Why is Napoleon such a figure of ridicule in cinema?
Ridley’s Scott’s Napoleon offers us a serious, Machiavellian take on the Corsican general, but so many films portray him as short and angry creature to be dismissed out of hand. Napoleonic historian Dr Zack White breaks down the myth of the Napoleon complex
It's striking looking at this trailer for Napoleon that Ridley Scott has taken some of the great, almost propaganda-esque portraits of the period – particularly Napoleon's coronation painting and paintings of Napoleon and the Sphinx – and is sort of creating a movie based around those iconic depictions.
This contrasts quite starkly with a trope that exists within cinema of using Napoleon as a figure of ridicule.
There is a running gag through a series of films and also cartoons of the 'diminutive Napoleon'.
- Read more | How tall was Napoleon Bonaparte?
If you take 1989 film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Napoleon is portrayed as a slightly incompetent, tantrum-throwing fool, who's very curt and very egotistical.
That taps into one facet of Napoleon's character. He could be curt and he could be a real pain to talk to. He was absolutely capable of hurling things across the room in order to make a point, because above all, Napoleon was very Machiavellian. He was somebody who had a vision and he would stop at almost nothing to realise that vision.
In 2009’s Night at the Museum 2, there is a scene in which the main villain of the film – the fictional pharaoh Ahkmenrah – gathers what he describes as the most despicable leaders across history from the museum exhibits.
Ahkmenrah drops the word ‘short’ into what he's saying, and instantly that Napoleon turns around and goes “Short! Why'd you look at me when you say short?” in a stereotypically bad French accent.
It taps into that myth that Napoleon was 5’ 2” and had the so-called ‘Napoleon complex’ as a result. Actually, in terms of standard measure – because different nations used different lengths of measurement at this time –Napoleon was a little bit over 5’ 6”, which made him just above the average height of the standard French infantryman during the battle of Waterloo.
Napoleon was not short. There's also a point that he didn't speak with a strong French accent
So Napoleon was not short. There's also a point that he didn't speak with a strong French accent. He spoke with a very, very strong Corsican-Italian accent that he couldn't shake the whole way through his life.
Obviously this is cinema. It's there as a running gag. But it's interesting that it is almost an anglocentric depiction and James Gillray-esque depiction – that’s where it come from.
Georgian satirist James Gillray was a genius in terms of the art of caricature, and he has this running gag of a teeny, tiny Napoleon who would throw tantrums when he didn't get what he wanted.
That image, so visceral because of Gillray’s skill of making these characters pop out of the page, has stuck all the way through history. It’s why we have such a strong semblance of Napoleon as a figure of ridicule.
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It's interesting that it's happening not just in UK cinema, but across Hollywood as well. Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, however, looks like it is going to do things properly.
Napoleon is perhaps going to be portrayed how Napoleon might want us to have remembered him, but in the process it's not going to fall down the British propaganda line of those common tropes that are just plain wrong, and in some respects, slightly tired.
Dr Zack White is a military historian and author specialising in the British Army in the early 19th century
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