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Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte in Ridley Scott's 2023 film "Napoleon." Photo courtesy of Apple Original Films.

A Review of Ridley Scott's Napoleon (2023)

Written by
J.A. Forrester
and
and
November 30, 2023
A Review of Ridley Scott's Napoleon (2023)
Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte in Ridley Scott's 2023 film "Napoleon." Photo courtesy of Apple Original Films.

This review is a rebuttal for the decidedly negative Chicago Tribune article reprinted locally in The Examiner, which ignores the sweep of Napoleon’s life faithfully depicted in stunning style by Polish cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and director Ridley Scott’s examination of this major historical figure. The writer also harps about “historical inaccuracies” – this is not a (blankety-blank) documentary. It’s an historical drama, based on incidents in the past reinterpreted.

Napoleon was first screened at the Salle Pleyel theatre in Paris on November 14th. French critics hated this production because it doesn’t depict Napoleon as the Great Revolutionary Hero. Imagine what the reaction would be if a British filmmaker created a “warts and all” film about General George Washington, pointing out that he was in fact a wealthy slave owner along with the other Founding Fathers of the United States. 

Napoleon opens in Paris with popular outdoor public executions, when 2600 royalists discovered why bankrolling and sending troops to support the Thirteen Colonies against Great Britain in 1778, during the American Revolution, was not in their long-term best interests. You reap what you sow. 

Scott’s view of the character is more balanced, showing how important his family life was to him while he was building an empire and stroking his enormous ego. The film emphasizes the body count of six million soldiers and citizens killed during the constant wars and political purges following the French Revolution. There are scenes of total anarchy when the governmental center is unstable and the winds of change sweep through Paris, with Robespierre forced to shoot himself, shattering his jaw in the process, just before he too goes to the guillotine.

Full disclosure, Ridley Scott is one of my favourite English film directors. I have been impressed by his consistently successful film projects over an amazingly prolific career. I recall his feature film debut, The Duelists, which I saw in 1977 while an undergraduate student at the University of Ottawa. It’s set in France during the Napoleonic Wars, when two French officers engage in obsessive conflicts involving duels with pistols and swords. 

Almost 50 years later Scott has returned to the Napoleonic Wars as a subject, with the focus this time on the ambitious Italian Corsican artillery officer who becomes the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte I of France.

Sir Ridley Scott is the most recognizable member of an entire family of UK Durham County filmmakers and artists, including his two sons Jake and Luke, his daughter Jordan plus his younger brothers Frank and Tony, both now deceased. Ridley’s father, Colonel Francis Scott, was a Royal Engineer posted globally while his family remained in North-East England. There is a personal side to this film, in that the Scott family had to wait patiently for their absent father’s return from military campaigns abroad. 

Joaquin Phoenix was born to play Napoleon, and his permanent facial scar evokes the sword fighting era. The Chicago Tribune reviewer naively expected Phoenix to play Napoleon like The Joker. Instead, he portrays the Corsican General in a very understated fashion, which is far more effective in this case than a “wild and crazy, gnaw on the scenery” performance. Particularly in the battlefield scenes where Napoleon appears to be asleep on his feet. Napoleon was a brilliant strategist in battle, and Phoenix’s embodiment suggests a blindfolded chess player who is always thinking 30 moves ahead of the competition.

Historically, of the many feature films made with Napoleon as the central figure, Abel Gance’s 1927 silent feature film Napoléon has been the standard by which subsequent productions are measured. I recommend viewing UK film historian Kevin Brownlow’s 1980s reconstruction/restoration with a full orchestra. For obvious reasons this is a difficult assignment, since it runs for five and a half hours, and requires a symphony concert hall. 

Ridley Scott’s condensed version at two-and-a-half hours manages to come close to Gance’s epic scale in telling this action-packed story. I am looking forward to the four-hour edition to be streamed online. Scott’s Napoleon may not be a complete masterpiece like Grance’s, but it deserves critical respect. Like many of his historical productions, including 1492, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, and The Last Duel it has a very strong visual element which remains with the audience long after the end credits roll.

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