In Focus

‘Affairs, arrogance and a disdain for Brits: Napoleon was so stereotypically French’

With a new film out soon about Napoleon Bonaparte, historian Guy Walters takes a closer look at the life and legacy of France’s divisive ruler

Saturday 18 November 2023 06:30 GMT
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<p>Joaquin Phoenix plays Napoleon in a new film about the French ruler</p>

Joaquin Phoenix plays Napoleon in a new film about the French ruler

All nations have figures and episodes in their pasts about which they are divided. For the British, it is undoubtedly the Empire. While its defenders say that it civilised so much of the world, its detractors state that the empire enslaved it. With the French, the topic that causes the most division is not their own imperial project but rather that of the character and legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte. For some, the soldier and ruler was a brilliant visionary who made France great, whereas others maintain that he was a tyrant and despot, and France should be ashamed of a man who was little better than Hitler or Putin.

Napoleon is of course the subject of yet another megabucks biopic shortly to hit the cinemas. Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Joaquin Phoenix as the big man – or rather not-so-big man if stories of Napoleon’s diminutive height are to be believed – and Vanessa Kirby as his Empress Joséphine, the film explores the couple’s relationship amidst the tumultuous backdrop of Napoleon’s rise to power. As the film is not yet out, it is too soon to say what camp Scott falls in, but judging by the trailer, the movie would appear to present its subject as being a brutally tough sort of chap. This of course suggests that the film falls more into the tyrant camp than into that of the enlightened ruler.

As with the British Empire, drawing up the case for the detractors is a fairly straightforward task. Among those who do not have a lot of time for Napoleon is former French prime minister Lionel Jospin, who once told Newsweek that he was “intrigued by the gap between the glory of Napoleon and the actual results he delivered in France and Europe”.

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