July 18, 2024

Ten Things to Watch Instead of “Napoleon” – Most of Which are Cheap and Some of Which Are Free

Jim Owczarski, 26 November 2023

By now, if you have been paying any sort of attention, you know that Sir Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is a boring mess of a movie.  Do not see it.  It does not deserve your coin.  I will leave to my academic betters the task of the vivisection it richly deserves for its inaccuracies, though they are legion.
Besides, I have no desire to play into Sir Ridley’s hands with his pernicious argument about how I was not there — I stipulate that I was not — and I therefore cannot be sure his depiction of events is not correct.  Rather, I would like to proffer movies and series that provide far better cinematic alternatives to this spectacular, expensive disaster.

We will proceed in roughly chronological order.

Would you like to know more about the French Revolution and, particularly, the political machinations that left the door open to Napoleon?

Napoleon makes a hash of the Revolution.  I do not speak here of errors — though there are many.  Rather, it is the astonishingly haphazard way in which it is presented.  Major figures are hurled at us with little explanation beyond a subtitle identifying them.  How they relate to one another and Napoleon’s rise is left to fortune and previous study.

Turn instead here: La Révolution Française (1989) Part 1


Now available with very good English subtitles, this French production, filmed on the ground in all the right places, has an excellent cast, is very well filmed, and, far more importantly, tells the story of the near causes and the course of the Revolution in a lucid way.  Sir Ridley should have taken notes.


Would you like to learn about the Siege of Toulon and how a little-known commander of artillery rose to fame there?

Much of what Napoleon depicts of this event is nonsense and poorly-filmed nonsense at that.  From the reason he was sent there to the manner in which he drove off the British, this is faux spectacle stumbling about searching for a through-line.  While regrettably difficult to find, this is a much better choice:

Anthony Higgins in Heroes and Villains Napoleon

I have declared Joaquin Phoenix’s characterization of Napoleon incomplete given the poor script and direction, but Tom Burke gives a much better portrayal of the young soldier, the pressure he was under, and just what an achievement his victory at Toulon was.


Would you like to know what the heck the Egypt thing was all about?

One of the sequences I truly despised in Napoleon was that set in Egypt.  One of the most important expeditions in his life seems to have happened only to set up the revelation, by a never identified Murat, of Josephine’s infidelity.

While the 2002 series Napoleon is often stilted and strangely cast, it manages to explain and follow the Egyptian campaign quite well.  It also offers a better look into the early relationship between Napoleon and Josephine.

Napoleon (2002) Episode 01


Would you like to know why Austerlitz mattered?

For reasons I cannot trace, Napoleon’s greatest victory has never had a good screen adaptation.  Even the great Bondarchuk’s War and Peace, about which more in just a moment, seems a bit off.  Napoleon, in yet another of its narrative failures, never gets around to explaining why Austria, Russian, and England have at France in the Spring to Summer of 1805, leading to the battle that Winter.  

The Battle of Austerlitz (available through Amazon)

I cannot offer Abel Gance’s Austerlitz without reservation.  Its battle scenes are ridiculous in the way those of the Sharpe series are. As I have pointed out many, many times, it not only features Orson Welles in a role that will surprise you, but also co-stars Jack Palance — yes, that Jack Palance, he of the Oscar push-ups — as General Weyrother.  I have always been fond of its depiction of the great man himself and it does a very good job of explaining what was at stake between the Peace of Amiens and Austerlitz.


Would you like to know more about the 1812 campaign?

War and Peace, Part One


This is the simplest choice on this list and not only because it is available with an excellent print and good subtitles for free.  No, Tolstoy is not history.  Neither is Napoleon.  To get swept up in the pageantry, scope, and stakes of the 1812 disaster, though, you cannot do better than this film created at the expense of the Soviet government in a day when there was no such thing as CGI and directors just dressed up thousands of extras and set them marching around the battlefield.  Its depiction of Borodino is unmissable.

And there are no knee-mortar-armed babushka ninjas anywhere to be found.


Would you like to know more about the 100 Days?

It was only while I was preparing this list that I realized how grievously wrong Sir Ridley’s depiction of Napoleon’s strategy leading up to Waterloo is.  That, of course, is history stuff and I am not really here for that, but the scene in which the Emperor chooses Waterloo as the spot to defeat the Allies rather than having it chosen for him is, I fear, a nod to this infinitely better movie:

Waterloo (1970) | Starring Rod Steiger & Christopher Plummer


You knew this one was coming.  It is my favorite movie and, for all its manifest faults, makes clear the stakes and the general pattern of events leading up to June 18, 1815.  Rod Steiger is brilliant as late-life Napoleon and I have pitied those other actors that have tried to follow in the steps of Christopher Plummer’s Wellington.  The stories of its creation are many including the diversion of an entire Soviet division to people the ranks of both sides.  That and, yes, the rain stops before the morning of the battle.  Which it did.  In history.


Would you like to know about Napoleon’s life on St.Helena?

The movie’s treatment of Napoleon’s life in exile is not a horror-show, though he dies in his bed not tumbling from a chair.  I do, though, hope hereby to prove that this rant is not entirely about the mockery that Napoleon makes of the record of the Emperor’s life.

Monsieur N (available through Amazon)
After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to the south Atlantic island of St. Helena, where he…

This is a lovely movie that takes real liberties with the record, but I think captures the way in which Napoleon continues to live virus-like in the human imagination.


Would you like to know about some of the campaigns the movie omits?

It was inevitable that a 2.5-hour movie would edit out a fair amount of material.  And so it does. The Peninsular War; the campaigns of 1806, 1807, 1809, 1813, and 1814; and the war at sea are all but entirely omitted.

Here are a few pleasant supplements:

The Duellists (1977) – Trailer HD 1080p


It was the directorial debut of Ridley Scott.  Those of us who despise Napoleon will die wondering how the same man directed this movie and that.  Based on a Joseph Conrad novel, it is the story of two men who engage in a decade of personal violence over a single slight.  The Napoleonic Wars move evocatively through the background and the movie offers a sense of what life would have been like for mid-level soldiers in the era.  It is also one of those movies that people who do fight choreography for living point to as the peak of the form.

Sharpe’s Rifles


I have argued for years that this series is why Sean Bean has had to die in everything he has appeared in since.  Campy, shot on a shoestring, and only occasionally bumping into the authentic events of the Peninsular War, it is nonetheless a joy and has come available for free.

And, finally, if you would like to slip gently into the waters of the history of the Napoleonic Wars, go here:

Napoleon and the Battle of Eylau 1807


Epic History is an embarrassment of riches.  There are other documentaries there, but there are enough shakos and muskets to keep anyone busy for a long time and, at my last check, they have most of the major campaigns and battles covered.  Its treatment of the marshals is a stand-out.  Watch them and then endorse them for a pittance via Patreon.


At the close, I hope you will see this list is about more than setting fire to the trash pile that is Napoleon.  It is an immense disappointment and deserves to be quickly forgotten.  Once that is so, those of us interested in the era still have a great deal to enjoy.  Let us go there rather than dwell in the wreckage.


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