Between Genius and Co-Dependency: The Missed Potential of Ridley Scott’s Napoleon

The life of Napoleon Bonaparte is a fascinating topic to explore. His strategic genius, his innovations in tactical warfare, but also his inspiring charisma and enthusiastic character allowed him to rise from a simple Corsican officer to the Emperor of France. All these factors offer countless opportunities to study the variables of life for greatness, genius and success.

When I first heard that star-director Ridley Scott had committed himself to explore Napoleon Bonaparte’s life, I had highest hopes that his endeavour might result in a finely-woven analysis of Bonaparte’s genius. I anticipated a character study that delved into his individual psychology to display the inner mechanisms that enabled him to reach his military and political success that allowed him to dominate Europe’s political scene for 30 years.

My intuitive, yet unspoken hope was that Scott’s biopic would become a cinematic version of Robert Greene’s books The 33 Strategies of War, The 48 Laws of Power or Mastery. Especially with an intriguing genius actor like Joaquin Phoenix, who fascinated and stunned us with his performances in Gladiator, The Joker and Walk the Line, I had high hopes that Ridley Scott’s latest work would turn out to be a fascinating, stunning and captivating movie about human genius, interpersonal power and worldly success.

What Napoleon turned out to be is the story of a man whose military and political success stood in direct correlation to his relationship with the woman of his life, Joséphine de Beauharnais. The movie makes a point of showing how his attraction to her invigorated Napoleon, but also of how her unfaithfulness rid him of his strength and brought his first defeats on the battlefield with it. It shows how her wish for him to seize power encourages him to reach for the crown. It also shows how his necessity for an heir forced him to take another woman to give birth to his offspring, at the same time depriving him of his great source of inspiration. Eventually, the movie shows how her untimely death led to Napoleon’s definitive downfall.

In other words, Napoleon appears to be the story of how a man of talent manages to achieve the greatest military and political success in dependence of the influence of the woman he loves. The ups and downs of their romatic relationship dictates the ups and downs in his career.

While the famous aphorism of his namesake Napoleon Hill, “A man’s wife will either make him or break him,” might certainly be true, reducing Bonaparte’s success merely to his love story with Josephine puts so much emphasis on his external factors that it fails to bring to light the internal and intrinsic factors that made Bonaparte dominate European history for an entire generation.

It is not that the theme of a woman’s influence on a man’s success is not relatable. Quite the opposite, it is very relatable, almost a cliché. If you want to make this a valuable topic, you have to take a closer, deeper look at how a woman’s energy exactly might inspire a man of talent to reach the highest stages of historical success, what part of him she invigorated, or anything like that. There have been countless men afflicted by their spouse’s influence, negative and positive. The elaboration of the topic needs to somehow justify the decision to choose the life of the great Napoleon Bonaparte; the level of elaboration needs to be on par with the subject.

Why make a movie about one of the greatest strategic geniuses in mankind’s history, only to reduce his success on the ups and downs with his woman, as if this was all there was to be found? Wasn’t there so much more about Napoleon Bonaparte than that? Didn’t the movie miss out on the opportunity to display human vigour, creativity, courage, and many other virtues that propel a man to such monumental heights?

Hence, the one deadly sin Napoleon commits, despite the undeniable value of the topic, despite the undeniable talent of the director and his protagonist, is its superficiality. It lacks the psychological depth to convey the interference of the various forces between the person, Napoleon Bonaparte, and his environment, be it is family, his upbringing or the political turmoil he grew up with.

Yet, a movie with a shallow story could still take advantage of the visual aspects and deliver visually compelling scenes. In fact, there is one scene that offers visual depth, the scene of Bonaparte’s greatest success, the Battle of Austerlitz.

Now we’re talking! Scotts delivery of Bonaparte’s crushing victory over the Russian and Austrian armies is the only scene that gives us a taste of his strategic genius, the only scene that makes it palpable. It makes us experience his creativity, his daring genius, his strategic superiority over his enemies. The Battle of Austerlitz is the single one scene in Scott’s Napoleon that is worthy of the subject. Other than that, as we sadly have to say, Napoleon’s visuals want the symbolic strength to express Bonaparte’s greatness.

Still, Scott is a great director, and Phoenix is a great actor – there can be no doubt about either of them. Napoleon does not fail due to lack of talent. Napoleon fails due to lack of effort, like a talented kid’s homework done on the way to school just before class.

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