This latest historical movie shows only the potential of its subject to undermine the Hollywood myth of redemptive violence, according to Sean O’Conaill.
The actor Joaquin Phoenix was 48 in 2022 when Sir Ridley Scott directed the movie ‘Napoleon’, with Phoenix in the leading role. That onetime hero of the French Revolution was only 24 in 1793, at the battle of Toulon, where the movie begins. He was a year younger than Joaquin Phoenix at Waterloo in 1815.
Why did Scott choose to have his central character appear already as old at Toulon as he would be at Waterloo, and never as his younger self in 1793 – when surely the young Napoleon could not have foreseen the triumphs and disasters ahead?
Could the reason be the sheer impossibility of compressing the dramatic transitions of those years – both in the French and European context and in the young Napoleon’s circumstances, challenges and character – into the two-and-a-half-hour bum-comfort limit of just one film?
Instead, the movie fastens on what did not change in the demeanour of the subject over those twenty-two years – his implacable will to win. He is depicted as older than Josephine also – even though she was actually six years older. We don’t see that, raised in Martinique on a sugar plantation, this original heroine had no teeth. This too would have been bad box-office in the dentally fixated USA.
Whatever the reason, those casting and directorial decisions have contributed to a recurrent critical complaint about the movie: Napoleon remains an enigma throughout, his motivation never explained. With his artistic imagination filled as usual by images of the chaos of battle, Ridley Scott ignores what Beethoven and others saw as the catastrophic transformation of Napoleon from youthful democratic revolutionary hero to middle-aged tyrannical reactionary.
Seduced by just one engagement at the battle of Austerlitz in 1805, when a unit of the retreating forces was trapped on an icy swamp, the director milks the dramatic potential of filming that from below the ice, with drowning men, uniforms, weapons, horses, mud and cannon balls – and, of course, lots of blood – churning our vision into a Turneresque hell.
The retreat from Moscow is not lacking in bloody images either – though the hacking of dead horses to avoid starvation is as close as the film gets to the even deeper horrors that are rumoured of that debacle.
How do apparently good men become evil? Even yet popular cinema baulks at asking that question. In the ‘Star Wars’ saga George Lucas did make the child prodigy Anakin Skywalker transition into the menacing Darth Vader, but it never became clear why that happened. Superheroes such as Superman and Batman do flirt with evil occasionally, but ultimately, after some crisis, they choose the light. We have never seen, say, the eleven-year-old Adolf Hitler – who was into Wagnerian heroes at that age – transition credibly into the monster who brought the Holocaust.
That it is violence itself that inevitably corrupts seems too great a step for popular cinema to take. If it did the main engine of a multi-billion dollar industry would surely develop a serious clank. The opening sequence of ‘Napoleon’ shows the Jacobin Robespierre in full oratorical flight on the power of the guillotine to discriminate between virtue and vice, but it never becomes clear where the central character himself stands. Had Napoleon ever suddenly decided to lay down the sword and turn to prayer instead, would Ridley Scott ever have gone near that story?
Instead, his movie churns inevitably to Waterloo, because Napoleon remained as dedicated to warfare as Hollywood could wish. That battle seemed to me to be undermanned in the film, in comparison to other cinematic treatments. Did the director also lose his ‘edge’ – or run out of budget – after Austerlitz?
Other complainers focus on Napoleon’s cavalier cannonading of the pyramids and uncharacteristic charging into that final battle, but that seems to me to miss the larger issue. Shakespeare too took lots of liberties with history, but he did so to illuminate the paradoxes and temptations of power. Always with Scott it is not any moral wrestlings, or the acuity of the verbals, that matter most, but the visuals, the riveting cinematic potential of violence itself.
At the age of 86 his next movie will be Gladiator II. As another French student of history wrote in 1849, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Maybe someday there will be a streaming TV series that will do something like justice to the full horrific story of the hero of Toulon in 1793, because that was also the great tragedy of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. As we in Ireland have seen ‘up close’ there is no such thing as redemptive – i.e. truly liberating – violence. Even when seemingly ‘successful’, violence empowers the victors – and – as the Catholic curia has even yet to take fully on board – power tends to corrupt.
That it does so simply by inflating the ego of the victors – making them imperious – could easily have been shown in ‘Napoleon’, if its hero had not already been imperious at the start.