Have You Seen Scott’s Version of Napoleon?


By Vivian Blevins

Contributing columnist

I became interested in Director Ridley Scott’s latest production, “Napoleon,” when I read a review that indicated that the French were not particularly satisfied with his portrayal of Napoleon, so my husband and I headed to the local theatre.

One of my teaching fields when I graduated from the University of Toledo was history, and bits and pieces of the life of this figure started bouncing around in my consciousness: Josephine, Elba, Saint Helena, and , of course Waterloo, an analogy common in American English when we refer to persons who have failed to succeed when met with an important challenge. And once in Paris with my husband, we went to the Les Invalides where I was enthralled as I viewed Napoleon’s stately sarcophagus with the layers of quartz and granite. And it was positioned in a prominent place below the dome of the facility.

Back to the film directed by Scott, 86, and intent, as he claimed recently on rushing ahead to direct more movies. Perhaps he should have paused to be more thoughtful as he sought to direct this one. Why?

Let’s start with small bits. Joaquin Phoenix plays Napoleon. My husband kept saying he was too old for the role. I would blame the hair-and- makeup artists as he was not portrayed as changing from his early years as a mere soldier to his eventual triumphs and death at age 51. Wrinkles, Gray hair? And what about his garbled vocalics? This is a man who was speaking English for a U.S. audience but in reality was supposed to be speaking French which history tells us he did not do well because of his early years on Corsica. Further, Napoleon was 5’6” which we consider short for a male, but it wasn’t at the time; Josephine was 5’9” which was considered tall for a woman at that time.

My second issue is with the length of the movie- which was released on Nov. 22, 2023- at two hours and 38 minutes. Many of the audience who had enjoyed an early Thanksgiving meal, as we had, were probably not comfortable sitting for such a long time. Today’s audience prefers one hour plus. It’s about attention span and the desire to be entertained. A few had to visit the bathroom over that extended period, and I’m sure they asked, “What happened?” in their absence, and I’m sure the answer was, “Just another battle scene.” And from my position, there were too many battles. A little summarized narrative could have moved the trajectory forward nicely without sacrificing meaning.

A third issue is the very graphic sex scenes. I don’t mind the one where Napoleon and Josephine are having sex under a table with a long cloths and with attendants in the room, but the other two are vulgar, violent, unnecessary. And I’m no prude.

My final comment is going to be on the focus of the movie, the persistent main theme, and how it was developed. I’m not certain Scott knew- and I’m all for sub plots. Was the focus on Napoleon’s rise to the top as he developed military expertise? Was it on his enduring relationship with Josephine in spite of affairs (both of them) and the divorce and his remarriage to provide an heir? Was the focus on the contradictory nature of

Napoleon’s value system? Fighting for civil rights and hell bent on colonization. Yes, he was flawed as were, and are, leaders of our country. And who gets to decide how many fatalities in war are too many?

In conclusion, I will acknowledge a film director’s right to direct as he determines what the story is to be: pure fiction, creative non-fiction or non-fiction. Don’t try, however, as a director to deceive an audience into believing that what they are experiencing is historically accurate by including all those dates, battles, and other information on the screen. Maybe Scott was in too big of a hurry. I’d suggest that if you opt to see the movie, that you read a five-or six-page biographical summary of Napoleon. And Napoléon’s last word? Was it “France” or “Josephine or something else? I side with the French.

Vivian B. Blevins. Ph.D., teaches telecommunication employees from around the country and students at Edison State Community College and works with veterans. You may reach her at 937-778-3815 or [email protected].

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