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Artwork title: Napoleon I. 1807. Artist: Louis Philibert Debucourt. Medium: Etching, aquatint, and roulette printed in color.

Napoleon’s cinematic empire: a fascination with film

People around the nineteenth-century Atlantic world were fascinated by Napoleon Bonaparte. One way to measure this enthusiasm is to look to the poems, novels, plays, paintings, lithographs, souvenir objects, as well as memoirs, histories, and biographies in which he appears. Often, he is front and center, but the emperor also lurks on the margins or pops in momentarily. Some factual, many fanciful, these works created a new kind of Napoleonic empire that continued to conquer the imagination long after his armies disbanded. Indeed, Napoleonic spectacles were a feature of nineteenth-century life, from the Napoleon plays that entertained audiences in cities large and small, the elaborate festivities arranged to honor the return of his body from Saint-Hélène on 15 December 1840—the retour des cendres—or the great parade route at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, where a lounging young Napoleon oversaw the activities.

Given his decided penchant for spectacle—he crowned himself emperor, after all—there is no reason to be surprised that Napoleon’s empire soon included the cinema, a medium his visual ubiquity made ripe for conquest. To prepare for our newest Napoleon, it is worth looking back on some of his prior celluloid incarnations, some great and others less so. Sometimes Napoleon is granted center stage, while other times he tries to steal it, but there is no lack of Napoleon content in the history of film.

“Some factual, many fanciful, these works create a new kind of Napoleonic empire that continues to conquer the imagination.”

Napoleon’s familiarity is key to one important category of movie, what I’ll call the famous people across time film. Whether the goal is plundering historical treasures as in Time Bandits (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1981) or to saving humanity from extermination, the premise of the panned The Story of Humankind (dir. Irwin Allen, 1957), Napoleon inevitably is among the cast of characters. In the best of these movies—Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (dir. Stephen Herek, 1989)—as in Time Bandits, Napoleon is the first historical figure viewers encounter, his familiar face launching viewers into the romps to follow. (Despite the Marx brothers and Dennis Hopper as Bonaparte, there isn’t much of a romp to The Story of Humankind, however.)

“Napoleon I” by Louis Philibert Debucourt, 1807.
Via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Poet Pierre-Jean de Béranger penned some of the most famous iterations of a familiar nineteenth-century fantasy: what if Napoleon escaped again? In poems like “Il n’est pas mort” [He is not dead], Béranger gave voice to the collective belief in Napoleon’s ability to defy normal, including mortal, expectations. Alan Taylor’s 2002 The Emperor’s New Clothes updates this genre as it follows Napoleon off St. Helena and into a quotidian, but happy, life. The moments when the fantasy intersect with fact, as Napoleon’s belief that he is Napoleon lands him in a mental asylum, is a fine, ironic touch.

The Napoleonic era provides the backdrop for many movies in which the emperor seldom wanders on stage—Austen, Dumas, and Dickens films, Vanity Fair, various versions of War and ­Peace—as well as an array of battle movies (Waterloo [dir. Sergei Bondarchuk (1970)], Abel Gance’s Austerlitz (1960), or the more recent Portuguese film, Lines of Wellington [dir. Valeria Sarmiento (2012)]), in which he more often does. But these are less engaging, finally, than the movies about Napoleon that aren’t watchable. The first, with apologies to fans of long silent films, is Abel Gance’s 1927 epic, Napoléon. At 330 minutes, it is an odyssey full of technical innovations, if one can find it.

No matter how hard one looks, however, it is not possible to see what may be the most famous of all Napoleon movies—Stanley Kubrick’s planned, but unmade, Napoleon biopic. Planned around the Felix Markham biography of the emperor, for which Kubrick attained the rights, Kubrick’s screenplay emerged with the aid of a corps of Oxford graduate students, who carefully surveyed Bonaparte and his world. Kubrick claimed there had “never been a good or accurate movie” about Napoleon and his project, no mere “dusty historic pageant,” would fill the gap (The Stanley Kubrick Archive, 787). But it didn’t happen. Still, given that Jack Nicholson was Kubrick’s choice for Napoleon, there are hints of it in both Barry Lyndon, the historical work he made instead which romps into the Napoleonic era, and The Shining, with a deliciously maniacal Nicholson unleashing his own tidal waves of blood. Surely Steven Spielberg version of Kubrick’s plan, currently being created for HBO, won’t be any closer than this combination.

“It is impossible to make a good and accurate movie about Napoleon, a figure weighted with expectations and fantasies and facts and fictions.”

Neither previews nor interviews with Ridley Scott have convinced me, though, that the new Napoleonic spectacle will shake my enthusiasm for a shimmering Cinemascope account of Napoleon’s life and loves, Henry Koster’s 1954 Désirée. Adapted from a best-selling novel of the same title by Austrian author, Annemarie Selinko, Désirée tells the story of Napoleon’s first—and purportedly enduring—love of a young woman from Marseille. To assert that his fleeting romance with Désirée Clary is more important than his subsequent romance with Joséphine de Beauharnais already establishes that this is no documentary, as does its conclusion suggesting that it is Désirée who convinces Napoleon to accept defeat (again) in 1815. Lush cinemascope, brief vignettes, and melodramatic acting all combine to make this movie an odd choice for enthusiasm. Certainly Bosley Crowther, who reviewed the film for the New York Times, thought so. The excellent cast, he sighs, “merely fill out the plushy décor of this Twentieth Century-Fox spectacle, which at times Henry Koster has direct as though it were a satire on suburbia. For the most part, however, he has made it what it is—just a colorful vehicle for a pseudo-Napoleonic outing, a streetcar named ‘Désirée.’”  Had Crowther read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on Napoleon he might have realized just how many pseudo-Napoleonic hearts beat in suburbia—and it may well be this aspect of the movie that speaks most powerfully to me.

And then there’s Marlon Brando’s Bonaparte. Juxtaposed against his performance as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, Brando’s turn as the emperor is flat, wooden, sometimes silly. If in On the Waterfront, Brando brings to life the frustration of a character who realizes that he could have been somebody, in Désirée he turns to a historical figure who, unbelievably, is not just a contender but an emperor. It may not be a performance to win awards, yet Brando captures the naked ambition and awkward unease that is said to have characterized the young Napoleon off the battlefield. Perhaps Rod Steiger, who plays Joseph Bonaparte, thought so, for he would go on to play Napoleon in Bondarchuk’s Waterloo. It is neither a good nor an accurate movie—but I think it is impossible to make a good and accurate movie about Napoleon, a figure weighted with expectations and fantasies and facts and fictions. So why not have Marlon Brando, in white knee breeches, dancing?

Featured image: “Napoleon I” by Louis Philibert Debucourt, 1807. Via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

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