Napoleon: Trailer First Thoughts
By Owen Davis (July 2023)
‘He came from nothing. He conquered everything’. So reads the headline for Ridley Scott’s latest historical epic, Napoleon. For Napoleon aficionados everywhere the next couple of months will be abuzz as the Napoleonic Wars take centre stage in the media. The online chatter follows the release of the first trailer for Napoleon which finally introduces us to Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the titular protagonist. So, what can we expect from the first Hollywood epic about this pivotal epoch, since Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World in 2003.
The trailer immediately focuses in on the tempestuous relationship between Napoleon and his consort Joséphine de Beauharnais played by Vanessa Kirby. Scott himself discussed this relationship in an interview with Deadline stating, “Napoleon is a man I’ve always been fascinated by. He came out of nowhere to rule everything — but all the while he was waging a romantic war with his adulterous wife Joséphine. He conquered the world to try to win her love, and when he couldn’t, he conquered it to destroy her, and destroyed himself in the process.” While Napoleon was certainly not lacking in personal ambition, Scott’s examination of the drive presented by Joséphine’s and Bonaparte’s liaison, brings a personal perspective to this portrayal of the life of France’s first emperor. This tempestuous relationship has been a popular theme both on screen and literature and was famously the main theme in the 1974 television series, Napoleon and Love.
Scott’s narrative commences with the execution of Marie Antoinette in 1793, which is juxtaposed with Paul Barras awarding Napoleon command of the Army of the Interior in 1795. This leads us to, what the historian of the French Revolution Thomas Carlyle describes as the ‘whiff of grapeshot’, when Napoleon fired on the Royalist counterrevolutionaries during the 13 Vendémiaire. It is gratifying that Scott’s attention to detail ensures that the Royalists are carrying fleur-de-lys on their standards, one of the symbols adopted by counter-revolutionaries and monarchists, rather than the tricolour, which was a republican symbol. Hopefully this bodes well for the representation of the 13 Vendémiaire, showing the complexity of post-French Revolutionary politics and not just making the counter-revolutionaries into a generic Parisian mob, for the purposes of filmic simplification.
Having set the scene, Scott sweeps away from domestic events, to allow the grand campaigns of Toulon, Egypt, Austerlitz and Waterloo to take centre stage. However unfortunately, this is where the narrative starts to reflect some of the more contentious historical myths from Napoleon’s reign. Whilst I enjoy Scott’s epics and Gladiator remains one of my favourite films, sadly there are some glaring historical blunders. As Scott’s films tend to take liberties when adapting historical accounts to fit the film’s narrative – for example in Gladiator, Commodus’ fifteen-year reign was truncated into a couple of months, to provide the opportunity for the protagonist, Maximus Decimus Meridius, to exact revenge. Napoleon does not escape this freehand with the historical narrative, as during the expedition to Egypt, Napoleon appears to use the Pyramids for target practice, which may be drawn from the oft repeated, but disproven, myth that his grenadiers shot off the Sphinx’s nose.
The narrative continues to stray away from the current historical consensus when it comes to Austerlitz. In a scene that depicts the French ambushing the Austro-Russian forces on the Satschan Ponds, using artillery to drown thousands of soldiers. In reality this incident takes place at the end of the battle, hardly a conducive environment for an ambuscade. Far from being surprised, the Austro-Russian army were in retreat following the main battle on the Pratzen heights. There is also evidence shown in an excellent thread on Twitter from renowned historian Professor Alexander Mikaberidze, @AMikaberidze, that the reported casualties in the ponds were Napoleonic spin. The Austro-Russian army was aware that the ponds were shallow, and the ice was thin on the surface, and so avoided crossing them. Furthermore, the ponds were drained soon after the battle on Napoleon’s orders and it was discovered that there were only 28 cannons and sadly 150 horses and three men were found entombed in the mud on the shore of the ponds not the centre of the pools.
If the taster of this trailer reflects the narrative, then sadly there is the potential for Scott’s story to reinforce myths, which historians have been diligently attempting to correct, undermining the real story, which is already an epic. On the upside the coming months will be an exciting time for Napoleonic enthusiasts, as this epic brings the period to the centre stage, and a monumental moment in world history to the silver screen.
 Mike Fleming Jr., Apple Studios commits to ‘Kitbag,’ Ridley Scott-Directed Epic with Joaquin Phoenix as French conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte, Deadline, accessed 17th July 2023 https://deadline.com/2021/01/napoleon-movie-joaquin-phoenix-ridley-scott-apple-studios-kitbag-1234672742/