Hollywood’s Latest Blockbuster Wages War On The Legacy Of Great Men

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Gage Klipper Commentary & Analysis Writer
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Films often reflect the present moment more than the ages they mean to depict.

It is not enough to say that Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” is a bad film — it is. Neither is it enough to say that it butchers the historical record — it does. But it is the decision to reflect a particular pathology of the current moment that makes “Napoleon” a truly appalling film.

“He came from nothing. He conquered everything,” the poster outside the movie theater reads. The imposing, oversized text is plastered over a portrait of Joaquin Phoenix’s Napoleon in a menacing silhouette. Emerging from the theater after a torturous three hours, it can only be seen as false advertising. We learn little about where Napoleon came from — we learn less about what, how, or whom he conquered. The intimidating Napoleon we see on the poster is nowhere to be found on screen. Rather, he bumbles from one quasi-historical vignette to the next, a passive actor in his own saga. Why has anyone even bothered to make a movie about this unremarkable man?

The film opens with Napoleon surveying the crowd at the execution of Marie Antoinette, the first of many historical inaccuracies. It proceeds unevenly from his days as a young Brigadier General to his final exile on St. Helena. If you are not familiar with the era, the pacing is too fragmented to follow along. If you are, it is historically incoherent. Countless historians line up to tell you precisely how and where the film went wrong, but the historical record is not our primary concern here. Rather, it is more pressing to examine Scott’s vision of this ostensibly great man. 

“I am not ambitious,” Napoleon tells Talleyrand midway through the movie. Yet this much was clear from the start. From Toulon, to the royalist insurrection, to the Coup of Brumaire, Napoleon is portrayed as a creature of stasis, merely following orders and wanting for little more. He is no leader; he inspires no love or loyalty.

He fumbles inexplicably into the role of First Consul because the true power players view him as the most politically convenient choice. After a panicked fall down the stairs, he cannot even motivate his own men to act; his brother, Lucien, must mobilize them to initiate the coup. He has no ambition to wear the crown, but takes it — and discards it — without question, merely because that is what he is told to do. (RELATED: Hollywood Has Forgotten Its Own Lessons On Masculinity — And One Timeless Classic Proves It)

Far from examining Napoleon the conqueror, the bulk of the film is dedicated to developing his relationship with the widow Josephine, who would become Empress. While their preserved correspondence is consistent with the French romanticism of the era, it is generally accepted that Napoleon’s union with Josephine was politically and financially expedient for both parties. Rather than portray Napoleon’s infatuation as a function of his broader ambition, Scott inverts the historical record. Every action, to the extent it is a conscious decision at all, is driven by a compulsive desire to be loved by Josephine. 

He leaves his men in Egypt not for political opportunities back in France, but because he is devastated by rumors of Josephine’s infidelity. This desperate longing continues throughout. Fifteen years later but none the wiser, he escapes Elba for the same reason.

“How could you care so little of me and my feelings?” he asks Josephine pitifully.

“You’re the most important thing in the world,” he forces her to say, and “without me you are nothing.”  

She astutely flips the power dynamic, making him repeat it back. From her lips, it is as mechanical and indifferent as her feelings toward him. From his, it rings with somber realization. 

An undeniably great actor, Phoenix excels at playing pitiable outcasts driven mad by their lack of acceptance. What Phoenix portrays is not love for Josephine, but obsession — a relentless insecurity and desperate timidity converging in a compulsive need to dominate. This might work for the Joker, or even Rome’s worst emperor, but it does not explain Napoleon’s will to power.

Overall, there are few redeeming elements to the film. The ornately accoutered ensemble cast will likely earn the Oscar for costume design. The palaces, cathedrals, and landscapes all make for epic, if inauthentic, backdrops. The bulk of the film is shot in England, with Oxfordshire’s Blenheim Estate transforming from France, to Italy, and even the Kremlin.

Much praise has been given to the battles, not for their tactical accuracy, but for the sheer cinematic experience. Although it’s hard to see why.

The Napoleonic Era is among the most opulent in European history, yet Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is bleak, as if to purposefully drain all vitality — and thus, any contemporary appeal — from the barbaric past. Yes, the battle sequences in Austerlitz and Waterloo may startle you out of a nap, but you soon realize they are gray, desaturated, lifeless. They are gratuitous, but wholly sterile, depicted from above and within from the perspective of both sides. We do not feel Napoleon’s anticipation, his appetite for victory, or the cost of defeat.

It is clear we are meant to think of the Napoleonic Era as a dark moment in history. We view war from the outsider’s perspective, looking on from our enlightened perch of modernity. War cannot be thrilling, let alone noble — it is always hell. It is the business of weak, cruel tyrants like Napoleon who slaughter thousands because their wives find them inadequate. Despite being all too human, Napoleon was certainly much more than this.

The question now becomes why — why is Scott determined to present Napoleon in such a negative, and historically revisionist light? For centuries, Napoleon has been viewed across cultures as an archetypal “great man” — the conqueror but also the reformer; meritocracy embodied and a symbol of Western exceptionalism; the closest approximation of Nietzsche’s “Ubermensch” (Overman).

Such great men are those who strive for epochal glory and along the way define not just our history, but our very sense of being. Napoleon revolutionized the art of war and launched Europe on an inexorable path of modernization. His Napoleonic Code consolidated the egalitarian gains of the revolution while rejecting its excesses, produced a benchmark for centralized rule, and crafted a civil law that serves as the basis for many modern legal systems today. He forged modern Europe through sheer will; we cannot conceive of the West as it is today — or our place within it — without his influence. (RELATED: The Movie Every Conservative Should Watch This Labor Day Weekend)

That influence cannot grow out of a preoccupation with “being,” but only with “becoming”  — transcending limitations and risking everything to build something entirely new for the advancement of humanity. That is what truly makes Napoleon a great man.

Scott’s Napoleon, with his fear of all-things “becoming,” exposes not only the filmmaker’s, but our entire culture’s noxious pathology. He does not strive for the greatness of a visionary, but desires merely the comfort of a secure position, a pedestrian reassurance that he is good enough. Is that not what we, as a culture, have come to accept as our inheritance; the acknowledgment our leaders demand as they wage war on our collective traditions, values and identity? An indifferent shrug — our static lives of creature comfort are good enough. Why does anything else matter?

Scott’s “Napoleon” is the artistic outgrowth of a culture that can no longer conceptualize greatness. We are so content with what we have that we cannot imagine any reason to strive for better. With this luxury, our value judgments are so clouded by what feels bad in the visceral sense — war, death, oppression — that we cannot assess whether they can, under any circumstances, lead to a higher, transformative good. In fact, we’d rather write these questions off altogether, seeking only to avoid what makes us feel bad or uncomfortable. Like Scott’s “Napoleon,” we are satisfied just “being.”

And why wouldn’t we be? Our modern sensibilities assure us this makes us better than men of the past — there are no lessons to be learned from our uncivilized forebears. Yet we mistake naivety for clarity. Intoxicated by a life free from moral complexity, we no longer have any confidence in our own values. We are ashamed to make art that portrays greatness, let alone make sacrifices in its pursuit.

A Napoleon of a generation ago proclaimed, “the crown is my will.” Rod Steiger’s performance in “Waterloo” (1970) depicts the same events, but reflects a different, unabashedly self-confident moment in Western history. Steiger depicts the will of a great man as he himself would see it; Scott is ashamed of Napoleon’s will, and views it as his duty to correct it for posterity. (RELATED: ROOKE: The Left Hates Brave Men, But That’s Exactly Why We Should Celebrate Columbus)

This is not a conspiracy by Hollywood elites to suppress the tale of a great man. It’s not that we cannot allow greatness to thrive in our contemporary mythology, or that the masses must be fed new parables of contentment and mediocrity. It is far more a matter of compulsion than design; we simply do not possess the imagination where greatness can thrive. Scott’s directorial choices, if you can call them choices, are as passive as his character.

The film closes with Napoleon painfully stretching the truth of his military feats to impress two young girls as they play sword fighting. They will grow up to carry on where the great men have failed, it seems. They correct his tall tales, a final humiliation for a shell of a man — if you can even call him that. He can no longer appreciate the history of his own life; he cannot live with the truth of his own fate. If that is so, Scott leaves us thinking, why then should we?