Where I spent 15 of my early years, attending Waterloo Grammar School, running for Waterloo Harriers, supporting Waterloo Rugby Football Club and being married at St John’s Waterloo, with my father working at Waterloo Station now helpfully renamed Waterloo (Mersey).
So I just had to go to see Napoleon, Ridley Scott’s two hours and 38 minutes epic on this remarkable man whose defeat I encountered every day as a young person, walking to school past Blucher Street and then Wellington Street, Mount Pleasant, passing Hougoumont Avenue and then along Walmer Road – all names with Napoleonic connotations.
For by any reckoning Napoleon Bonaparte was a remarkable person, shaping the French nation to considerable effect. In fact, only last year I worked my way through Andrew Robert’s 820-page biography, tellingly entitled Napoleon the Great. There he writes: “Few men or women have towered so completely over their age as the diminutive Napoleon Bonaparte.”
And so even today his civil code is the basis of the French legal system, while aspects of it have been adopted by forty countries. Provincial départements are still overseen by prefects in a system he devised.
His regime introduced the baccalaureate exam while citizens are awarded the country’s top honour, the Legion of Honour which he established. And each Wednesday his Conseil d’Etat still meets to vet laws.
And amazingly he came to power through a military coup only six years after entering the country as a penniless political refugee.
The big question is obvious – HOW? How did he manage all this, not just dominating France but through his military genius conquering virtually the whole of Europe (apart, of course, from us.)?
Well, Ridley’s blockbuster fails to give any hint of an answer. And as such I can see why the film was derided in the French media and not just because most of the cast (except the man himself) hail from England where the film was shot in its entirety. So we discover, for example, that Lincoln Cathedral is an excellent stand-in for Notre-Dame!
Sadly I think the film fails at every level.
There are lots of inaccuracies – which you would expect in a Hollywood epic (cf. the Crown), while all Napoleon’s political reforms, as detailed above, are simply ignored. Moreover, the film lacks a clear flow: there are too many unexplained jumps in the narrative.
It doesn’t help, incidentally, that Napoleon was miscast. The emperor portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix clearly comes from the Bronx and not Corsica, although to be fair Napoleon never shook off his Corsican accent and as in the film spoke with a different accent to those around him.
For me, as you would expect, the best part of the film was Waterloo, at least Ridley’s take on Napoleon’s final battle. We watch amazed as the English infantry in reaction to French cavalry charges reforms into squares. Amazingly the extras managed this first time at Churn Farm, Oxfordshire. So well that Ridley offered to buy them all a drink!
However, for me the fundamental flaw is that the film has no central underlying theme, no big picture. So Ridley gives a huge prominence to Napoleon’s relationship with Joséphine de Beauharnais, his wife. He focuses on the Emperor’s obsessive need for an heir, which seems more Tudor than Trafalgar.
As one reviewer pointed out: “When he’s not facing off against the Austrians, the British and the Russians, Napoleon is struggling with Joséphine, who vexes him almost as much as the Duke of Wellington.”
Napoleon Bonaparte must be one of the few candidates for the Great Men of history award, as popularised by the Scottish 19th century philosopher Thomas Carlyle who stated that "The history of the world is but the biography of great men."
However, I cannot see Ridley’s Napoleon managing much more than a protection racket over the East Bronx. But there again, as the film makes only too clear, the Great Man died a Failure, an exile on the remote Atlantic island of St Helena.
This is in complete contrast to one Failed Man who became Great. Here I refer you to my editorial in our parish magazine for January 2000:
Your task is to rescue humankind and so change world history, more than anyone who has ever lived.
you will be born into poverty.
you will carry the stigma of illegitimacy.
you will belong to a subject race.
you will be a refugee.
you will live in an unimportant town.
you will live far from any centre of power.
you will have no special education.
you will work with your hands.
you will hold no office in any organisation.
you will have no economic resources.
you will have no political assets
you will have no military significance
you will write no book or produce no work of art.
you will not travel more than 100 miles.
you will be shunned by the elite.
you will be opposed by powerful men.
Don’t start until you are 30 years old.
You have just three years.
Remarkably, Jesus succeeded. The big question is HOW?
The answer – “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death - even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8)
And the secret of his success?
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:1), the same Spirit who raised him from the dead and who may fill us too as we acknowledge him as Lord. (Ephesians 1:20).