading the coast. The troops left behind basically were locked in counter-insurgency and were whittled away. The expedition lost about 40,000 soldiers. The good news is they found the Rosetta Stone, blew the nose off the Sphinx, looked at a bunch of Egypt stuff, and uh, vive La France!]

    Incidentally, I saw in a comment above that someone claimed Napoleon fought a battle near Megiddo (“Armageddon”) – which is sort of correct. The site is near a practical route through a wide plain suitable for troop movement, so battles have been happening there on and off for a very long time (less so now that armies are mechanize/airmobile). I don’t recall any Napoleonic wars scholars dwelling on the battle; i.e.: if David Chandler doesn’t mention it, it barely happened. I just went and checked because I had forgotten how annoying Chandler’s index is: index of people, index of formations and terms, and .. no index of places or events.

  20. StevoR says

    Promos for that movie seen on youtube looked speccy. (O’course.) Was thinking of seeing that. Grew up on old Ladybird history books which were, er, slanted – but informative and fascinating to young kid me.

    Meanwhile & off-topic sorry but your thoughts on the historydoco here please :

    Marcus Ranum?

    Part of (pre- & early) USA history this Aussie never really heard of till ..tonight-Ish.

  21. jrkrideau says

    @11 Dunc
    Re Braveheart.

    I remember reading a review by a native Scottish historian of Scotland. She noticed 109 errors in the movie and then mentioned that this was in the first minute, or minute and a half, of the movie.

    “Napoleon” is not getting good reviews from anyone who knows anything about the era.

Leave a Reply