Historians & Hollywood

Historians have been keen to give their opinions on the latest Napoleon movie.
Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte
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Yet another film on Napoleon and, inevitably it seems, yet more myths are added to the old. As Simon Schama nicely observed, Ridley Scott and his ilk are not content with ‘just making films about Napoleon so much as climbing into his saddle, beguiled by the siren song of Movie Destiny’. Such thoughts undoubtedly haunted Stanley Kubrick as he prepared what was to be his epic and Scott seems to have wanted to make his own offering the last word on the subject. ‘With Napoleon, I think we dug in and found the character, or as close to what he may have been,’ he told one interviewer. ‘I compare him with Alexander the Great, Adolf Hitler, Stalin’, and concludes ‘he’s got a lot of bad shit under his belt’. Not that close, then.

What is even more striking than the megalomania of the film-makers is the propensity among historians to climb into that saddle, seemingly beguiled by the glamour of Hollywood. The only film I can remember ever having walked out of within the first fifteen minutes was Oliver Stone’s 2004 epic Alexander. I’m quite happy to suspend critical judgment and aural prejudice against the American accents of ancient Greeks, but this was corny beyond belief. Yet when my wife, who adored Robin Lane Fox’s brilliant biography of the Greek demi-god, asked him how he could have borne being a consultant on such a ludicrous project, he insisted it was a marvellous film and wouldn’t hear a word said against it. I can see that a long spell in Morocco in the company of Angelina Jolie might have affected his judgment, but I’m at a loss when it comes to the consultant on Ridley Scott’s Napoleon.

‘I’m sure there are things I missed,’ Michael Broers is reported as saying when quizzed about some of the film’s factual errors. This is to stretch the art of understatement beyond conceivable limits, given that almost every scene in the film is either fictitious or glaringly inaccurate, and bloomers of one sort or another leap out at anyone with any knowledge of Napoleon’s life and times. ‘In some scenes,’ he asserts, ‘I think that [Ridley Scott] sometimes did it better than what some of the historical records show.’ Was the Oxford Professor of Western European History and author of a three-volume biography of Napoleon bedazzled by the glamour of Hollywood, or might it have been the lovely Vanessa Kirby? Certainly Josephine/Vanessa seems to have made a profound impression on him: he declares Napoleon and Josephine’s relationship to have been ‘one of the greatest love affairs in European history,’ adding: ‘He was a randy guy – Josephine turned him on.’ As that doesn’t really describe the relationship between the historical figures, one cannot help wondering who turned whom on.

If I take a facetious tone, it’s because the flurry of comment and pontification provoked by the film is so fatuous, involving all sorts of half-baked experts and kicking off with gusto before the film had even been released.

Dr Zack White was so impressed by the trailer that he went through it clip by clip on his Napoleonic Wars podcast, finally declaring, amusingly: ‘Boy, does it look incredible’. Pundits sprang from nowhere to add their mite of praise or criticism, and their own piece of cod history. The military adviser to Ridley Scott, Paul Biddis, tells us Napoleon captured a ship in a sea-battle and seems not to be aware that exploding shells were not available at the time. The Daily Telegraph’s Alex Diggins assures us that ‘Napoleon never believed himself French – he was proud of his Corsican heritage, and never tried to disguise it’, which is the opposite of the truth – from the moment in 1792 when he switched his allegiance to France he resented anyone referring to his Corsican origins and when he came to power it was a dangerous thing to do. Diggins also tells us that Napoleon ‘only learnt French in his teens when he started at a military academy’, which he did at the age of nine, already speaking French. The popular historian Dan Snow informed us that Napoleon’s ‘dad was an aristocrat’, which he wasn’t – he even embarrassed his young son by his parvenu vulgarity.

Even the great Simon Schama, rather unfairly summing up Napoleon’s motivation as nothing more than the pursuit of ‘the ephemeral bubble of la gloire’, leapt into the saddle – Tolstoy’s in his case, quoting approvingly his ludicrous description of Napoleon before the battle of Borodino: ‘on his cold face there was that particular tinge of self-confident, well-deserved happiness that can be seen on the face of a boy who has happily fallen in love’. In fact, Napoleon was unwell, suffering from an attack of dysuria, an affliction which made it impossible for him to urinate. He was in a state of anxiety and had sat up all night, coughing, shivering and breathing with difficulty, and by no means happy in love, confessing to General Rapp, who had sat up with him, that he feared his fickle mistress Fortune had deserted him.

Amusingly, while most of the historians seem fascinated by Hollywood, Ridley Scott and Vanessa Kirby assume a professorial authority. She dismisses Napoleon’s efforts as being ‘all for nothing’ in the end, somehow forgetting to mention the Code Napoléon, the rebuilding of Paris, the foundation of the principal institutions of France, the liberation of millions from servitude, the advances in education, and so on and on. He, while challenging historians’ observations with a sneering ‘Were you there?’ and telling them to ‘shut the …. up!’ as they clearly weren’t, gets technical on Napoleon’s hemorrhoids. ‘It’s like having a migraine up your butt!’ he affirms, adding ‘I’ve never had them, but it’s a horseman’s dilemma.’ Which did not stop him putting Napoleon on a horse to lead an imaginary cavalry charge at Waterloo. By contrast, Joaquin Phoenix sounds more sensible. ‘If you want to really understand Napoleon you should do your own reading,’ he says, adding ‘you can’t deny the facts’. Which does not stop him acting in contradiction to them.

‘There are plenty of people in history who have a Napoleon complex, but Napoleon himself was not one of them,’ Andrew Roberts sagely observed in The Times. There is certainly no lack of them today, as the film and most of the comment it has provoked attest, and the affliction deludes its sufferers into making asses of themselves. Self-proclaimed experts would be better off keeping their mouths shut, historians sticking to the facts and film-makers concentrating on making good films.

While playing fast and loose with historical fact, Henry Koster’s unpretentious Désirée produces a far more convincing Napoleon in Marlon Brando than does Ridley Scott. So does Carlo Ponti’s War and Peace with Herbert Lom. And for all its poetic licence and romantic exaggeration, Abel Gance’s Napoleon paints a portrait which is very revealing of some aspects of the man’s personality and makes clear why people were prepared to follow him to their death.

Adam Zamoyski is the author of Napoleon: The Man Behind the Myth.