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Ridley Scott’s Napoleon

Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte in 'Napoleon'

Upon learning about Ridley Scott’s upcoming film on Napoleon last summer, I immediately selected a Napoleon biography as part of my summer reading list to acquaint myself with the historical context in expectation of Scott's highly anticipated movie.

I was particularly captivated by the monumental work Napoleon: A Life by the prominent British historian Andrew Roberts. Roberts’ meticulous approach painted a comprehensive portrait of Bonaparte, delving into his intellectual development, personal relationships, and military genius. Noteworthy is Roberts’ dedication, having personally visited fifty-three of Napoleon's sixty battle sites during his research. It is regrettable that Scott, a compatriot of Roberts, did not exhibit the same level of professionalism when portraying one of history's most captivating figures on the cinema screen.

My visit to Claremont Laemmle theater to watch Scott's Napoleon was approached with skepticism –– given the criticism from Napoleonic Era historians regarding the movie's historical accuracy. Therefore, instead of concentrating on Scott’s lack of knowledge of Bonaparte and his era, I watched the movie to infer Scott’s underlying messages in the film.

As you may know, Scott's works typically carry a political undertone. For instance, in the Kingdom of Heaven, which was shot in the post-9/11 political climate where Islamophobia peaked, Scott’s portrayal of Saladin and King Baldwin was interpreted as the director’s call for interfaith dialogue. So, it is inevitable to consider the contemporary political environment's influence on the making of Scott's Napoleon.

The intense anti-Putin sentiments in the West following the Russian invasion of Ukraine form the intellectual basis of Scott's work. Portraying Napoleon merely as a power-hungry, ruthless, and evil figure seems to be an attempt to draw parallels between the 19th-century French leader and Vladimir Putin. Scott's explicit comparison of Bonaparte to totalitarian figures like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, as revealed in an interview, sheds light on the grand motive behind the movie.

One doesn't need to watch the entire film to reach this conclusion; the ending, where Scott attributes all deaths in the Napoleonic wars to Napoleon, is telling. If Scott had presented a more nuanced portrayal, such as showcasing Napoleon's scientific expedition in Egypt instead of fabricating events like the bombardment of the Pyramids, perhaps I could have sympathized with Scott's Anglo-Saxon Grudge to some extent.


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