First Impressions

Ridley Scott's Epic Vision Is No Match for Napoleon’s Immense Legacy

The life of Napoleon proves too large for Ridley Scott to capture — at least with any sort of historical nuance.

by Bryan Goldberg
Originally Published: 
Inverse Reviews

In a world where Hollywood blockbusters are dominated by tired franchises, Marvel metaverses, and schlocky horror slashers … one man has the experience and budget necessary to direct the ultimate historical epic. Indeed, at age 86, Ridley Scott is quite possibly the only man who could easily raise $200 million and brilliantly project modern history’s greatest battles onto an IMAX screen. That he can also attract the talents of a generational actor like Joaquin Phoenix — a man whose career he helped ignite two decades ago in Gladiator — should all but ensure a glorious outcome for Napoleon.

But the theatrical version of the film — reduced from over four hours to a more bite-sized two and half — is not glorious. And it’s not very exciting.

Perhaps this was inevitable. To try to project the totality of Napoleon’s life into a single movie is a known folly. It is one that flustered Stanley Kubrick, who eventually gave up trying and instead made Barry Lyndon… a film that, ironically, feels a lot like this Napoleon.

And so, Scott and his writer David Scarpa clearly forced themselves into a lane. They circumvent an impossible challenge by narrowing the scope of the film and zooming in on Napoleon’s relationship with his first wife, Josephine. This allows them to cut out most of the battling — the film really only features two: Austerlitz and Waterloo. It also allows them to keep politics and history out of the narrative, probably a sage decision in an age of culture wars.

Joaquin Phoenix creates an introverted, immature Napoleon that is frankly at odds with the history.

This leaves us with Napoleon as a romance and character study. But of whom? The introverted, immature, occasionally-funny-in-an-unintentional-way man on screen is nothing like the historical Napoleon, whose legendary charisma, intellectual prowess, and infinite energy galvanized a generation of French (and Polish and Dutch and German) men to risk everything in the fight against the traditional European power structures.

And that might be fine. Any time we get to see Joaquin Phoenix create a character, it is a treat. Especially when he is paired with the outstanding Vanessa Kirby. And if the world's largest corporation, Apple, wants to fund large-scale sets and impeccable costumes to surround this character study, all the better.

Those seeking actual romance will be disappointed. Napoleon was great at many things, but romance was not one of them. He was mostly preoccupied with conquering, advancing science, sponsoring artists, writing egalitarian codes of laws, and integrating marginalized people into a more enlightened society. None of that makes the Napoleon theatrical cut, just as it has mostly fallen short of English language history books.

Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix on the set of Napoleon.


Napoleon will be released during a Thanksgiving weekend in which other blockbuster films were canceled due to the SAG strike. It will be projected onto IMAX screens in an effort to attract — well — the sorts of folks who want to see epic battles on IMAX screens. It is a perfect window of opportunity for the sort of film that Scott chose not to make. Already shaking with anger is the reasonably small audience of history buffs — especially in continental Europe, where hopes for this film are likely highest.

More than anything else, Napoleon serves as a sort of exception that proves an increasingly obvious rule. Hollywood epics have given way to multi-season Netflix productions in large part because two hours just isn't enough time to tell an epic story. Steven Spielberg will present his version of Napoleon (based on Kubrick’s original script) in an episodic HBO program at some point in the coming years. If we’re lucky that will be the one that makes something of its incredible source material. Ridley Scott is one of the very few directors who will ever again get the keys to an epic movie budget ... and this film is the result.

Bryan Goldberg, the CEO of BDG (Inverse is part of the BDG family), is one of the aforementioned Napoleon history buffs who has long been an admirer and booster of the historical impact of the former Emperor of France. He is the owner of one of Napoleon's infamous felt and beaver fur bicorne hats — which he keeps in temperature-controlled confines for posterity, and maybe to wear at his wedding.

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