The Best Movies About Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon in movies and film
I'd like to give my thoughts on a handful of Napoleon movies, but I think a few words about the popular perception of Napoleon are in order first. The adage that 'history is always written by the victors' is probably exemplified in the case of Napoleon Bonaparte better than most other prominent figures. The Napoleonic Wars, though they involved numerous nations and spanned two decades, were basically a struggle between England and France writ large. Of course we all know that Napoleon's France was not the victor after the Battle of Waterloo and that England was. Thus we have the skewed historical version put forth by the English that has been perpetuated and handed down through the generations. Napoleon is not the only figure that has suffered under this type of faulty historicity, but he is certainly an excellent example.
The much-maligned figure of Napoleon Bonaparte has suffered countless assaults over the past two centuries from disinterested historians who, when mentioning his name, fall back on the standard description of the man as a diminutive ogre who was bent on the destruction of Europe. Such a myopic view of Napoleon was of course promulgated by his main enemies during and after the Napoleonic Wars - The English. So, it isn't surprising that most Americans, Englishmen, Canadians, Australians, and anyone else who speaks English consider this summation of Bonaparte to be true. A much more balanced view of the man lies within the histories written in other languages, most notably French. To be sure, over the years Napoleon has also basked in the adulation of hero worshipers who are just as polarized. But in general it is negative ideas that lurk in most people's minds when Napoleon is mentioned. I blame this on sloppy historians and writers who have perpetuated fallacies with their intellectual laziness. Oh…how the silliness abounds!
My Favorite Napoleon Movies
OK, now that my scathing diatribe against all detractors of Napoleon is complete I'll move on to my list of the best movies about Napoleon.
1. Waterloo (1970) - This gem of a movie features Rod Steiger in the role of Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as Wellington. The film's two hour treatment of the Battle of Waterloo is generally good, though I would have liked it more had the introductory battles of Qautre Bras and Ligny been included. The battle scenes are pretty spectacular considering the fact that none of it is computer generated, all of those uniforms marching around are really there! I think that Steiger's part as Napoleon is well done if one recognizes that he was portraying the man on that day of battle, a day which most scholars believe he was not his usual self. If one takes Steiger's role as an accurate portrayal of Napoleon in general I think that would be a disservice to the emperor and the actor. In addition, according to what I know of the Duke of Wellington, Plummer's portrayal of the man is dead on.
2. The Emperor's New Clothes (2001) - I'd have to agree with an Amazon review about this film - 'Alternative history and whimsical imagination make comfortable bedfellows'. It is a highly original Bonaparte movie with good sets and good acting. This was Ian Holm's second time being cast in the role of Bonaparte and his looks help him pull it off. I don't know if the irascible and impatient elements that Holm displays in his character are due to his interpretation of Napoleon or because that is what the director wanted him to portray. But, it isn't really a fair picture of the man and it does get a little annoying at times because it helps to perpetuate the inaccurate perception that Napoleon was simply a petulant, ranting, and importunate megalomaniac.
3. Napoleon TV series (2002) - This was a very good portrayal of Napoleon Bonaparte. Christian Clavier has obviously studied Napoleon thoroughly; his playing of the man doesn't suffer at all from the typical banality, but is instead a highly mature rendering of his subject. The film is historically accurate and gives the viewer a more complete picture of the man than most films do. We see, not only his genius as a military commander, but also his abilities as a legislator and emperor, as a lover of the arts and culture, and as a father and husband. As a historian I wish some more emphasis was put on other parts of the Napoleonic story, but I understand that running time limits the director and writer. It has an all star supporting cast to boot - Isabella Rossellini, John Malkovich, and Gerard Depardieu.
Napoleon TV series
4. Napoleon (1927 & 1955) - Of course I can't leave out these two classic movies of the same title. For the longest time they were considered THE CLASSIC Napoleon films. The earlier is a silent film that was redone by Coppola in the earlier 80's with the addition of a film score. However, it has been undergoing legal battles for years and is devilishly difficult to find, so I haven't seen it yet. I include it because of the universal acclaim that it has received over the years. The more recent I have seen and still enjoy watching at times, but I must admit that the cinematics of modern movies is often more alluring and conspires to push this one towards the back of my DVD shelf. However, the acting is great, it is an accurate account of the main events of the Napoleonic story, and it definitely deserves to be in the library of any true fan of Napoleon.
5. Monsieur N. (2003) - Well, I've saved the best for last. Of all the feature films and bit parts that have portrayed Napoleon Bonaparte none compares to Philippe Torreton's brilliant and artful rendering of the man. In one breath he shows us a stern, calculating, and shrewd Bonaparte, while in the very next he exposes the compassionate, kind, and forgiving nature of the man. He mixes and intermingles these opposing traits so well that the viewer can begin to see Napoleon as the human that he was rather than as some distant iconic figure. Torreton also displays Napoleon's "penetrating presence" so very perfectly. If you want a true picture of the man, then you must watch this film; Torrenton is Napoleon in the flesh. The viewer should be mindful that the characters and setting are all factual, but the plot is fictitious. However, it is a fascinating story, showcasing a much speculated upon theory about Napoleon's possible escape from exile and disappearance in the US. I've never bought that theory because I don't think the evidence supports it, but as Napoleon points out in the film - people WANT to believe just about anything...
Great men are never without flaws, but neither are they without magnificent traits that caused them to rise to such heights.
Additional Napoleon Movies
The following are a few remaining films of note that I have yet to see. I especially look forward to watching Napoleon & Me, starring the talented Daniel Auteuil and the heavenly Monica Bellucci.
Maria and Napoleon (1966)
Eagle in a Cage (1972)
Napoleon and Me (2006)