Historical inaccuracy is its own reward in Ridley Scott’s bitingly funny anti-epic
Throughout his nearly five-decade career as a director, Ridley Scott has approached his historical dramas with the same workmanlike efficiency and dazzling spectacle as his sci-fi and action epics. Whether it’s tackling true stories in Black Hawk Down and All the Money in the World or a fantastic amalgamation of real-life inspirations like The Duellists or Kingdom of Heaven, Scott hones his focus on creating the most exciting and emotionally resonant retelling of history possible. Historical accuracy naturally becomes Scott’s quickest casualty–but despite his meticulous attention to period-accurate production design, Scott makes no qualms about maintaining any sense of devotion to historical truth.
As made evident in these films, and more infamously in the press tours surrounding them, Scott openly takes a very Liberty Valance approach to period filmmaking: when a legend is more exciting than fastidious truth, shoot the legend. What’s crucial to Scott’s films–and arguably most historical epics–isn’t how accurate a film is to the events it depicts; rather, it’s the emotional truth it strives to convey. While facts may not care about our feelings, the manipulation of historical events serves as a fantastic storytelling shorthand for directors like Scott to get to the deeper, more provocative ideas that draw them to this material in the first place.
No, Napoleon Bonaparte didn’t fire cannons at the pyramids while campaigning in Egypt, and it’s debated just how many Russo-Austrian troops fell into the ice at the Battle of Austerlitz. But watching Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, a stunningly-realized biopic of the infamous French leader, these embellishments don’t just serve to exaggerate the reputation of its central character. Rather, they’re spectacles as Bonaparte might brag about them in letters back to his wife, Josephine, in addition to satisfying audiences’ expectations of a new Ridley Scott epic. It’s a wonderfully subversive act of historical revisionism, undercutting these momentous events as atrocity-laden attempts to placate one of history’s hugest egos.
We find Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) at the execution of Marie Antoinette, eager to move up in the ranks of the French Army during the Reign of Terror. His military successes against the British at Toulon solidify Bonaparte’s reputation, propelling him across the globe to Egypt and Austria–and a ruthless consolidation of power delivers Napoleon not just the hand of Josephine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby), but centralized power as Emperor of France. However, Napoleon’s failures quickly stack against his victories as Europe moves to quash the expansion of a ruler who is as eager to break the rules of war as he is to use them to his advantage. But not even the threat of exile can crush Napoleon’s ambition–or can it?
Ridley Scott’s take on Napoleon isn’t quite the cradle-to-grave biopic originally envisioned by fellow epic filmmaker Abel Gance–for one, the entirety of Gance’s 1927 5.5-hour film is condensed to roughly the first act of Scott’s own admittedly truncated 2023 epic. Playing in fits and starts when it comes to its timeline, this version of Scott’s Napoleon also bears the battle scars of ruthlessly condensing an over-four-hour film to a more theatrically-friendly 2.5 hours. However, Napoleon remains remarkably effective at its central conceit of using Napoleon’s rise and fall to cynically depict the cyclical nature of power and control.
From Antoinette’s opening execution to Napoleon’s second and final exile to St. Helena, divine rule remains as elusive as it is satisfying to the disposable world leaders who pursue it. The warring rulers of Europe, not just Napoleon, are all portrayed as ineffectual, out-of-touch children whose armies are playthings employed to secure their sense of superiority; these rulers blame those below them for their failures, yet successes are theirs alone. It’s familiar ground for Scott, having distilled the Crusades of Kingdom of Heaven to greedy squabbles masked behind ideological superiority, not to mention the comically bleak moral avalanche that is his viciously underrated The Counselor. Yet what’s so striking about Napoleon–and well-hidden from the film’s marketing–is just how absurdly funny Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa play this approach. It’s an experience that tempers Napoleon‘s epic tone with the wry satire of Armando Iannucci and even the notorious “Democracy Manifest” video, distilling breathtaking battlefield tactics to petty temper tantrums. Most of the film’s comedy comes out of this central conceit–those who are convinced of their own invincibility inevitably become blind to how they can lose everything in an instant.
Joaquin Phoenix is wonderfully dialed into the film’s tone, turning in a performance comparable to Tim Robinson in I Think You Should Leave as much as it is to Phoenix’s Joker. Here, Bonaparte is a man-child whose terrifying behavior translates to an inexplicably effective reputation on the battlefield, creating a sense of superiority that can only metastasize as he succeeds in war. While European rulers may bemoan and later rise up against Napoleon’s deadly bursts of hysteria, Phoenix and Scott suggest that the French ruler is a consequence rather than an aberration of this absurd, power-hungry world he attempts to conquer. Phoenix’s hilarious delivery to an English diplomat of “You think you’re so GREAT just because you have BOATS” isn’t just a gut-buster because of its immature blame-shifting–it’s because, deep down, there’s some bitter truth to this outlandish sentiment. To borrow from Shelley’s poem, Napoleon and his fellow rulers can’t imagine a future where people don’t look on their works and despair.
In this light, the soaring spectacle throughout Napoleon–from the Siege of Toulon to the ill-advised trek through Russia–becomes both bitingly funny and gut-churningly grim. Scores of lives are lost on the whims of the rulers commanding them, all in the name of seizing or preserving a supremacy that’s inevitably finite; the film’s bleak coda is markedly a laundry list of casualties throughout Napoleon’s rule. Scott’s epic eye for choreographed carnage takes on a welcome new dimension here, recognizing such geopolitical drama for its absurdity as much as its awe.
It’s important to note just how important Vanessa Kirby’s Josephine is to adding depth to Napoleon’s absurdity, positioned as the calculating straight man to Phoenix’s boisterous ego-in-chief. Scott has been vocal about how his longer director’s cut fleshes out Josephine’s character, and even with Napoleon’s lengthy runtime one can feel how Kirby’s presence feels drastically sidelined. Nevertheless, Josephine effectively proves to be as equally fascinating as Napoleon due to her vital perspective on power. From her introductory release from jail at the end of Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, it’s clear just how much Kirby’s Josephine understands how fleeting status can be. Josephine doesn’t find power’s value in its divine superiority; rather, she knows just what it’s like to not have any power in the first place. It’s that sense of having something to lose that makes Kirby such a magnetic performer throughout her tête-à-têtes with Napoleon, matching Bonaparte’s childishness with the cold maturity he frequently imitates yet crucially lacks.
Based on Kingdom of Heaven and The Counselor alone, it’s clear just how Scott’s films can radically transform in scope and impact with their longer director’s cuts. While acknowledging the potential impact of the coming 4-hour-10-minute version, even this truncated Napoleon stands out as one of 2023’s most epic and hilariously impactful films, one unafraid to cut its larger-than-life characters down to size.
The Apple Original Film Napoleon from acclaimed director Ridley Scott will first be released exclusively in theaters worldwide, in partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment, on Wednesday, November 22, before streaming globally on Apple TV+.