Home Featured TV Shows All TV Shows Movie Reviews Book Reviews Articles Frequently Asked Questions About Us


“Destiny has brought me here. Destiny has brought me this lamb chop!”

I missed the new Scorsese flick, so I made an effort to go see Ridley Scott’s Napoleon in theaters.

It feels like Hollywood has been angling for a Napoleon Bonaparte biopic done in epic style for some time; this was one of Stanley Kubrick’s passion projects that never took off.

He is one of those historic icons we are all somewhat familiar with: The brazen military genius turned polarizing French monarch, twice exiled due to the wars that were named after him; we also have him to thank for the Louisiana Purchase. As an adolescent, I remember being impressed by the story of him taking the crown out of the Pope’s hands to crown himself. Like, that kind of said it all about the guy to me.

Besides that, though, this movie covers some French Revolution history just in setting the stage for Napoleon’s rise. It starts with the execution of Marie Antoinette and the Reign of Terror spearheaded by Maximilien Robespierre. In the fallout of all that chaos, Napoleon’s lethality in battle steadily gains him great favor, but this is later curtailed by his grander ambitions. And by his “addictive and often volatile relationship with his wife and one true love, Joséphine.”

I guess it’s somewhat of a controversial movie, though apparently not because it examines rather controversial historical figures and events. The movie omits a lot of what Napoleon did outside of war and marriage, the effects of which are still felt in France to this day. And, like any good Hollywood movie about evidently true things, it mixes the facts around quite a bit; though this should be expected of the guy who made Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven. Ridley Scott isn’t the type to let a thing like reality get in the way of a compelling story.

My feeling is that the movie is less about the plot as told by history and more about the mood. And that mood is Napoleon himself. It’s focused on a time period in which the global political climate was so turbulent that one man’s drive and ego could be allowed to become such a major force, despite being seen by many of his peers as little more than a “Corsican thug.” Scott is not interested in the man’s various political reforms or the Napoleonic Code. He is interested in the fact that roughly three million people died in the war campaigns that were integral to Bonaparte’s success and failure.

With that in mind, the film's depiction of Napoleon the man is quite gray. Phoenix and Scott show us someone coolly adept in matters of war and state, but who oscillates between awkward, brutish and arrogant in any other circumstance. He speaks very glowingly about his country, how he cares for it and fights for its betterment, but his behavior betrays the narcissistic lens he views everything through. Especially when he accepts the title of Emperor (specifically that, and not the offered title of King), and the state of his character becomes inexorably linked to the state of France.

The movie is a bit muddled. At times, it comes off like a series of battles that are broken up by historical events and scenes of Napoleon and Joséphine playing house in their oddly mercurial way; the Empress's inability to bear children is a source of much strife between the two. There's some decent drama there, but I would have liked more of Napoleon wheeling and dealing on the world stage. I got the sense just from one viewing that there probably was a lot left on the cutting room floor that didn't make it into the film.

So I’m looking forward to this being another addition to Scott’s shortlist of director’s cut movies. That said, the theatrical cut is still pretty good. It's not the best biopic I’ve seen, but it is well-made and intriguing. I’ll probably watch it again.

Cannons and swords:

* The first movie I saw Joaquin Phoenix in was Gladiator, a Ridley Scott film. And Ridley Scott’s first film was The Duellists, a story set during the Napoleonic Wars.

* I know she’s really on fire these days, but I believe Napoleon is the first film I’ve seen Vanessa Kirby star in. She’s certainly one to look out for. There needed to be a certain gravity to Joséphine’s character that outmatches her husband, despite him being the center of power, and Kirby brought that.

* There are those who criticize Phoenix’s not-so-flattering portrayal of the storied emperor, but the fact that people are comparing it to his work in Joker just leads me to assume they’re suffering from short memories. This was another captivating role for him, and has about as much resemblance to Arthur Fleck as it does to Commodus in Gladiator.

* I know I mentioned Kubrick earlier, but I gotta say a lot of the cinematography and sets in this movie reminded me of Barry Lyndon with their live-action painting look. Also, if you think Phoenix was an odd choice to play Napoleon, try imagining Jack Nicholson as directed by Stanley Kubrick.

* Real-life Napoleon did not fire cannons at the Egyptian pyramids; still, maybe it says something that I had no trouble believing he would. Apparently, Scott just felt that was an easy way to show the audience that he conquered Egypt. Napoleon unearthing a mummified pharaoh for a little face-to-face was also fabricated. Cool idea, though.

* There is narration, but — outside of maybe one scene — it’s framed as letters written by either Napoleon or Joséphine. It gives the film the feel of an old epistolary novel.

* The movie is also a lot funnier than I was expecting, largely due to Napoleon and Joséphine's... quirks.


Napoleon Bonaparte: “Surprise is my advantage, but I will win by fire.”

Empress Joséphine: “If you look down, you will see a surprise. Once you see it, you’ll always want it.”

Napoleon: “I’m not built like other men.”

Joséphine: “You’re just a tiny little brute who is nothing without me. Say it.”

Napoleon: “I found the crown of France in the gutter. I picked it up with the tip of my sword and cleaned it, and placed it atop my own head.”

Joséphine: “One day, you will understand what I have sacrificed for you.”

Napoleon: “That is what is most difficult in life. Accepting the failures of others.”

This movie is a bit messy and disjointed, but I found it entertaining and think it moves well despite its missteps. Three and a half out of five failed returns from exile.


  1. I know I'm being overly picky, but including the myth of cannons firing at Egyptian architecture really gets under my skin.

    1. It's a pretty big anachronism (real-life Napoleon apparently respected the Egyptian monuments), but I can't fault it too much since the movie seems to be full of anachronisms.


We love comments! We moderate because of spam and trolls, but don't let that stop you! It’s never too late to comment on an old show, but please don’t spoil future episodes for newbies.