The Real Napoleon Would Beat Up Ridley Scott’s Napoleon — and Would Do So Quickly

My Review of “Napoleon” starring Joaquin Phoenix

Brian Tubbs


“Napoleon Crossing the Alps” — painting by Jacques-Louis David (cropped by the Author)

Watch Ridley Scott’s biographical epic film Napoleon and you’re likely to wonder how and why so many people took such a petulant, insecure narcissist seriously.

Napoleon Bonaparte, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix (who also starred as Roman emperor Commodus in Gladiator) is a callow, brooding, vain, ill-tempered little boy in a man’s body. This Napoleon is ill-mannered and ill-behaved in politics and diplomacy, selfish and pathetic in the bedroom (especially with his first wife and lifelong confidante, Josephine), and intelligent but mainly lucky (and only then sometimes) on the battlefield. Whatever success he has with the latter is due to the ineptitude or overconfidence of his adversaries as well as his willingness to throw away the lives of his soldiers.

That’s the Napoleon Bonaparte presented to us by Joaquin Phoenix, Ridley Scott, and writer David Scarpa. The real Napoleon wouldn’t give that Napoleon the time of day. But if forced to confront him — either in fisticuffs, wrestling, or on the battlefield — the real Napoleon would beat the snot out of Scott’s Napoleon every day of the week and twice on Sunday!

This isn’t to suggest that Scott’s biopic is a total loss. The film shines in its portrayal of battlefield scenes. Occupying a significant portion of the runtime, these scenes are epic and immersive. The cinematography is incredible, and there’s a compelling contrast between the sharp choreography and the raw brutality of war.

In the very first battle sequence, we are witness to one of the most graphic depictions of cannon fire in modern movie history — this one, involving a horse. It’s a grisly look at what cannonballs can do to both horses and people when they impact.

However, the film stumbles otherwise. Despite Joaquin Phoenix’s near-constant on-screen presence, the movie doesn’t really tell us anything worthwhile about who Napoleon was as a person.

To the extent that we get a look into Napoleon’s personality and character, we’re given more of a caricature than a real person. And it’s a caricature that gives us more comedy than historical value.