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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Napoleon- Review

GP Rating

For as long as I can remember, the Napoleonic era has been my bag. Growing up reading and watching Sharpe, painting 15mm Napoleonics, watching endless documentaries, reading books on the era and even doing my dissertation on Napoleon for Uni (albeit not the best dissertation in the world); I couldn’t get enough of it. It just captivated me, the pomp, the formations, the tactics the battles, it had everything.

So when I heard that Ridley Scott was making a film about Napoleon I couldn’t help but get my hopes up. How would they do it I wondered to myself, a long film maybe?  His rise to power? His last days?

The whole thing, his entire career, wow, ok so I guess it’s going to be a long film then… 2.5 hours… Ah, this could be a problem.

Now Ridley Scott states there is a 3.5 hour Director cut but even at that you are really going to struggle, bearing in mind all the main occurrences, victories and defeats during the period… But I will go into that later.

First the good

I enjoyed how Joaquin phoenix portrayed Napoleon. It was reserved, insecure emotional and gave a more realistic and even flawed look at the man, which I felt, based on what I’ve read/studied at least, was quite close to what he was like. On top of this his obsession with Josephine was well documented and the film showed this really well. Indeed, their pretty emotional and somewhat toxic relationship was one of the triumphs of the film and honestly, it should have been called Napoleon and Josephine.

His letters to her, and her letters to him work well and I found that as much as I wanted certain historical milestones to be hit within the film, having the narration of these letters made me not mind as much and cemented that it was more a film about their relationship than his career.

The hint of humour, which I know people disliked, I quite enjoyed. Again it added to the reality of it all. So much of the time in film we have implacable characters and heroes, seldom showing weakness and so we are used to, especially in war films, them being avatars of the stoic, brooding genius. We didn’t get that with Napoleon, which I think has caused issues for a lot of people because their image of who they think Napoleon was / acted differs greatly from how he was portrayed, which I feel was probably more real.

The Battles (which are also included in the bad) were visceral, bloody and despite the history nerd in me getting wound up by certain things were visually stimulating and somewhat graphic at times. If you’re not a history geek, you’ll love them for the short periods they are on the screen.

The Bad

It kinda felt like a TV film, or a higher-budget episode of Sharpe / one of those historical dramas that the BBC or ITV would do. Which I love, but where I can accept the limitations of a TV film and the abstractions that come with limited budget and manpower. I feel that a 150m dollar film should really be giving me the epic feel, which I’m not sure we got, especially in the battles which seem very limited in size and scope bearing in mind said budget and the battles portrayed.

The battles were historically woeful and needlessly so in my opinion. As much as I’m happy to accept some Hollywood licence when it comes to set pieces. I found myself feeling slightly annoyed in each of the main battles.

Austerlitz was one of Napoleon’s finest moments, louring the enemy onto the pratzen heights and counter-attacking but in the film the only “heights” are where the French guns were and it seemed to be more about the whole, I’m going to shoot cannons at that ice, which wasn’t an overly major part of the battle rather than, showing Napoleon’s tactical ability by outsmarting a combine Russo-Austrian army that outnumbered him.

The Battle of Borodino and the subsequent retreat from Moscow just had no real sense of the scale or cost.  600k + men fought in Russia for la Grande Armee and only 8% returned.

The Battle of Waterloo, the largest set piece in the film just made me kinda angry.

A Rifleman with a scope… The British sitting in field entrenchments then being ordered forward to receive the cavalry charge, why?! One there weren’t entrenched lines like that, the hill itself was used as cover and even they were in existence why would you move out of them and then form a defensive square against a cavalry attack? It makes zero sense. Unless you want to have a great shot of cuirassiers charging round them. Well why not have it as it was, Ney thought the British were retreating, sent the heavy cavalry forward and as they crest the hill the British were in square. The entrenchments weren’t needed and I suspect, were a way to mask numbers so Scott could make the battle look bigger and fill more space.

Finally, the Prussians came in on the wrong flank, It rained the night before not on the day and the advance of the guard to break Wellington’s centre was in line. The attack made by the middle guard were in attack columns, or technically squares, with one being in a mixed formation of a column on both sides and a line in the middle.

Bearing in mind this was an era of massed attack columns and formation fighting, bar the squares at the end of Waterloo little effort was made to reference it in any of the battles and there could have easily been a bit more care made towards how battles were fought at the time.

On top of this, there seemed to be this obsession with the fact Napoleon was an artillery officer and every chance was made to reference it, with each battle having him just waving his hand to fire cannons and that was about it. No other glimpse into his mind or thought process or tactical abilities. His thing was Artillery and that was about it. Which kinda takes away from what I thought the film was getting at, was he a genius or was he a tyrant and you don’t really get a balanced view on either.

The Verdict.

I’d be lying to say I hated it, despite the historic niggles, because I didn’t, it was enjoyable and if you came to watch it with no historical nerd baggage you’d enjoy it as well I think. It’s well shot, as expected, the dynamic between Napoleon and Josephine is great and if you take away the historical inaccuracies the battles look cool.

Sadly, I am a history nerd and as much as it helped with the huge time jumps, as I could fill in the blanks with my own knowledge, I just felt like it didn’t feel like an epic film, it felt rushed in part because it was trying to cram so much into a short period, some of the missed parts I think were vital in depiciting who Napoleon was and the Battles, as much as they were visually nice, were historically lazy.

Honestly, had Apple funded it as a higher-budget series, with more time given to more key periods in his life and his relationship with Josephine I think you would have had a winner. But what we have been given is a somewhat rushed and okish film. Not bad, but not great either. Not a film i’m clambering to go and watch again; which is painful because I love the Napoleonic era.

C’est La Guerre

Matt Geary
Matt Gearyhttps://www.geek-pride.co.uk
From N.Ireland but now living in Manchester, England; Matt is the founder and CEO of Geek Pride. Interests: Photography, Music, Art, poetry, Military History, Model making and painting and of course gaming (table top and computer)

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Honestly, had Apple funded it as a higher-budget series, with more time given to more key periods in his life and his relationship with Josephine I think you would have had a winner. But what we have been given is a somewhat rushed and okish film. Not bad, but not great either. Not a film i'm clambering to go and watch again; which is painful because I love the Napoleonic era. C'est La GuerreNapoleon- Review