Napoleon can’t conquer the silver screen

For nearly a century, filmmakers have grappled with the difficulties of telling the story of Napoleon Bonaparte on screen. Can any director truly do justice to the iconic general and emperor?

Still from Napoléon, 1927.
Still from Napoléon, 1927. Credit: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

‘No-one who has not experienced it can have any idea of the enthusiasm that burst forth among the half-starved, exhausted soldiers when the Emperor was there in person,’ wrote one commanding officer of the Grande Armée. ‘If all were demoralised and he appeared, his presence was like an electric shock. All shouted “Vive l’Empereur!” and everyone charged blindly into the fire.’ Such superhuman abilities – in motivation, in appetite, in ambition, in achievement – can barely be understood, let alone replicated. Can any director – limited by time, by scope, and by budget – truly do justice to Napoleon Bonaparte?

Abel Gance was the first filmmaker to attempt a Napoleonic epic. His silent 1927 Napoléon exists in its current iteration at five-and-a-half hours, and requires three screens in order to be properly projected. Gance had originally envisioned the work as the first in a series of six movies about Napoleon’s life, but realised upon completion of the first that it was simply too massive a project: spanning thirteen years of the young Napoleon’s life, it portrays the future emperor as a teenage student at Brienne College, mocked, scorned, melancholic, rising through the nightmarish fog to become a young general of the Republic that he was soon to quash. It premiered to an audience that included Charles de Gaulle. Dizzying and fantastical, Napoleon’s near-nervous breakdown throughout the film is mirrored in the audience. In the final stages of Bonaparte’s siege of Toulon, the black-and-white film stock is tinted a nightmarish red, and the audience begins to sweat. The film ends with an astonishing triptych projected across three screens and filmed with three cameras. Its ambition mirrors that of its subject: the end result is magnificent. When Albert Dieudonné – its perfectly-cast, beaky, malignant lead – died in 1976, he was buried in his Napoleon costume. Francis Ford Coppola took five years to remaster Napoléon with the nonagenarian Gance; it was rereleased in 2016 at the British Film Institute in monumental style.

The passion of contemporary directors to aid in the (re)releases of lost epics has not been confined to Coppola. Since 2013, Steven Spielberg has been carefully tinkering with the project, turning it into a proposed seven-part limited series for HBO.

In the late 1960s, Stanley Kubrick had declared that his next film would centre around ‘one of those rare men who move history and mould the destiny of their own times and of generations to come’. Napoleon was to become an obsession.

Kubrick’s research – aided by dozens of assistants and the historian and biographer of Napoleon, Felix Markham – produced a catalogue of Napoleoniana. Nothing about the Emperor and his inner circle went undocumented. Nothing about their locations, thoughts, and surroundings was left unmined. A wooden cabinet operated as Kubrick’s ‘analogue Wikipedia,’ containing drawers filled with index cards noting every element of Napoleon’s life day-by-day, detailing the colour of the soil in Polish battlefields to what members of his family wore to dinner. Assistants were scattered across Europe to hunt down every piece of information they could. ‘I was in Zurich in 1968 and 1969’, Kubrick’s brother-in-law would later reminisce, ‘looking for… simply everything I could find on the period from the French Revolution until The Congress of Vienna in 1815. Other people travelled for weeks through Germany, France and the UK on the same mission.’ Kubrick’s fascination was with research – assistants were scattered across Europe for years hunting down information to go into the Kubrick-Napoleon index. ‘He loved research and study,’ says Kubrick’s brother-in-law Jan Harlan. ‘Pre-production and editing were his joy – filming itself a necessity.’

By 1969, Kubrick had produced a 148-page screenplay informed by (and infused with) his meticulous research. France and Romania would be the primary filming locations – with the latter providing the use of the Romanian People’s Army (whose senior officers had committed 40,000 soldiers and 10,000 cavalrymen for the battle scenes).

Asked by one interviewer why he had chosen the subject, Kubrick insisted he needed an entire interview to give a satisfactory answer. ‘To begin with, he fascinates me… His sex life was worthy of Arthur Schnitzler. He was one of those rare men who move history and mould the destiny of their own times and of generations to come – in a very concrete sense, our own world is the result of Napoleon, just as the political and geographic map of postwar Europe is the result of World War Two.’

Kubrick’s confidence bordered on breeziness. He insisted to journalists that the battle and location shots ‘should be completed within two or three months. After that, the studio work shouldn’t take more than another three months’.

Kubrick had been planning the film since the late 1960s, proposing David Hemmings – with his wide, round melancholic eyes, and small pointed mouth – as the emperor (later replaced with Jack Nicholson), and Audrey Hepburn as his empress (she turned down the role). It was not to be. Kubrick had to battle with financiers throughout. He was uncertain how quickly production could progress, but consistently reassured his investors that we has creating ‘the best movie ever made’.

The production costs of Sergei Bondarchuk’s four-part 1966-7 War and Peace and the commercial failure of his 1970 Waterloo spooked backers, however – and Napoleon’s screenplay began to gather dust. Large parts of Kubrick’s research and preliminary work would be diverted towards 1975’s Barry Lyndon, which told the story of a young wastrel of a man made and ruined by war and ambition. The film would end with a ruined Barry in 1789, just as revolution is about to break out in France and propel the young Bonaparte to mastery of Europe.

Kubrick’s meticulousness in Barry Lyndon was staggering. Battle scenes were startlingly honest and period-appropriate, and domestic scenes were staged to best resemble Hogarthian portraits of sin and licentiousness. Period-appropriate lighting was so important to Kubrick’s vision that NASA lenses were used on cameras in order to best capture the fragile, flickering candlelit scenes.

Jan Harlan believed that Napoleon would have been the archetypal Kubrick film: ‘Self-destructive actions by intelligent people, the poison of jealousy and revenge, the ways that brilliance, success and power can go hand in hand with egocentricity, vanity and the abuse of such power… these were the themes that always interested him.’

One question for those who earnestly wish to commit Napoleon to film is which part of his life to show? How can two to four hours of cinema adequately convey a lifetime barely able to be contained within 800-page biographies? Kubrick envisioned his four-hour epic as spanning the full gamut of Bonaparte, from birth in Corsica to death St Helena, while Abel Gance’s five-and-a-half hour silent biopic spanned only thirteen years of the young Napoleon’s life. Other directors – too poorly financed, too inexperienced, or too rushed to film an out-and-out biopic – have instead managed to create masterpieces in which Napoleon serves as the mere backdrop to their films. One such director was a young Ridley Scott.

In The Duellists, Scott’s first feature film, two Hussars within Napoleon’s Grande Armée find themselves compelled to needlessly duel in Strasbourg, in Augsburg, in Lübeck; before frozen corpses on the retreat from Moscow; in Tours; and finally amid the ruins of a château. The course of their lives is entwined with that of Imperial France, their destiny wrapped up entirely with that of Napoleon. One duellist renounces Napoleon and is permitted to live; the other remains loyal and is committed to death. The emperor does not appear once – but the effects of his decisions, tactics, and whims are the very essence of the film and the backdrop for every encounter between the two men. Life – and film – in the early 19th century is dominated by one man, even one so supreme so as to only be glimpsed by the very top of society. Mortal filmmakers – and small-time cavalry officers – can only but hope to glimpse Napoleon.

Similarly, Peter Weir’s 2003 Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World operates in the shadow cast by the French usurper-emperor. Devastating and thrilling naval battles – characterised and interrupted by suicides, piracy, evolutionary theories, biological studies, major surgeries, and war – are but a footnote in Napoleon’s epic; a micro story of the Napoleonic era in which oceans are now battlefields. All is being done for, or against the Bonaparte tyrant, who looms above all and will never be seen. Even Lord Nelson – former commanding officer of Jack Aubrey – exists as a near-mythological figure to the men who live and die in the shadow of Bonaparte which stretches all the way to the Galápagos Islands they fight beside. 

For every Waterloo – with a faithful retelling of Napoleon’s relationships with Ney, Wellington, and Soult – there’s a Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, in which a ‘piggy’ Napoleon is mocked by waiters for hoovering up an ice cream-eating challenge. In the 2012 Russian film Rzevsky Versus Napoleon – a sequel to 2008’s Hitler Goes Kaput! – Volodymyr Zelensky portrays a Napoleon seduced by a cross-dressing Russian general to an average audience rating of 2.7/10.

An appetite exists for Napoleon: some figures estimate as many as 60,000 books have been written on the man since his death in 1821, but even the highest quality films fail to sate it.

Ridley Scott’s 2023 Napoleon cannot be regarded as a successful attempt. ‘Destiny has brought me here,’ Joaquin Phoenix’s Bonaparte announces to Josephine after she has just accused him of enjoying too many meals. ‘Destiny has brought me this lamb chop.’ At one point, searching for the perfidious Russian Tsar who has deserted Moscow (and bested the emperor in doing so), Napoleon creeps around an empty throne room, calling out ‘Little boy… where are you? Don’t be frightened. I’m just gonna give you a little spanking.’

‘When I have issues with historians,’ Scott responds, ‘I ask: “Excuse me, mate, were you there? No? Well, shut the fuck up then.”’

Kubrick insisted that there had never been ‘a great historical film’ or ‘a good or accurate movie’ about the emperor. Adored by the likes of Scorsese, he thought Gance’s Napoleon to be ‘a very crude picture’.

Kubrick is not the only filmmaker to understand that Napoleon is the perfect (perhaps only) subject for the greatest film that could ever be made. An audience yearns for a masterpiece worthy of the man himself. They may have to wait some time.


Katherine Bayford