Homunculus on Horseback: A Review of "Napoleon"

Homunculus on Horseback: A Review of "Napoleon"

Boudoir-politics trump geopolitics in Sir Ridley Scott's latest picture. 


It was Nietzsche who wrote that the French Revolution was a text buried and lost under the accumulated decades of interpretations. One could say the same of Napoleon Bonaparte, arguably the most consequential product of the Revolution. Historians, philosophers, and polemicists have portrayed the emperor in various roles over the last two hundred years. Napoleon imagined himself akin to Hannibal, Julius Caesar, and the great lawgivers and commanders of antiquity. To the soldiers of his Old Guard, he was the redeemer of France and the deliverer of national glory. To a Bourbon legitimist critic like Rene Chateaubriand, he was a roguish Corsican usurper and warmonger. To G. W. F. Hegel, he was the Enlightenment on horseback, clearing away thrones and altars to make room for the modern world. To the nineteenth-century nationalists who worshipped him, he was the ultimate romantic hero, brooding over the cliffs of St. Helena. To later detractors, his innovations in policing, surveillance, and warfare anticipated the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. 

Unfortunately, Sir Ridley Scott’s latest period biopic, Napoleon, is bereft of both text and interpretation. Its version of events is that of the director’s half-remembered school days (the British won at Waterloo because they formed squares, right?). Joaquin Phoenix’s turn reduces the most important figure of the nineteenth century to a sneering, petulant homunculus. One wonders why anyone would follow such a man into the hellfire of battle.


Much has been made of the numerous historical inventions or distortions of the film: The firing on the Pyramids of Giza, the battle on the ice at Austerlitz, Napoleon’s sudden grabbing of the crown at his coronation (it was, in fact, highly choreographed), and so on. But these leaps from the historical record are rendered all the more jarring when one considers the number of oddly accurate details included. Robespierre did attempt suicide by shooting himself in the jaw after the Thermidor Coup; Napoleon did enjoy a fine Burgundy wine; and his devious foreign minister, Talleyrand, did have a club foot. Evidently, the writers cannot claim they ignored the history books purely to maximize entertainment value.

To the extent that the film does have something to say about one of the most intriguing eras of history, it is a vindication of a kind of vulgar Freudianism. Napoleon’s unrequited and carnal love for Josephine (played by Vanessa Kirby) forces him to abandon the Egyptian campaign and return from exile in Elba. In Scott’s mind, boudoir politics trump geopolitics.

In fact, throughout the whole two-and-a-half hours, Napoleon rarely faces the critical choices that brought his reign to an end. The breakdown of the Treaty of Amiens in 1803, which set France and Britain at war until 1815, is never directly mentioned. The Continental System—the emperor’s scheme to block British merchants from European markets and whose enforcement brought Napoleon’s legions to intervene in Spain and Russia—is muttered as an afterthought and left unexplained to the audience. The script half-heartedly shows Napoleon’s attempts to draw Austria and Russia into an anti-British, French-led security pact after the battles of Austerlitz and Friedland. Still, this process and its collapse, complex as it was, is not adequately addressed. Tellingly, no A-List British thespian was cast as Napoleon’s true nemesis, Austrian Foreign Minister Prince Klemens von Metternich. 

Although good art need not always “speak to the present,” it does seem strange that at a time when Europe is once again engulfed in a land war, and the Holy Land convulsed with conflict, this film feels no obligation to seriously wrestle with the nature of war, peace, and diplomacy. 

What made him such an effective leader of men? Was he responsible for the wars that bear his name, or was he the prisoner of his own militaristic image and the cutthroat world of great power politics? Was he the vanguard of the Revolution or its gravedigger? These questions have been the objects of heated debate for two centuries, and a genuine cinematic portrayal could have been an exciting addition. Instead, the academics and military history buffs (the true grande armée needed for a film like this to achieve box office success) are left with nothing. Unlike Nietzsche’s French Revolution, there is no text for interpretation to bury.

James Himberger is the managing editor at The National Interest. Follow him on X @Beaconsfieldist.

Image: Shutterstock.com.