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  • Writer's pictureGeopolitics.Λsia

Ridley Scott's Napoleon Standard, but...

Updated: Jan 18

In this installment of our cultural column, we momentarily divert from our series on the annals of historical powerhouses and their illustrious leaders. Our journey has traversed from the Napoleonic fervor in France to the grandeur of Alexander the Great's Macedonian Empire, and from the Mauryan dynasty's splendor to the nascent days of the Roman Empire. In the vein of Napoleon, who aspired to emulate the passions of both Alexander and Caesar, our narrative has woven a rich tapestry encompassing these monumental figures, including insights into Alexander through the lens of his mentor, Aristotle, and a brief sojourn into Caesar's expansive saga. This historical odyssey was crafted to set the stage for Ridley Scott's "Napoleon," yet the film's reception stands in stark contrast to Scott’s previous epics such as "Gladiator," "Kingdom of Heaven," and the "Alien" series. Let us delve into the reasons behind this divergence.

In "Napoleon," Ridley Scott embarks on a cinematic quest to encapsulate the essence of one of history’s most enigmatic figures, Napoleon Bonaparte. This film, however, diverges from the director's previously acclaimed epics like "Gladiator" and "Alien," both in its approach and in the audience's reception. Critics have lauded the film for its grandiose battle sequences, a hallmark of Scott's directorial prowess. Yet, these sequences seem to float adrift in a sea of narrative seeking a firmer anchor. The film's portrayal of the Napoleonic era, while visually striking, appears to grapple with a lack of cohesive storytelling, a critical element that was profoundly mastered in Scott’s earlier works. Furthermore, unlike the deep character exploration in "Gladiator" or the innovative horror of "Alien," "Napoleon" seems to miss a certain depth in its central character portrayal. This lack of emotional resonance may contribute to the film not fully captivating its audience, an aspect where Scott’s previous endeavors have excelled.

The reception of "Napoleon" illustrates a dichotomy in audience and critical perception. On platforms like Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, the film garners a mix of admiration and ambivalence, reflective of a broader trend in contemporary cinematic consumption. There's an appreciation for Scott's ambition and the spectacle he brings to the big screen. Yet, alongside this admiration lies a sense of unfulfilled potential, where the narrative and character development do not quite match the epic scale of the visual storytelling. This contrast is particularly evident when juxtaposed against the backdrop of Scott’s previous works, which have not only set a high bar in filmmaking but also left an indelible mark on the cultural zeitgeist. "Napoleon," with its impressive visual feats and attempts at humor, may not achieve the same cultural or cinematic gravitas as "Gladiator" or "Alien," but it remains a testament to Scott’s unceasing endeavor to push the boundaries of historical epics, even if it falls short of revolutionizing the genre or deeply resonating with its audience as his past masterpieces did.

Lack of Innovation in Ridley Scott's Latest Epic?

In the realm of epic cinema, innovation has always been the linchpin of success, a concept Ridley Scott himself has brilliantly exemplified in his career. From the raw, visceral energy of "Gladiator" to the profound historical tapestry in "Kingdom of Heaven," and from the pioneering strength in "G.I. Jane" to the groundbreaking sci-fi horror in the "Alien" series, Scott’s films have often been synonymous with cinematic revolution. Similarly, the film industry has witnessed other landmarks like the pioneering visual effects in "Jurassic Park" and the immersive world of "Avatar," where innovation was not just a tool but the very soul of the narrative. This constant renewal of cinematic language is vital for a film to not only captivate but also immerse its audience, creating a ripple effect of word-of-mouth that elevates a movie from mere entertainment to a cultural phenomenon. It’s this element of novelty and immersion that seems conspicuously absent or underexplored in Scott's "Napoleon," a deviation from the director's storied legacy of reinventing the wheel with each of his ambitious projects.

This absence of innovation becomes more evident when considering the high expectations set by Joaquin Phoenix's previous performance in "Joker." Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker was not just a performance; it was a redefinition, delving into the darker recesses of the character’s psyche. In "Napoleon," Scott appears to have placed a substantial bet on Phoenix’s ability to similarly redefine and carry the titular character. However, this gamble seems to have faltered. The film, while visually grand, doesn't quite pivot around Phoenix's performance as expected. Instead, it gives the impression of an experiment that didn’t fully materialize, where the narrative and character development didn't synergize as anticipated. The reliance on Phoenix’s prowess, though understandable given his recent accolades, might have inadvertently overshadowed other critical elements of storytelling, leaving the film in a state of imbalance – a spectacle in search of a soul.

This perceived misstep raises questions about the trajectory of innovation in Scott’s filmmaking. In the quest to align with the brilliance of Phoenix's Joker, "Napoleon" could have ventured into uncharted territories of character exploration or narrative structure, offering audiences something unprecedented. Yet, it seems to tread cautiously within the bounds of conventional historical epic frameworks, lacking the bold strokes that typically define a Scott masterpiece. The film, thus, stands at a crossroads of potential and realization – a reminder that in the ever-evolving landscape of cinema, resting on laurels, even those as illustrious as Scott’s, isn't enough. The future of epic filmmaking hinges on a continual reinvention, a challenge that Scott, with his undeniable mastery and experience, is more than capable of meeting, provided he embraces the relentless spirit of innovation that once defined his illustrious career.

What If: A Closer Look at Ridley Scott's Napoleon

In this segment, we delve into a hypothetical exploration of what Ridley Scott's "Napoleon" might have achieved had it delved deeper into the grand narrative of Hegel's concept of modernity's bearer. Imagine if the film had intricately portrayed the internal conflicts within Napoleon Bonaparte’s mind – his support for the French Revolution with its ideals of overthrowing the ancien régime, contrasted with his own ascent to emperorship. This dichotomy presents a fascinating psychological landscape: a revolutionary leader who ends up emulating the very structures he helped dismantle. Scott touches upon this, particularly highlighting how other European powers perceived Napoleon not as a legitimate ruler, but as a Corsican upstart. This aspect of the narrative had the potential to anchor the film in a profound historical and philosophical context, capturing the essence of an era where the winds of modernization were irreversibly altering the European landscape.

However, amidst the vast political and military canvas that the film attempts to cover, it is the portrayal of Napoleon's affair with Josephine that emerges as a narrative highlight. This personal angle offers a glimpse into the more intimate dimensions of Napoleon's life, standing in stark contrast to his public persona. The dynamic between Napoleon and Josephine could have been the emotional core of the film, providing a humanizing counterbalance to the grand historical events unfolding around them. This exploration of their relationship, if further deepened, could have added a rich layer of complexity to the film, making it more relatable and emotionally resonant.

The film’s depiction of Napoleon's military campaigns, though grand in scale, raises questions about the narrative choices. Scott opts to cover six major battles, a decision that, while ambitious, may have diluted the impact that a more focused narrative could achieve. This approach can be contrasted with the 1970 film "Waterloo," which concentrated on a single, pivotal battle, allowing for a more detailed and immersive exploration. In trying to encompass the vast expanse of Napoleon's life and military career, the film risks losing the audience's sustained engagement, especially when closely compared to historical records. A potentially more intriguing angle could have been an in-depth look at how Napoleon's strategic mind and innovative military tactics set him apart from his contemporaries. This would require extensive research and a willingness to challenge the audience's understanding of historical warfare, a task that might have fallen outside Scott's primary focus but could have added a unique and intellectually stimulating dimension to the film.


Ridley Scott's "Napoleon" (2023) stands as a testament to the director’s unwavering standard in the realm of epic filmmaking, yet it falls a tad short of reaching the pinnacle achieved by his previous masterpieces. The film, while visually stunning and narratively ambitious, left some audiences and critics with a sense of unfulfilled potential, a mild disappointment when measured against the high benchmarks set by Scott's earlier works. Despite this, the film aligns well with Scott’s cinematic ethos, showcasing his flair for grand storytelling and historical dramatization. There's room for optimism, though, as Scott may yet embrace newer innovations in his future projects, something that his audience eagerly anticipates, especially with the upcoming "Gladiator 2."

A notable aspect of "Napoleon" is its soundtrack, which evokes a sense of grandeur and historical depth, reminiscent of the BBC's adaptation of "War and Peace." This auditory experience adds a layer of emotional depth and cultural richness to the film, enhancing the overall narrative impact. This aspect of the film, however, leads one to muse about an alternative portrayal of Napoleon – one through the analytical lens of Carl von Clausewitz, a military theorist profoundly influenced by the Napoleonic Wars.

Imagine a narrative that delves into the concept of the "fog of war" as experienced by Napoleon, exploring the uncertainties and complexities of warfare that Clausewitz so eloquently articulated in his treatise "On War." Such an approach could offer a fresh, introspective perspective on Napoleon, focusing not just on his military conquests but on the intricate strategic thinking and psychological warfare that underpinned them. This perspective would not only appeal to history enthusiasts but also resonate with modern military strategists, for whom Clausewitz's insights remain relevant.

In conclusion, while "Napoleon" may not represent Ridley Scott at his absolute best, it certainly embodies his cinematic style and narrative ambition. The film leaves us pondering the possibilities of alternative narratives and perspectives, reminding us that history, much like cinema, is subject to the interpretations and imaginations of those who recount it. As we look forward to "Gladiator 2," we remain hopeful that Scott will continue to explore and push the boundaries of historical storytelling, perhaps even venturing into the realms of military strategy and psychological depth that have yet to be fully explored in cinema



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