Napoleon & Films About Prominent Historical Figures

Since the beginning of cinema films have been made about the “great” people of history, those who shaped the world, who did the seemingly impossible, people who had incredibly interesting lives. This followed on from theatre where they were equally compelled; with many of Shakespeare’s plays simply given the name of their famous protagonists. Ridley Scott is once again following this path with Napoleon, a biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte; generally considered one of the most interesting and important figures in world history. Indeed, there have been many films made about Napoleon, most famously perhaps with the five and a half hour silent film epic Napoleon by Abel Gance. In fact, Napoleon is a contender for the historical figure to have been portrayed in the most films at around 200 (he was a regular character in early cinema). Napoleon’s life has war, turmoil, spectacle, love, disaster, and it certainly provides a lot of material for a film. At two and half hours many still say it is just a thumbnail sketch of Napoleon’s life but why are filmmakers and audiences so captivated by these stories?.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln //credit: Lincoln, 20th Century Fox

Colin Farrell played Alexander the Great, Daniel Day-Lewis Abraham Lincoln, Cate Blanchett Queen Elizabeth I and in some ways making these films is like adapting a popular book or graphic novel, the filmmaker borrows on the existing interest and glamour. Much like with Shakespeare, the three above-mentioned biopics are simply one-word names – there is no need to elicit further interest with a catchy title. After all, if a filmmaker wants a story that has war, love, disaster etc, they can simply make one up…but then it isn’t Napoleon, and even a film that is historically inaccurate (no judgment on Napoleon) would have that name.

Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I //credit: Elizabeth, Polygram Filmed Entertainment

An interesting aspect of Napoleon is that it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon, and over twenty years ago Phoenix was the villain in Gladiator, the emperor Commodus. Spoiler for those who haven’t seen the Napoleon trailer or know Napoleonic history but Napoleon eventually declares himself emperor. Commodus and Napoleon are very different people. The latter was by all accounts a genius – for years seemingly unbeatable, victory followed by victory – and these were impossible victories. Napoleon wrote new law codes that lasted long after his death and redrew the map of Europe.

Commodus was not a genius and is often ranked as one of the worst emperors in Roman history and quite possibly insane. If anything Gladiator underplays just how unhinged Commodus was; as he would sometimes wander around Rome with a giant club pretending to be Hercules and hitting people. The only son of Marcus Aurelius who survived to adulthood (considered one of the best Roman emperors) he was born into unbelievable wealth and privilege. The Napoleon trailer says that Napoleon came from nothing, which is not quite true, being a very minor Corsican aristocrat, but certainly, his success was very much due to his work and talent. For all of his genius, Napoleon was someone who installed themselves as a dictator and then emperor waged endless war across Europe and relentlessly pillaged those he conquered of wealth and art.

Joaquin Phoenix as the quite possibly insane Commodus //credit: Gladiator, United Artists

Phoenix was fantastic as Commodus, the petulant, cruel, hurt, unloved, who wanted the love of the people. For all of his power he felt unable to act against the public mood, he clung to his sister as one of the few people he cared for and seemed to want her to be more than just his sister. The madness of Commodus taking on Russell Crowe’s Maximus in the arena makes sense when viewed through this lens, he could have killed him a thousand different ways but his desire was to defeat Maximus and gain the adoration of the people that had fallen on Maximus. Historically and narratively we know things will not end well for Commodus (in reality not killed in the arena but assassinated). Phoenix is receiving positive reviews for his performance as Napoleon, again playing someone we know will ultimately lose – again history spoiler – not because of insanity or incompetence but maybe their hubris.

Whatever the success of Napoleon there is a never-ending demand for these sorts of films and there will be more of these huge historical epics.

Also Read: War Films: Horror and Glory

Posted by
Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.