Ridley Scott's new trailer for his epic biopic of Napoleon's life has caused a lot of excitement and a lot of consternation online and in the social media forums.


I t seems that we're getting quite a different portrayal of Napoleon to some of the representations we've seen in previous films. This is an intense Napoleon, with a very hefty dose of narcissism thrown in the mix and in a lot of respects, that’s highly accurate.

There has been a lot of pushback about the way in which Joaquin Phoenix is portraying a much less openly emotional Napoleon. But Napoleon was noted as being oddly intense in the early stages of his life. It's one of the things that's picked up from his time at military Academy, and it's part of the reason he was quite unpopular.

We also get this strong sense that Napoleon has a destiny that he believes he has been born to fulfil and that's, that's again, actually quite accurate. From an early point in his life, Napoleon was reading about Julius Caesar particularly, and trying to channel his own efforts in life to become a new Caesar.

There was a lot of internal frustration for him when he wasn't getting the postings that he wanted, and this is part of the reason that he's actually in Paris during the Vendémiaire uprising, which leads to the famous ‘whiff of grape shot’ moment depicted in the trailer. The reason he's there is he's turned down a posting in the Vendée because he believes it is beneath him.

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So you have this intense guy, somewhat self-absorbed, very impressed with himself, and that’s actually quite accurate at this point in Napoleon's life.

Napoleon and Josephine

One of the things that's really exciting about what's come through in this trailer is the huge significance of Josephine de Beauhernais.

Again, this is really reflective of reality. Josephine was Napoleon's emotional rock, just as Napoleon needed Marshall Berthier to be able to translate his military vision into reality, so Josephine was the one who – in the words of historian and commentator Rachel Stark – made Napoleon palatable for French society.

She took Napoleon's kind of reserve and his insular tendencies and made him much better able to engage in a way that enabled him to more effectively charm his contemporaries.

Napoleon in Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo

The lack of emotion of Phoenix’s Napoleon has been contrasted with Rod Steiger's portrayal of Napoleon in 1970’s Waterloo by Sergei Bondarchuk. There we have a much more emotional Napoleon, and that is again reflective of where Napoleon was at that point in his life.

The historian Clare Siviter has made the point that if you take any two years of Napoleon's life, he's different in terms of his emotions and his psychology. In Waterloo, Napoleon is depicted as reflective and depressed Napoleon, which is, accurate to a point – though perhaps that's slightly truer of Napoleon during his exile on St Helena.

In Waterloo, there's also very much that sense that Napoleon is barely in control, which is in stark contrast to what we're seeing in the Ridley Scott trailer. In Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, we have a guy with a vision who's just frustrated about being held back. When it comes to Waterloo, we've got this sort of almost Trumpian twisting of reality, which is reflective of Napoleon's exceptional use of propaganda.

Napoleon in Abel Gance’s 1927 silent movie

The other great depiction that we can contrast this with is, of course, Abel Gance’s 1927 silent movie Napoleon.

The challenge we have here is this is a different medium and it belongs to a different time. We're talking a hundred years ago, not only in terms of film production, but also in terms of historical research, and there have been massive shifts in both.

Gance was a visionary without question. He had a genius that showed the potential of the moving medium that in some respects has never been realised to this day. His film was meant to have been the first of five installments on Napoleon's life. And it is five and a half hours long.

In this respect, some people just were quite pleased that he didn't go and produce the entire thing, because it would've taken the rest of his life. But what’s interesting is that he's using different techniques to try and show what goes on in Napoleon's mind.

He layers multiple shots simultaneously over a single scene kind of showing Napoleon as this visionary genius.

You have a sort of a flashing of the eyes, algebra sort of flickers across the screen, and underneath that is laid out a map. And then you've got troop movements and arrows sort of going in different directions.

It's trying to show Napoleon as the person who can just almost click his fingers and see everything, have everything played out in his mind, and that is very much a ‘great man of history’ way of looking at the guy, which is reflective of the time.

In the 1920s, we were still in that age of grand narratives of history, focusing on the ‘big men’ who made big decisions and historical interpretation has moved on.

Napoleon – the visionary and the genius – is not what we're getting through Ridley Scott. What we're getting in his film a much more human Napoleon, and as far as I'm concerned, it's a much more exciting depiction because of that.


Dr Zack White is a military historian and author specialising in the British Army in the early 19th century