Thursday, December 28, 2023

Napoleon - For and Against

Ridley Scott, dir. Napoleon (2023)

Even bad Ridley Scott movies are generally worth seeing. As he himself has remarked, "I have an eye." There are definitely ravishing moments in Napoleon, as well as any number of nods to famous pieces of Napoleonic iconography.

Ridley Scott, dir. Napoleon (2023)

Most famously, of course, there's the above juxtaposition from the (alas, rather too short) Egyptian section of the movie, which echoes Jean-Léon Gérôme's classic late nineteenth century heroic painting:

Jean-Léon Gérôme: Bonaparte Before the Sphinx (1886)

Is it a bad film, though? The question is a complex one. Earlier this year I wrote a long blogpost about the (so-called) "Man of Destiny" on my bibliography blog.

Pieter Geyl: Napoleon: For and Against (1949)

I used there as my leit-motif there Dutch historian Pieter Geyl's classic analysis of Napoleonic historiography early and late. Written shortly after the Second World War, the inevitable comparison with a more recent charismatic dictator inevitably arose:
The case of the persecution of the Jews remains singular: for the rest we must be alive to the fact, when we compare them then and now, that although there is a difference in degree, there is none in principle.

Ridley Scott, dir. Napoleon (2023)

Recently I've been indulging myself by reading through English novelist Fanny Burney's letters and diaries, which cover the whole period of the Napoleonic wars - as well as their aftermath, the "White Terror" of the restored Bourbon regime.

Fanny was an almost grovellingly loyal admirer of the English Royal Family, whom she served as assistant Mistress of the Robes in the mid-1790s (interestingly, the period of George III's first madness). Subsequently she lived from almost ten years in France with her husband, Royalist general Alexandre d'Arblay, between 1802 and 1812.

Her testimony, then, while undoubtedly partisan, cannot be faulted for its quality of personal witness. Her defence of the systematic programme of executions which began immediately after Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo, does, however, seem a little tone-deaf, to say the least:
Once restored to its rightful monarch, all foreign interference was at an end. Having been seated on the throne by the nation, and having never abdicated, though he had been chased by rebellion from his kingdom, [Louis XVIII] had never forfeited his privilege to judge which of his subjects were still included in his original amnesty, and which had incurred the penalty or chances of being tried by the laws of the land - and by them, not by royal decree, condemned or acquitted.
As Fanny's Victorian editor reminds us, this rather chilling passage was written à propos of a daring attempt by three Englishmen to smuggle a French diplomat, condemned to death by the Bourbons, out of jail:
His wife implored the king's mercy in vain, Lavalette was confined in the Conciergerie, and December 21, 1815, was the day fixed for his execution. The evening before that day his wife visited him in the prison. He exchanged clothes with her, and thus disguised, succeeded in making his escape. His safety was secured by three English gentlemen, one of whom, Sir Robert Wilson, conveyed Lavalette, in the disguise of an English officer, across the Belgian frontier. For this generous act the three Englishmen were tried in Paris, and sentenced, each, to three months' imprisonment.
It's as well to bear this in mind when condemning the undoubted brutality and cruelty of Napoleon's wars. It's not as if the realms and rulers he displaced were models of compassion and probity. The imposition of the Code Napoléon on so many conquered regions was literally the first glimpse many of their inhabitants had ever had of legal process and the rights of man.

No wonder Fanny Burney and her like were so anxious to restore a system which guaranteed the subordination of the many to the luxurious lifestyles of the few.

However, while there may be a good deal to say in defence of Napoleon himself, what about Ridley Scott's movie? I was reading Michael Sullivan's enticingly titled article "The 21 movies we hated in 2023" this morning: Napoleon clocks in at no. 15, with an explanatory quote from film critic Ann Hornaday:
The biggest flaw in Napoleon, it turns out, is the actor who plays him. It's difficult to understand why [Ridley] Scott would cast Joaquin Phoenix - one of the most subtle, recessive, almost fey actors working today - to play someone with such a commanding temperament.
There's something in that, I'm afraid. Phoenix was brilliant as the Joker, and as the evil emperor Commodus in Gladiator, but he lacks the epic intensity of a Russell Crowe or a Harrison Ford. He behaves more like a sleepwalker than a man of destiny: so childishly pleased by the adulation of the midshipmen on the British ship he ends up on at the end of the bio-pic that any remaining doubts he might be feeling over Waterloo seem quite submerged.

I would be interested to see the four-hour 'director's cut' we've been promised at some point in the future, but it's doubtful whether this central piece of miscasting can really be overcome no matter how conscientiously the rest of the action - and characterisation - is filled in.

All in all, Scott's film leaves one wishing that Stanley Kubrick had lived to complete his own big screen epic about the Emperor. The one thing I'm genuinely thankful for is that they didn't cast Adam Driver. He seems to star in every other film nowadays, and it's a relief that he must have been otherwise occupied at the time chasing dinosaurs in the singularly charmless 65 ...

Scott Beck & Bryan Woods, dir.: 65 (2023)


Farrell said...

You're generous, Jack. I just wish Scott had invested in a decent script writer. The film must be the winner though for the bad sex Oscar.
I knew nothing about Burney and the White Terror. Or about the way Bonaporte staged his coup.

Dr Jack Ross said...

I was trying to substantiate the information I once read that the Bourbons killed far more people in their white terror than Robespierre et al. during the Terror, but I haven't managed to find any clear information on the topic. Certainly the judicial murder of the Duc D'Enghien starts to sound like pretty small potatoes when you start counting up all the bodies piled up by the reactionaries post-1815 ...

Richard said...

Well this has sparked my interest in Napoleon and those wars. I really know very little about that history. I know something of it, but not enough. I probably wont watch this movie but I should read something re those wars. I was looking at an art book and that famous picture by Goya of people being executed in Spain by soldiers dressed in cowls of...I was never sure who they were, it seems they were opposed to the French, not the British as I had thought more recently. (But as it is symbolic of "the horrors of war" I hadn't looked into it. In fact for years I had no idea who was killing who...So my knowledge of those wars is deficient. Time permitting, I should 'brush up' on my European history...Interesting post as always.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Hi Richard,

Certainly the war in Spain was a complicated mess, caused by Napoleon's desire to impose his brother Joseph as the new monarch of Spain (despite the fact that he was already allied to the existing regime). Britain intervened in the resulting conflict, which led to the growth of the Duke of Wellington's military reputation. Napier wrote a 6-volume history of the (so-called) Peninsular War, but almost exclusively from a British perspective. Goya's paintings show the horrors of the guerilla war against the French, and the appalling atrocities that resulted. There are many modern accounts of the Napoleonic wars, but it's hard to think of a single one to recommend. Zamoyski's book on 1812 gives a wonderfully vivid account of the war in Russia, but I haven't myself found anything comparable on Spain ...

Richard said...

Thanks for that Jack. I have something, that is some various European history books, one just on Europe. But also, some time ago, at Panmure, where they used to have a Sunday market, I saw books by Carlyle, a lot (possibly 40 volumes) and I got them all for about $40.00...although it could have even been $20.00. In them is several volumes about Frederick the Great, Sartor Resartus, Wilhelm Meister (2 vols), various essays, a biog of Schiller, and a 3 vol book of the French Revolution! Beside it is a shorter French Rev. and various other things. I had no special interest in Carlyle. I have read Goethe's 'The Sorrows...' but have no copy of it, I do have a couple of other things by G....some poems, Vol 1 of Faust, The Italian Journey. I had read the story of Carlyle's either burning or did he leave it on a train? ... his French Revolution (of course he re-wrote it)....Nevertheless, besides that, nothing about Napoleon, so I should start with a general history of Europe I have and keep reading...There must be something on Napoleon and those wars as there are so many books on wars...Perhaps I should get through my Dostoevsky books and then launch into Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' which I do have. When I read Anna K. I wasn't impressed but I wasn't in a good I might try and read more of that great man. Now I can read, after my successful cataract operation, finer print etc I can read grumpy Nabokov (of whose novels I have eaten pretty large helping of, but need to read the Sebastian one and a couple of others...But his criticism...I dislike what I have heard of his, I feel, rather arrogant ways when lecturing and so on...but his novels are good of course...and I have Brian Boyd's books (he was one of my lecturers/tutors), as well as Field on Nabokov...But I am generally Napoleonless!!

How do these guys write those massive tomes, those so many books!! There is so much now to read, on so many aspects of human enterprise, aside from literature and poetry etc. We cannot avoid science (I got a strange but interesting book by a (Scientist?) on the subject of motion and it is fascinating, even covering an old German poem, as well as starting more or less with Newton's Laws of motion and so on. I once read a book by a mathematician who (he didn't seem to want to talk about mathematics, but did talk about his own life, he was born in working class home in England, later he won a comp for reciting some ridiculously long series of the numbers in Pi, which I saw done, I think on YouTube) talked about Nabokov's way of using card indexes esp. for Lolita, and the potential permutations that book could have been, as well as about Cortazar's 'Hopscotch', and re 'War and Peace' he had a theory or seemed to be sure that Tolstoy knew something of Calculus...and thus somehow his theory (he said Tolstoy's) involved an idea that it was a totality of events, rather than any moral, or ethical-sociological etc etc issue per se...It was a strange and interesting book if flawed. But all was about literature and it had been placed in the Science part in the library. Reminded me of Warburg, described by Alberto Manguel in 'The Library at Night'...

I'll get that book on the Russian war if I see it....All the best.