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Napoleon and the mythmakers

The most serious book about the Napoleon obsession was born in a German concentration camp. Early in 1940, the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl wrote an essay on how Bonaparte had been seen by successive generations of French historians and sent it off to a journal for publication. After the German invasion in May, although he had “not written a single word about Hitler”, the piece was returned to him by an editor nervous at implied parallels.

Geyl was too fastidious a scholar to make crude analogies. He would go on to make it clear that “the persecution of the Jews had no parallel in Napoleon’s system”. But when he converted the essay into a lecture that September in Rotterdam, the audience responded with knowing laughter as he ran through the inventory of Napoleon’s failings listed by his French critics: the liquidation of a free press; the emasculation of any meaningful representative institutions; contempt for intellectuals; the ego-fetish of the will in action; the presumption that national glory must necessarily be forged in the carnage of war, and its logical corollary, an insatiable lust for military expansionism; the habit of treating humans instrumentally as grist to his glory mill; the chilly indifference to the loss of millions of lives, especially those of his own troops; an invariable tendency to blame everyone other than himself when things went awry.

However indirect Geyl may have been, the SS came for him, ostensibly as a hostage in retaliation for the mistreatment of Germans in the Dutch East Indies. In Buchenwald, where he spent 13 months, audiences continued to chuckle, but Geyl began drafting what would flower into the masterwork of historiography that is Napoleon: For and Against. Its great motif is that history is an “argument without end”. 

A portrait of Napoleon shows him in red gown with ermine trim, seated on a throne
In ‘Napoleon on the Imperial Throne’ by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1806), the emperor is ‘enthroned, positively clotted with every conceivable emblem of majesty’ © De Agostini/Getty Images
Marlon Brando in the red and gold jacket of a 19th-century military commander
Marlon Brando as Napoleon in the 1954 film ‘Désirée’ © Alamy

Which is certainly true of the debates about Napoleon Bonaparte. Like him or not (and by and large I don’t), there’s no getting away from the cult. Just last Sunday, one of the estimated 20 surviving bicorne hats worn by Napoleon was sold at auction for €1.9mn, a price that vindicates the famous epigram, attributed to the emperor among others, that there is but one step separating the sublime from the ridiculous. The hat buyer remains anonymous, but you imagine him trying it on in front of a full-length mirror, probably with one hand in his jacket. The reliquary brooks no scepticism. In the south of France, Julia Blackburn, whose The Emperor’s Last Island is one of the few books on Napoleon that reads like prose poetry, inspected what a museum there proudly claims are his pickled testicles.


Napoleon ranks third behind Jesus and Hitler in the number of books written about him but outdoes them both in the number of films — about 1,000 — made for cinema and television. No sooner had the Lumière brothers invented the motion picture than in 1897 they gave the world Napoleon Meets the Pope. By 1914, there were already 180 films devoted to Bonaparte.

A black bicorne hat on a red velvet cushion
The bicorne hat that was once worn by Napoleon and that fetched €1.9mn at auction in France this month © Reuters

Ridley Scott’s not-half-bad epic stars Joaquin Phoenix and his saturnine mumble, periodically punctuated with heavy breathing or aggravated yelping. But Phoenix’s performance, swinging between clenched rumination and neurotic energy, nails what the historian Georges Lefebvre thought was Napoleon’s mainspring: the mercurial, dynamic temperament. Moreover, Phoenix’s vocal manner is a big improvement on both Marlon Brando’s adenoidal lisp in Désirée (1954) and Rod Steiger’s strangulated barking in Sergei Bondarchuk’s otherwise gripping Waterloo of 1970.

It may well be that the challenge of reproducing the vox Napoleana (the tone of which historical sources are strangely quiet about) is possibly best met by the captions of silent movies such as Abel Gance’s histrionically unhinged masterpiece of 1927. You have to wonder, though, what Jack Nicholson, picked by Stanley Kubrick for his unrealised biopic, would have sounded like. 

It takes Napoleonic self-confidence to take on the subject, since commercially, until now, the most ambitious movies have all met a commercial Waterloo. After Gance’s avant-garde, manic-expressionist, five-hour movie was met by more head-scratching than public applause, he was denied the funding to achieve his heart’s desire of making a further five films taking Napoleon all the way to exile on St Helena.

A painting of a young man in elaborate military dress holding a flag in one hand and a sword in the other
‘Napoleon Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole’ by Antoine-Jean Gros (c1754) . . .  © Getty Images
A man with shoulder-length black hair holds up one arm in front of him
. . . and Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon in Abel Gance’s 1927 film © Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Sergei Bondarchuk’s literally stunning Borodino in the Soviet-era War and Peace is still the most convincing cinematic representation of what it feels like to be trapped inside a battle, a challenge since the two most salient characteristics, as John Keegan’s The Face of Battle pointed out — invisibility (the smoke) and inaudibility (the thunder of cannon) — are not audience-friendly. Inevitably, the budget-busting, seven-hour Tolstoy movie was shut down by its Soviet producers before its proper conclusion, short-changing the incineration of Moscow. The disaster did not, however, preclude Bondarchuk being hired to direct Waterloo (with a fabulously droll Christopher Plummer as Wellington), complete with 15,000 extras and 200 cavalry horses, a movie so commercially disastrous that it played a part in the studios’ reluctance to go anywhere near Kubrick’s looming monster. 

It doesn’t take an advanced degree in cultural psychology to notice that all these heavy-hitters were not just making films about Napoleon so much as climbing into his saddle, beguiled by the siren song of Movie Destiny.

Gance used the history to create a cinematic revolution, one that deployed an artillery barrage of effects — handheld cameras (unique for silent movies), cameras mounted on pendulums, wildly rapid cutting and the triple-screen opening of the final scene of the French army poised to descend on Italy — all intended to strong-arm the audience into becoming part of the action. At first sight, Kubrick damned the experimentally operatic film as “terrible”, although the impression lingered long enough for him to want to beat it by directing “the best movie ever made”.

To those who, late in his career, asked Kubrick whether he might think of reviving his own Napoleon project, abandoned around 1970, the maestro insisted he had never really wanted to make the film; and, perversely, that there never had been a shooting script. But when that script and the monumental archive of its development were unearthed, the scale of Kubrick’s attack of Napoleon syndrome became breathtakingly apparent.

Between 30,000 and 50,000 extras, supplied by the Romanian army, were to have been transported to locations by a fleet of 1,000 trucks. Two years of obsessive research generated a library of 18,000 documents, many of which Kubrick had pored over, and a picture cache of 15,000 items. Lenses were to be procured that could shoot in available light (as they would for the majestic Barry Lyndon a few years later). Love scenes were to be lit only by candles, glimmering on floor-to-ceiling wall-to-wall mirrors that Kubrick thought were Napoleon’s thing: Versailles, only pornier.

At other times, Kubrick was obsessed by historical accuracy to the point of wanting to shoot battles on the locations where they had actually taken place. Disappointed to discover that many of them had long been built over, he collected soil samples to scatter over alternative sites.

For all this, his estimated budget — between $3mn and $6mn, chicken feed now but hefty then — was less than the $10mn spent on 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had recovered its costs and more. But the scale of everything still frightened MGM off and Kubrick went to Warner Bros to make A Clockwork Orange instead, adapted from the novel by Anthony Burgess, who also wrote the brilliantly mischievous Napoleon Symphony. 

People in a cathedral
Jacques-Louis David’s ‘The Coronation of Napoleon’ (1807) © Getty Images
A man crowns a woman
The coronation scene in Ridley Scott’s film, with Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon and Vanessa Kirby as Joséphine

It’s safe to say that Napoleon, acutely conscious as he was that visual mystique was an integral element of his machinery of power, would have enjoyed all the trouble taken to keep his romance alive generation after generation. Unlike ancien régime absolutists, he wanted an iconography that would make his claim to be simultaneously citizen and sovereign credible: the embodiment of benefits brought by the revolution (equality especially) but with its anarchic disorder defanged.

Art as an instrument of state mattered to him; he paid it the backhand compliment of instructing generals and marshals to loot masterpieces wherever and whenever possible. Thus Rubens’ “Descent from the Cross” in Antwerp cathedral, Raphael’s “Transfiguration” from Rome, Veronese’s “Wedding Feast at Cana” ripped off a wall in the monastery church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice and Paulus Potter’s “Young Bull” from The Hague were hauled off in cartloads to line the walls of the Louvre.

There, grateful subjects could also see the great man depicted, by his mythmakers. None was more adept than Jacques-Louis David, sobered from his radical Jacobin passion by a spell in prison following the fall of Robespierre. Glamorising Mme Récamier may have created an entrée for her friend and fellow grande horizontale Joséphine Beauharnais, and thus to her lover and husband, whom David sketched in 1797 during the afterglow of his Italian triumphs, beautified in all his wild-haired élan. 

In 1801, after the close call at Marengo, David, using his son sitting atop a ladder since the great man refused to pose, painted Napoleon crossing the St Bernard pass, his mount’s legs lifted in the levade used iconographically to celebrate the equestrian power of sovereigns. But the versatile David also produced images of the heroic legislator. In 1812, he produced a full-length portrait of the tireless administrator, burning the candle at both ends labouring through the night (the clock reads 4.13 am).

A man in military uniform stands against a desk
Jacques-Louis David’s ‘The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries’ (1812) . . .  © Alamy
A man in military uniform stands in front of a red curtain
. . . and Marlon Brando in similar pose in ‘Désirée’ © Corbis/Getty Images

The image was compelling, but for Napoleon it was also somehow too prosaic. His wish, especially in the years following the coronation and his great victory at Austerlitz, was to have imagery charged with every kind of imperial memory: Greco-Alexandrian, Roman Augustan, Frankish Carolingian and medieval Capetian.

Sensing this, one of David’s students, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, thought to oblige the emperor by creating for the Salon of 1806 a vast (8ft by 5ft) hieratic icon of Napoleon enthroned, positively clotted with every conceivable emblem of majesty.

On one side he holds what was said to be the sceptre of Charlemagne surmounted with a statuette of that earlier Frankish emperor. His other hand holds the rod with the Hand of Justice made for the 14th-century king Charles V, destroyed during the revolution and remade in 1804 for its new sovereign. A sword based on Charlemagne’s “Joyeuse” hangs from his left hip, while his brow is crowned with the gilded laurels of the Caesars.

A battlefield with men on horses and men laying dead
Antoine-Jean Gros’s ‘Napoleon on the Battlefield of Eylau’ (1807) © Alamy
Napoleon on a horse
Vladislav Strzhelchik as Napoleon in Sergei Bondarchuk’s Soviet-era ‘War and Peace’ © LMK

For keen spotters of Napoleana, the rug beneath the throne has a great eagle emblazoned at its centre, but along one side in woven cartouches are the zodiac signs, each of which could have been read as having calendrical significance. To make sure that no one mistook Napoleon for a run-of-the-mill mortal, the halo effect of the throne’s back was borrowed directly from Jan van Eyck’s painting “God the Father” in the central panel of the Ghent triptych, which had been taken from the Cathedral of St Bavo to the Louvre. The iconographic pile-up, and the fleshless, porcelain countenance half-strangled by its ruff, displeased David and failed to find favour with those responsible for recommending it to its subject. 


There were other, more documentary ways to represent the Hero as Saviour-messiah: Antoine-Jean Gros’s “Napoleon in the Pest House at Jaffa”, touching the armpit where a bubo would have arisen on the body of a plague-stricken figure, recalled the magical healing powers of the Merovingian kings or Napoleon the merciful moving among the dead and wounded on the morrow of the battle of Eylau as if tragically burdened by the spectacle, not at all the man Metternich reported as saying that a million lives were nothing to him. 

It was left to artists who were not French to register the horror and misery experienced by ordinary folk who had been fed into the gaping maw of Napoleon’s relentless war machine. Goya’s “The Disasters of War” series of prints, with their chopped-up body parts and impaled torsos, and most terrible of all, a French soldier staring casually at the mutilation, was too perilously truthful to be published in his lifetime.

Alone of all the many culture tourists who visited the field of Waterloo, where the mortality rate had been a shocking 41 per cent, Turner produced a sombre, heartbreaking painting of the dead and wounded, among whom camp-following women desperately search for surviving husbands, brothers, sons. 

The dark side of what Napoleon wrought is not, of course, good box office. Although Ridley Scott is a dab hand at rendering the spectacle of extreme violence — a horse eviscerated by a cannonball — the pathos of the humble is not his thing. Only one film that I know of — Yves Angelo’s wonderful Le Colonel Chabert (1994), based on a Balzac novella in which an officer presumed dead at Eylau returns to attempt to claim his property and wife — gives full weight to the wretched aftermath of a great battle. Against an infernal landscape of death, the carcasses of horses being cremated in bonfires, the grimy hands of scavengers tug and pull inside the uniforms of the dead to retrieve anything that might be worth having, while Beethoven’s “Ghost” trio plays unbearably over the pitiless desolation. 

A painting of a field and blue sky
Turner’s ‘The Field of Waterloo Seen from Hougoumont’ (c1830) © Alamy
Men lie dead on the floor
‘Le Colonel Chabert’ (1994), a film that ‘gives full weight to the wretched aftermath of a great battle’ © Alamy

Professorial carping over liberties taken with the historical facts is beside the point, and Scott for that matter doesn’t take that many of them. Joséphine’s stumpy black teeth were never likely to feature in the come-hither mouth of Vanessa Kirby, who does a mean job of inhabiting the empire-line cougar. A bigger pity is the presumption, belied by movies such as Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, that provoking an audience to reflect on history’s big questions must necessarily be a drag on entertainment. 

For Napoleon comes with a weighty baggage train of just such questions, many of them fraught for our own troubled time. Growing ever more deeply reactionary, he reintroduced the slave trade that the revolution had abolished, and handed the right of divorce exclusively over to husbands, except when a mistress (he had 22 himself) was brought into the domestic home.

In the end, Napoleon was the very prototype of a modern despot, cynically assuming that the majority of people cared little or nothing for liberty or constitutions or the vaunted “sovereignty of the people” and so he could easily dispossess them of it, substituting for freedom the pyrrhic dazzle of military triumph. By 1814 and his comeuppance, France was prostrate, impoverished, its men brutally culled for conscription and the legions of the dead and damaged. And all for what? The ephemeral bubble of la gloire. 

Sometimes, the reality of the Napoleonic moment is captured sideways on. In Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, Fabrizio del Dongo stumbles on to the field of Waterloo, wanting to be a hero, but is pulled up short by the horror “of a horse covered with blood, lying struggling on the ploughed earth, its hooves entangled in its own entrails”. An orgy of chicken-plucking opens Jeanette Winterson’s wonderful book The Passion, and in Simon Leys’ astonishing The Death of Napoleon, the undead Emperor ekes out days in ways it would be a spoiler to relate.

But no one, I think, caught Napoleon’s essence quite as perfectly as Tolstoy in War and Peace. On the verge of battle, the mist lying over Austerlitz lifts and Napoleon, taking his glove “from his beautiful white hand, made a sign to the marshals, and gave the order for the action to begin”. A moment before, “he stood motionless gazing at the heights appearing from the fog, and on his cold face there was that particular tinge of self-confident, well-deserved happiness that can be seen on the face of a boy who has happily fallen in love”.  

Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor. His latest book is ‘Foreign Bodies: Vaccines, Pandemics and the Health of Nations’

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