The Longer Read

Murderous ego maniac or all-conquering hero? The real Napoleon laid bare

The latest version of the Emperor to be brought to the big screen by Joaquin Phoenix in Ridley Scott’s blockbuster is a thuggish Corsican ogre who was a ‘cad to his wife’, according to a horrified home press. He was many things, reveals historian Guy Walters – including not as shrimp-like in size as we like to joke – but, above all, he was just very, very French…

Saturday 18 November 2023 06:30
<p>Desert storm: Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from Ridley Scott’s historical drama ‘Napoleon’, which will be released in UK cinemas on 22 November </p>

Desert storm: Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from Ridley Scott’s historical drama ‘Napoleon’, which will be released in UK cinemas on 22 November

All nations have figures and episodes in their pasts about which they are divided. For the British, it is undoubtedly the empire. While its defenders say that it civilised so much of the world, its detractors state that the empire enslaved it. With the French, the topic that causes the most division is not their own imperial project, but rather that of the character and legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte. For some, the soldier and ruler was a brilliant visionary who made France great, whereas others maintain that he was a tyrant and despot, and France should be ashamed of a man who was little better than Hitler or Putin.

Napoleon is the subject of yet another megabucks biopic that is about to be released. Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Joaquin Phoenix as the big man – or, rather, not-so-big man if stories of Napoleon’s diminutive height are to be believed – and Vanessa Kirby as his empress Josephine, the film explores the couple’s relationship amid the tumultuous backdrop of Napoleon’s rise to power.

While the film has been largely praised by Anglophone critics, some members of the Francosphere are withering about Scott’s epic. French viewers have laid into it, slamming what they see as a litany of historical inaccuracies. Among them is the curator of the army museum at Les Invalides, Emilie Robbe, who has pointed out that Napoleon was not present at the guillotining of Marie Antoinette, and neither did he ride alongside his men in cavalry charges, nor open fire on the Egyptian pyramids.

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