Reviews: Biographical Books


Napoleon. Produced by David Grubin. 4 one-hour episodes. PBS, 2000. Aired Nov. 8 and 15, 2000.


Below are reviews by Kevin Kiley and Howie Muir that were winners in the "Review Contest" run in conjunction with the airing of PBS' Napoleon in the U.S., November 2000.


Episodes I and II

PBS has attempted a Herculean task, one that other networks have also tried and failed, that of putting together an impartial, thorough biography of the greatest soldier of modern times, one that still engenders love and hate, admiration and loathing, the soldier/Emperor whom the British rank and file who fought him referred to as 'The Great Man,' Napoleon.

In large part, the first two installments have succeeded beyond what I was expecting. Full of color, crisp, clear narration, and peppered with expert testimony by some of the best Napoleonic scholars available, the production captures the sweep and magnitude of the times, and impresses upon the viewers the importance of these events, the repercussions of which are still felt in Europe and the Americas today.

The first two hours cover the period from Napoleon's birth to his coronation as Emperor on 2 December 1804. The photography is excellent, as is the narration, and the reenactments surpassed what I was expecting which wasn't much. For once in a program of this type, the reenactments gave you not only a 'you are there' perspective, but they caught the sweep and scope of the times. From the shattering of a tea service to the mad rush at the Bridge of Lodi and the 'whiff of grapeshot' the reenactments were colorful, as accurate as possible, and added greatly to the overall presentation.

The breadth and scope of the authoritative input by the various Napoleonic scholars was nothing short of superb. From Grande Armée authority and author Colonel John Elting, through Jean Tulard and Owen Connelly to Don Horward, the depth of expertise, as well as the differing viewpoints, not only enhanced the production, but provided a balanced account and just about had something for everybody, whether you are a fan of the French Emperor or not. The myriad authorities, some I had not been aware of before, only added to the achievement that I believe this production to be.

Overall, the presentation was balanced and accurate. Col. Elting's wry wit and depth of knowledge were like a page out of Swords Around A Throne, his organizational history of the Grande Armée. Jean Tulard added anecdotal and scholarly input that gave a human face to the Emperor. I did have a problem with Connelly's rather severe emphasis on ambition as Napoleon's overriding motivation for what he did and accomplished, as well as his statement that Napoleon was obsessed with his mother, which, to my mind, intimated something that was not quite right. Both of these opinions can be refuted by documentary evidence, and I believe them to be inaccurate.

Minor errors in the production were peppered throughout, and were not that noticeable and did not detract from the production as a whole. Napoleon was called Emperor of France, when his title was Emperor of the French, the term 'brigadier general' was used, when properly it is 'general of brigade', Napoleon is said to have had a yellow complexion, when reliable primary sources give him a 'clear pallor.' The most thumping error I found was that the impression was given that he was planning a coup before he left for Egypt in 1798. All of the evidence I have found and studied over the years clearly maintains that he was recruited for the coup by Sieyès and others after Egypt, and that it wasn't Napoleon's idea, but that of some of the discontented Directors. Still, it's an interesting viewpoint.

Other than these discrepancies, though, it is a clear, concise, and honorable attempt at reliable scholarship and PBS is to be commended for this effort. While it may not be exciting for those of us who have studied, and perhaps written about the period, it may hopefully have the affect of stirring a general interest and revival of more study, discussion, and writing/publishing for the period. Personally, I can't wait for the next installment.

Episodes III and IV

'C'est Extraordinaire!...He doesn't die, he will never die.' -Jean-Paul Bertraud 'Everything on earth is soon forgotten except the opinion we leave imprinted on history...there is no immortality except the memory that is left in the minds of men.' -Napoleon

'If Christ hadn't been crucified he never would have been God.' -Napoleon

'He's got a bunch of the toughest, hammer-down, ironed-out roughnecks you ever saw from generals down to buck privates, and he just...sic 'em boys! -Col. John Elting on Napoleon's Grande Armée of 1805

'An enormous presence... -Alistair Horne

The second installment of PBS' Napoleon, quite simply is as good as the first. It continues the epic with the coronation in December 1804 and continues through Napoleon's early death on St. Helena, a heavily guarded exile, masterfully writing himself into legend so that 'the kings of Europe learned to fear him dead.'

I particularly liked the opening music to the series, invoking the glory and grandeur that was Napoleon's France and the Empire that went with it. It does set the stage for the rest of the impressive program. Generally balanced, though not without references to Napoleon's overbearing ambition, talking about 'the tyrannical nature of his rule,' his 'love of power,' and the 'three million dead in the wars that brought him glory,' I think the program as a whole is an excellent achievement. While these last three statements about Napoleon are arguable to an extent, I submit that it distorted a true picture of both Napoleon the man and the wars that the program also rightly stated he inherited.

The plethora of Napoleonic authorities is again present in this last half of the program, with the notable addition of Alistair Horne and Oleg Sokolov. I had my doubts as to Alistair Horne, as his latest book, How Far From Austerlitz?, was riddled with error and not up to his usual standard, but he didn't disappoint and was right on the money, generally, with his comments and opinions. I was both surprised and pleased with Russian historian Sokolov, especially to his completely balanced views and opinions on the period. He was most impressive. I was also glad to see Andre Castelot represented in the program. His was the first biography of Napoleon I had ever read.

The program presented the Ulm/Austerlitz campaign excellently and in more depth than expected. Unfortunately, this was not done with those that followed. The Jena campaign was mistakenly put down as three weeks instead of six, and as I believe it to be Napoleon's best achievement on the operational level, I was a little disappointed in the delivery. Still, in a four-hour program, this really can't be helped. The general overview of the campaigns was competently done, with expert comment by the contributing historians. Two comments I particularly thought interesting, both from Col. Elting. The first was about Napoleon's involvement in Spain, where Col. Elting stated that the long involvement in the Peninsula, seemingly without end, was a failure of Napoleon's judgment and sense of proportion. The other was about Blucher, in that the old Prussian in 1815 was 'getting a little feeble, especially above the eyebrows.'

I was impressed that the program mentioned that the kings of Europe were worried that their crowns were shaky on their own heads because of the French Revolution and Napoleon. As Jean-Paul Bertraud so aptly stated, the Grande Armée, with Napoleon at its head, went into Europe with bayonets, but also with the Civil Code. The kings had to crush this 'gangrene', as Metternich called it, before it spread or quite possibly end up as Louis XVI had. Additionally, the truth that Napoleon had to win every time is brought out. The wars for the other powers were for a stretch of territory or some other tasty morsel, for Napoleon and his Empire it was for survival, for they were both different and completely dangerous, or at least they were perceived that way.

The triumphant return from Elba, the 100 Days, and St. Helena get adequate treatment, historian Isser Woloch summing up the reason for Napoleon's successful return, 'The Bourbons blew it.' What the program doesn't say is that the Bourbons failed to live up to the Treaty of Fontainebleau, as Napoleon's source of funds was drying up, which would mean he would have to disband his 1,000-man Guard as he couldn't pay them, his wife and son were not allowed to join him, and his personal fortune was plundered. This more than anything, probably brought him back, notwithstanding the complete hash the Bourbons made of trying to rule France.

I thought the enforced halt in the campaigns after Jena, where the program went into Napoleon's personal life and that of his civil achievements was misplaced. It would have fit in better after Tilsit. This is really the only error I believe the program is really guilty of as it breaks up the continuity of the period. Other minor faults are merely omissions: not giving the real reason Napoleon crowned himself and Josephine (so the French people would know he wasn't subservient to the Pope), again the overemphasis on ambition, and that 'he considered himself invincible.' Why this might be accurate, the reasons for it could have been given, such as years of success over stronger enemies. These faults do not detract, however, from the program.

Overall, this program is most impressive and enjoyable. It is generally accurate, gives opinions from various knowledgeable authorities, and is a balanced account of the period and of the Emperor himself. I highly recommended it to all and sundry, and if it does come up short in certain areas, at least it is an honest attempt at scholarship and hopefully will spark a larger interest in the period and in the Great Man himself.

Interestingly, according to the program, which is very accurate on this point, Napoleon's last words as he lay dying were 'France, l'armée, tête d'armée, Josephine.' The three most important things in life to him, with the exception of the fourth, and undoubtedly the most important, his son, who was also a captive of his enemies. Undoubtedly, in my opinion, shouts of the legendary 'Vive l'Empereur' had to be going through his mind as he lay dying, for the Grande Armée was not only his creation, it was his home, and as John Elting has succinctly stated, he probably never was, in his inner self, too far from the skilled artillery captain of his early years.

Reviewed by Kevin Kiley, 11/00


Surely no human being in the last two thousand years has had more books written about him, and the era he to which he gave his name, than Napoleon Bonaparte. His image is still readily recognized around the world after two hundred years. A soldier, general, statesman, emperor, tyrant, savior, law-giver, mass-murderer, lover, husband, divorcee, workaholic, administrator, Corsican, Frenchman - a complicated man whose accomplishments, failures, and ideas still resonate down the ages to shape today's political, legal, social, scientific, and military landscape. But who was he?

The four-hour documentary series, Napoleon, to be aired by PBS in two installments (8 & 15 November) is a richly textured exploration of the man within the myth. In a style that Ken Burns developed so well a decade ago in his "The Civil War," the viewer is taken on an probing excursion through Napoleon's life, escorted by David McCullough, who provides the same simple, clear, and powerful narrative here as he did for Burns' film series. Images spring to life from paintings, reenactments, and visits to historic sites, interspersed with interviews with numerous writers and historians - those from the English-speaking world include John Elting, Owen Connelly, Donald Horward, and Alistair Horne. Not least, the program turns frequently to Napoleon's own words and writings, and the observations of those who knew him, to illuminate his thoughts and actions. Flashes of insight into the trajectory that carried him to the heights of fame and power abound: tracing his evolving self-image of Corsican or Frenchman; unveiling how, while studying in France, his growing dislike for aristocratic privilege that seemed to deny him advancement, and his resentment of France for its discrimination against him as a Corsican, planted a desire to play a role in the revolution after it was under way; drawing together the disparate, fateful threads that tied "the little corporal" to his "star of destiny." So often did Napoleon find himself in the right place, at the right time, connected with the right people, and so gifted with the capacity to put the right spin on his actions, that with each success came his strengthening conviction that he was indeed destined for great things.

A balanced portrait emerges, revealing neither Saint nor Satan, but a far more interesting glimpse of the man within. It is an entertaining and mind-opening series. It also has some curious weaknesses. While keeping admirably focused upon its subject, one that is remarkably well condensed for a mere four hours, the program is nevertheless peculiarly short on providing context that would provide a consistently clear frame of reference for Napoleon's decisions and actions. For instance, Austria's choice to go to war in 1809 springs from nowhere - no mention of the humiliating loss of a small French army to Spain, at Baylen, that had electrified Europe and enraged Napoleon. Napoleon's actions at Waterloo, in 1815, were predicated upon the impossibility of the Prussians arriving to assist Wellington's army owing to Napoleon's last great battlefield victory at Ligny, two days earlier - the battle and its consequences are unconsidered.

A number of important aspects and blemishes go unexamined. His direct order to execute every one of the thousands of prisoners taken at Jaffa in 1799 is passed over in silence, as is his virtual kidnapping of the Pope in 1809. His marriage to Josephine gained him not only a beloved wife, but also a stepson, Eugène, who he adopted and who rose to great military prominence, retaining a place in Napoleon's affections even after the latter divorced Josephine. Nevertheless, Eugène, and most of Napoleon's sibling relationships as well, are subjects untouched in the program. Although mistresses are briefly referred to, his great romance with the Polish countess, Maria Walewska, goes unmentioned - what effect did this have upon his life and marriage? One would not know that Napoleon crowned himself King of Italy in 1805. Napoleon's final dismantlement of the thousand-year-old Holy Roman Empire and his attempt to remold Germany with the creation of the allied Confederation of the Rhine in 1806 remains invisible. Curiously, for a study of one of the world's greatest soldiers, there is limited fare here for the military history buff. The viewer learns little about the great man's military strategies and nothing of the military men on whom Napoleon depended (e.g., his long relationship with his chief of staff, Berthier, so crucial to his successes), nor of Napoleon's creation of the Marshalate in 1804. Yet, in fairness, a mere four-hour exploration of Napoleon's life and accomplishments inevitably requires judicious paring of a multitude of aspects to permit the viewer to traverse this extraordinary life in the time allotted.

Eye-catching cinematography (James Callanan), rich musical scoring (Michael Bacon), and a captivating narrative combine to give a human and fascinating face to one of history as great figures. Directed by David Grubin and produced by David Grubin and Allyson Luchak, Napoleon offers two memorable evenings of superior television.

Reviewed by Howie Muir, 11/00
[This review (or at least of version of it) appears in "Napoleon Journal", issue #17]


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