WolfmanOz at the Movies #89


With the recent release of Ridley Scott’s Napoleon I thought it might be worth paying a visit to see how cinema has treated the French emperor, who was one of the greatest military commanders in history whilst also initiating numerous political and cultural reforms many of which have had a lasting impact on France, Europe and the world. He is one of the great figures of history. 

However, the latest film from Ridley Scott can’t figure out who this great man was – whiny, babyish, aloof, needy, petty, violent, as possessive as a five-year-old, stupid, delusional, cunning, bratty. 

The problem with this portrayal is it makes absolutely no sense from any psycho-biological or sociological point of view that I know of. There is absolutely no sense of this man being a great leader of men and the result of this movie’s approach is a “greatest hits” of Bonaparte. It ditches about a hundred remarkable things about the man to show about four battles and a lot of juvenile behaviour at home.

In fact looking back Napoleon Bonaparte hasn’t been well served by movies. Starting with Abel Gance’s 1927 French silent epic Napoleon which now looks very dated and is hard to sit through unless you’re a student of film techniques and how they developed.

Most films depicting Napoleon have him as a supporting character and when he is the main character they invariably seem to concentrate on his love life i.e. the dull Conquest (1937) played by Charles Boyer and the tedious Désirée (1954) played by a mumbling and brooding Marlon Brando; and I’d even add Ridley Scott’s film which should have been retitled Napoleon And Josephine.

As a supporting character he is a key feature in Leo Tolstoy’s War And Peace with the 1956 version featured Herbert Lom as Napoleon, which was unremarkable; although the definitive film version is surely Sergei Bondarchuk’s massive 1966-67 epic which runs for over 430 minutes and is best seen in 4 parts.

Following War And Peace Bondarchuk returned to Napoleon in his next film Waterloo (1970) which for me is arguably the best cinematic film about Napoleon although it only covers the period of the Hundred Days or the War of the Seventh Coalition in 1815 culminating in his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

The film has Rod Steiger playing Napoleon and here was an actor who made you feel that you really were in the presence of a great and charismatic man, unlike the insipid ghost of man that we saw with Joaquim Phoenix’s interpretation.


The film takes a largely neutral stance and portrays many individual leaders and soldiers on each side, rather than simply focusing on Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington (played by Christopher Plummer). It creates a generally accurate chronology of the events leading up to and including the battle, the extreme heroism on each side, and the tragic loss of life suffered by all the armies which took part.

The film is most famous for its lavish battle scenes, shot on-location in Ukraine. The impact of the 15,000 authentically dressed extras, recreating the battle scenes with true numbers and without special effects, is unsurpassed, and remains the highest number of costumed extras in any film.


Unfortunately Waterloo failed to recoup its huge costs at the box office and it’s commercial failure probably cost us the definitive Napoleon biopic when the backers of Stanley Kubrick’s long cherished Napoleon project from the late 1960s to the early 1970s pulled out.

With the help of assistants, Kubrick had meticulously created a card catalog of the places and deeds of Napoleon’s inner circle during its operative years. Kubrick scouted locations, planning to film large portions of the film on location in France, in addition to the use of British studios. The director was also going to film the battle scenes in Romania and had enlisted the support of the Romanian People’s Army; senior army officers had committed 40,000 soldiers and 10,000 cavalrymen to Kubrick’s film for the paper costume battle scenes. Initially Kubrick was going to cast David Hemmings as Napoleon but then he changed his mind and lined up Jack Nicholson for the role.

Given Kubrick’s astoundingly high level of quality in his limited film output his Napoleon project is often quoted as the best film never made.

In February 2023, Steven Spielberg reaffirmed that the miniseries he was planning, based on Kubrick’s script, was still in development and was being in worked into a “large production” of a seven-part limited series which, if you’re planning to film the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, is probably the best way to do it.


and the tease for next week’s post . . . Strength and honour.

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December 7, 2023 10:24 am

Tho more on the Napoleonic era then Napoleon himself .. “The Duellists” is a very good movie depicting the age & the French officer corps …….

December 7, 2023 10:54 am

I agree with your comments re the latest Napoleon. It lasted near 3 hours, which didn’t drag, in fact I was surprised when it finished. Like you I thought most of Napoleon must have been left on the cutter’s floor. Apart from the personal adventures there wasn’t much about Nap and his triumphs and very little about the tragic mission to Moscow.

All in all, quite disappointed in the direction whilst the main actors were fair to middling. Scenery was superb.

December 7, 2023 11:16 am

Chris Bowen’s energy policy explained.

December 7, 2023 11:56 am

Wolfman, Waterloo (1970) is also the best film featuring Napoleon in my opinion.

Dad’s Army’s take on Waterloo, with Captain Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe) as “Napoleon” and Corporal Wilson (John le Mesurier) as “Wellington” (20 min. in):


December 7, 2023 4:36 pm

apparently once Napoleon gets onto AppleTV+ there will be a significantly longer Director’s Indulgence which may in fact, be a better product.

December 7, 2023 4:40 pm

I look forward to a streaming service doing a Hornblower series. He sought those frenchies out.

Oh, how about a Scarlet Pimpernel! Ha, hard to beat the thorough hamming of Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellan.

December 7, 2023 4:49 pm

Sgt., not Corporal Wilson!

Carpe Jugulum
Carpe Jugulum
December 7, 2023 7:16 pm

I think to cover the whole of Napoleon life is not possible in a single film.

To run the gamut of his private life, military life and political life is too complex for a single film.

The military aspect would make a great war biopic;
His private life would be better served on a more adult theater
And the politics that lead to his choices would make great cinema.

That’s just my take.

Bar Beach Swimmer
December 7, 2023 7:42 pm

I watched Conspiracy the other night. Just like the clip you put up – the rest did not disappoint.

But a shocking story.

Bungonia Bee
Bungonia Bee
December 8, 2023 6:33 am

The 2002 miniseries for television was excellent. It covered major events and affairs/marriages from military academy through to his death on St. Helena island. Great acting and lavish production.

December 8, 2023 9:11 am

Which is why Waterloo still stands out for me in that in Rod Steiger you had an actor who could convey the greatness and contradictions of the man.

In my view, Waterloo succeeds as a study of Napoleon because it looks at him through the lens of one historical episode.

One could do the same for any of his great battles or campaigns, esp. Moscow.

A biopic, otoh, is likely to be a director’s vanity project.

December 8, 2023 12:44 pm

“Sgt., not Corporal Wilson!”

True, it was Lance Corporal “stick it up em” Jones. Talking about Ridley Scott, there was a cast member called Arnold Ridley who played the doddery private Charles Godfrey. Ah, for the days the Brits could make real comedy. So WolfmanOz, how about a British Comedy next, to lighten our loads over this dark period in our withered civilisation’s history.

Bruce of Newcastle
Bruce of Newcastle
December 8, 2023 1:26 pm

Waterloo on the big screen was marvelous, saw it at the flicks. Gobsmacking. Oops, just lost my arm to a cannonball!

The Napoleonic Wars need to be mined for scripts much much more. Like Master and Commander – a superb bit of Franco-English canvas, cannon and cutlery fillum!

(I recall the arm scene vividly from fifty years ago, but I can’t find it on Youtube. It appears to be based on Wellington’s cavalry commander – who got hit in a leg by a cannonball. Ouch. I suspect his horse wouldn’t’ve been happy either.)

Bruce of Newcastle
Bruce of Newcastle
December 8, 2023 1:31 pm

I should add that Napoleon should really be treated like Peter Jackson did LOTR. A three movie effort would work pretty well given his career. But a three movie biopic is probably not going to win bums on seats in this age when the kids don’t read books, don’t study real history and have never heard of Mr Bonaparte.

December 8, 2023 2:47 pm

Not surprisingly, insurance companies look forward to the completely digital vehicles that will be able to provide valuable information to people other than own the car. No doubt they will lobby for conventional petrol vehicles to be uninsurable.


Louis Litt
Louis Litt
December 9, 2023 5:50 pm

From the comments here as with the pop music biopics, the character analysis is in depth when one event in their is depicted

December 10, 2023 1:59 pm

I look forward to a streaming service doing a Hornblower series. He sought those frenchies out

Bits have already been done with Ioan Gruffudd (sp?) and that godawful Gregory Peck movie.

Why not Alexander Kent (better known as Douglas Reeman) ‘Bolitho’ series, or Richard Woodman’s ‘Bombay Marine’ series, or Dudley Pope’s ‘Ramage’ series or even more of the Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander eventhough I think these are the most boring of all the series mentioned.

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Oh, you think that, do you? Care to put it on record?x