The initial question is the following. Can a cinematic representation give up historical rigor to make the story spectacular?
In the past we have seen historical films produced with a truly excellent level of accuracy, yet it is pure illusion to stick to a script that maintains the rigidity of past events. Cinematic rhythms require different timing: the story must excite, drag the viewer into an alternative world and affect him emotionally. To those who look, often profane, it matters little whether an event happened in 1700 or 1723, the important thing is the image that reproduces it.
For Napoleon, however, the situation changes, also because the French emperor is one of the most famous characters in world history. He has been the subject of an endless bibliography and - to a much lesser extent - successful cinematographic films. I think of director Abel Gance's biographical meatloaf, or Marlon Brando's magnificent performance in Desiree up to the fantastic (opinion of the writer, one of the best) Monsieur N where the decadent emperor in exile is masterfully played by Philippe Torreton. If, however, we turn our gaze to the epic of the Napoleonic battles, then it is impossible not to mention the work of Sergei Bondarchuk with his War and peace and the monumental Waterloo where the one to suffer the cunning of the Duke of Wellington (Christopher Plummer) was an intense Napoleon/Rod Steiger. Apart from more or less successful television series, it's been a long time since a film dedicated to Napoleon was released in theaters and this time it was none other than Ridley Scott, one of the most popular directors in Hollywood.
A director who celebrates his skill in the scenes of Gladiator where only the initial part of the battle was worth the cost of the ticket. In short, the Scott/Napoleone combination has created truly high expectations among the public of enthusiasts. Add to this the name of the actor called to play the role of the little Corsican: Joaquin Phoenix, also an interpreter of memorable characters such as Commodus or the more imaginative Joker. All the ingredients were there for a full-blown success and yet the news before and after the screening in cinemas focused above all on the macro historical distortions that accompanied the feature film. Errors - according to many professionals - unforgivable, which do not allow excuses.
The film traces the frenetic life of Napoleon Bonaparte and the viewer is immediately catapulted into the events of the French Revolution, complete with a scene dedicated to the beheading of Marie Antoinette. The story continues – maintaining this Fil rouge for the entire duration of the film – about the meeting and the liaison between Bonaparte and Josephine of Beauharnais. A passionate, intense relationship, where the director (or someone for him) certainly peeked into the correspondence between the general and his beloved, drawing the most prurient ideas from it. It's a shame, however, that Vanessa Kirby, in all her beauty, appears much younger than her courageous boyfriend: giving a correct image of the 'beautiful Creole' would have been of little use to the film.
Napoleon in Egypt, before the battle of the Pyramids, orders the top to be bombed to intimidate the enemies. Why would you ever invent something like that? Let us then draw a pitiful veil on the reasons that pushed Bonaparte to quickly return to Paris: here the notes are tinged with pink since it was not the Austro-Russian counter-offensive of 1799 that moved Bonaparte's soul, but his wife's infidelity. The right moment to take power, a Directory in disrepair, nothing matters compared to the jealousy and peccadilloes of a woman who - and she knew it well - from the beginning she knew how to be quite cheerful. On the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire, the American director was more truthful, portraying an insecure Napoleon, beaten up by the Assembly and protected by his brother Luciano. Marengo, the episode that sealed the First Consul's power in Europe, is completely missing, just as there is no trace of the first Italian campaigns that brought him to prominence.
The fighting continues with a singular transposition of the well-known battle of Austerlitz: an isolated French camp, complete with entrenched soldiers, who then launch themselves against the enemy with fixed bayonet. Just look at the scenes of Waterloo, a film produced with the means available in 1970, to realize that something much better could have been done! The scene of the frozen lake - in reality it was the Satschan Meer - places the emphasis on an episode that is frankly marginal compared to Napoleon's entire tactical plan.
The continuation of the film lingers on the frantic search for an heir for the Empire, the transport for Giuseppina, including the sex scenes, and the dramatic divorce (complete with a slap delivered to the ex-wife). An emperor (very poor coronation scene) alone in his soul and person, surrounded by nothingness: extraordinary characters who accompanied him during his career have been completely forgotten and never mentioned. Only minister Talleyrand finds space, but it is tailored to his malformation and opportunism, but also his mother Letizia is worried about her son's prolificacy. The Russian campaign passes quite quickly with the scene of the fire and the dramatic retreat then, with a leap in time, we move on to the abdication of 1814, Elba and the return to France.
At Waterloo begins the decadent apotheosis not only of Napoleon, but of the film itself. That of Waterloo was a complex battle; Scott conceives it as a line of entrenched English soldiers - like La Somme in 1917 - and a cavalry charge with Napoleon himself galloping with his sword drawn chasing the enemy. But that's not enough! A Green Jackets Sharpshooter targets the man on the white horse, symbol of France, piercing his legendary hat with a missed shot! Perhaps that episode was in the director's mind, or rather, he would have liked things to end like this. Perhaps with Napoleon fallen, bleeding, in front of the wooden door of Hougoumont or pierced in single combat by the Duke of Wellington. In this regard, in the end, on board the ship that would take him to Saint Helena, the idyllic and extremely science fiction meeting between the emperor and the duke takes place, like Al Pacino and De Niro at the bar table in the film The Heat. The last shot of this rambling staging sees Napoleon collapse in front of the endless water panorama of the island. A hasty and unworthy way to end an epic that would have deserved greater emphasis and some more reflection. The closing credits linger on the battles and body counts of the Napoleonic Wars, condemning to oblivion everything Napoleon meant to Europe and the world. Americans probably care a lot about this type of calculation, always imagining or hoping to find someone who has done worse than them: but there is no competition and no one takes away the record of useless deaths without ever having given anything.
Upon leaving the room, disappointment weighs heavily, however it is impossible not to think of an incontrovertible fact in Napoleon's career. Throughout his political life, the French emperor has always demonstrated a great ability to change events for his personal gain. Precisely the distorted narrative of the battle of Marengo marked the beginning of this modus operandi which transformed Napoleon into a communication genius. The iconographic representations then are a further step towards a heated cult of personality: paintings that represent the hero of France as a new Hannibal in the Alps, or a 'sovereign miracle worker' who extends his hand to the plague victims of Jaffa. A series of packaged episodes and following the best practices to honor his ambition, his magnificence and his outsized ego. Let's not talk about the Bulletins of the Grand Armee for whom the famous saying was coined: “lie like a bulletin”.
Unfortunately, however, the task of a historical film is another, that is to give the public as truthful an image of the character or event as possible, without feeling the need to fill it with mendacious, bizarre and unfounded episodes. Emmanuel de Las Cases already thought about this in 1823 when he delivered the famous St. Helena Memorial, an epochal best seller in which Napoleon told the latest version of his life. Ridley Scott measured himself against a subject bigger than himself, demonstrating that the power of American cinema, with its infinite resources and computerized means, stumbles on issues that demand respect, depth and scenic coherence. History is a damn serious thing and whoever represents it - on any media vehicle - has a serious responsibility. For everything else, manipulation included, politics already takes care of it.