Napoleon Bonaparte is probably the most famous Frenchman of all time and is, according to academic sources, second only to Jesus as the most filmed figure in cinema history.
Napoleon is a complex subject whose aura, monstrosity and genius is a perfect fit for great cinema and who is therefore an irresistible challenge for any serious film-maker. Little wonder then that Ridley Scott, who is now 85 years old, and whose long and prolific career includes many big, sweeping movies, has finally succumbed to the lure of the "little corporal" from Corsica.
Napoleon is due in cinemas at the end of the month with Joaquin Phoenix in the leading role and a soundtrack which includes Black Sabbath (their classic dirge War Pigs) and a slowed-down Radiohead cover (The National Anthem — another dirge).
According to the publicity, it promises to tell the life of Napoleon through his tortured love affair with his wife, Josephine, his own jealousies and obsessions, as well as his master plan to conquer Europe. From the trailers, it looks like another epic in the mould of Scott’s Gladiator, with at least some of the gripping battle scenes that are his trademark.
By making a film on Napoleon, Scott is, of course, making his own bid for greatness. He is placing himself in a lineage which can be traced back almost to the invention of cinema when, in 1897, Louis Lumiere produced a short film which depicted Napoleon arguing with Pope Pius VII — based on their real-life encounter in 1804 when Napoleon, in a tantrum, tried to convince the pontiff to move the papal throne to Paris.
This was followed by Abel Gance in 1927 with Napoleon, a 330-minute character study of power, glory and hubris, with the sallow-faced Albert Dieudonne as the emperor. Other powerful films on Napoleon were made by the Franco-Russian Sacha Guitry and the Ukrainian-Russian Sergei Bondarchuk.
English-language movie-makers have, however, often stumbled when it comes to filming Bonaparte. Charlie Chaplin, Peter Jackson and Stanley Kubrick all failed to complete their films, defeated by the enormity of the research, the contradictions of the story and the subject or, as in the case of Kubrick’s effort — which has been dubbed "the greatest movie never made" — simply because historical epics had fallen out of fashion with Hollywood studios.
There are other difficulties in portraying Napoleon for an English-speaking audience. Most notably, in the English-speaking world, the prevailing view of Napoleon has been as a villainous caricature; he is either a jumped-up foreign baddie bent on invading Britain, or more sinisterly, a murderous war-mongering tyrant, a prototype for Adolf Hitler.
This is not the way that Napoleon is seen in France.
For most French people, whether they like it or not, Napoleon is a component part of their past and who they are now. This is not to say that he is universally venerated. There is nothing new in this.
Much of the literature of the 19th century, from Balzac to Stendhal, Victor Hugo to Edgar Quinet, is a long debate over whether Napoleon was the greatest statesman of all time, who brought order to the chaos of post-revolutionary France and took it towards its destiny as the "Great Nation", or whether his wilful egotism brought only waste and destruction.
More recent debates have focused on the legacy and impact of his colonial adventures, most notably the campaign he led between 1798 and 1801 to conquer parts of Syria and Egypt, seizing them from the Ottoman Empire.
The campaign ultimately failed from a military point of view and the French army was forced to retreat. But the invasion also captured the imagination of French politicians who began to see the territories of the Middle East not only as ripe for plunder but as a way extending the values of the Enlightenment.
This was eventually codified into the French nation’s mission civilatrice, which meant the historical destiny of France to export the universal values of liberty, equality, fraternity — to civilise the world. Under this rubric, France colonised by force significant parts of the Arab world, notably Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
There is now an open debate in France over the mission civilatrice, whether it was a noble ambition or should be a source of shame. Either way, Napoleon’s reputation is no longer what it was.
It had been announced by the Fondation Napoleon, a public body, as L’Annee Napoleon (The Year of Napoleon), but in truth many institutions, including schools, libraries and museums, did not have much heart for honouring the father of French colonialism.
There was further controversy around the fact that in 1802 Napoleon restored slavery, which had been abolished after the revolution. In 21st century France, remembering Napoleon is a fraught and delicate exercise.
This was why Emmanuel Macron had to choose his words so carefully when he gave an address on Napoleon at the Institut de France before laying a wreath at the emperor’s tomb.
President Macron acknowledged that Napoleon "is part of us" before saying also that "we are not engaged in an exalted celebration, but in an exalted commemoration". The restoration of slavery had been "a fault, a betrayal of the spirit of the Enlightenment".
Nonetheless, Macron could not disown Napoleon’s achievements.
"Napoleon understood he had to keep seeking both the unity and the greatness of the country," Macron said.
"He did it by making peace with the great religions, with art, he never renounced the idea of merit."
As Macron knew all too well, the memory of Napoleon feeds very directly into contemporary tensions in France.
In April 2021, shortly after Macron’s "exalted commemoration" of Napoleon, the centre-right magazine Causeur published a special edition which attacked both the French president and Napoleon’s detractors. The editor, Elisabeth Levy, argued in the strongest terms that "to attack Napoleon today is a form of collective suicide. This is not only a questionable political attitude but actually undermines our capacity to build a nation, to make a political community".
What Levy admires most of all, as do many of Napoleon’s admirers both on the left and the right, is his universalism, which is to say his belief that the values of the French Republic were supreme, and that this was the only way to build a country, and ultimately a civilisation.
This, however, is where the true conflict lies in 21st century France — between those who still believe in the universal values of the Republic and those who argue that they are out of date and no longer suitable for a modern, multicultural country. It has always been unclear where Macron stands on this.
In the past few years, France has seen its fair share of political violence culminating in the riots of last summer when public institutions belonging to the French Republic were attacked: a clear message of anger and discontent with the Republic’s values.
In the face of this, Macron has always firmly argued for national unity and against the corrosion of this unity by identity politics. At the same time, he is a globalist who looks beyond the borders of France and sees a complicated world where racial, religious and political identities cannot always be accommodated by a one-size-fits-all approach to democracy. The big question for France is how long Macron’s dual-track approach can last.
For all of these reasons, it may well be that Macron will be taking a keener interest than most in the latest cinematic portrayal of Napoleon, not least because the emperor’s ghost is still very much an unsettling presence in contemporary France. — Guardian News & Media
Andrew Hussey is the author of The French Intifada: The Long War between France and its Arabs.