Why are we still so fascinated by Napoleon after more than 200 years?

This image released by Apple TV Plus shows Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from "Napoleon." (Apple TV Plus via AP)
This image released by Apple TV Plus shows Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from "Napoleon." (Apple TV Plus via AP)

Napoleon Bonaparte’s career as a conqueror lasted a mere 22 years. It began in 1793, when, as a junior artillery officer, he masterminded the successful French attack on the British garrison holding the port of Toulon. After this initial victory, he was promoted, at age 24, to brigadier general. Only six years later, he became, as first consul, ruler of France — and soon of much of Europe. His career ended in 1815 when he met, well, his Waterloo and went into exile on the remote island of St. Helena before dying in 1821, still only 51 years old. But the debate over his legacy has now lasted more than 200 years and shows no sign of abating.

The latest eruption of controversy has been triggered by Ridley Scott’s epic film “Napoleon”, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the “little corporal”. The French are predictably up in arms over how their legendary emperor has been depicted by the British director working with an American star. The satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné harumphed: “It’s hard not to see this hasty approach as the historical revenge of Ridley Scott, the Englishman. An Austerlitz of cinema? More like Waterloo”.

The French critics have a point. You can debate whether Napoleon was a hero or villain — I am inclined to the latter view — but Scott’s film depicts him as something he definitely was not: a buffoon. Scott’s Napoleon is a cipher who is seen either leading his troops in battle or acting like a lovestruck dolt with his first wife, Joséphine. Scott even mocks him for being cuckolded by Josephine because of his supposedly poor bedroom skills. (He apparently was a perfunctory lover, according to Andrew Roberts’ “Napoleon: A Life”, but he did have at least 21 mistresses.)

Don’t get me wrong. The movie has its charms — no expense has been spared, it seems, to re-create epic battles such as Austerlitz and Waterloo. And the real problem with the film is not the minor inaccuracies pointed out by numerous critics — e.g., Napoleon was not present at the execution of Marie Antoinette in 1793, and he did not order his troops to fire their artillery at the pyramids during his ill-fated invasion of Egypt in 1798. At least, Scott does not propagate the canard that Napoleon’s quest for glory was in compensation for his supposedly diminutive stature; he was actually of above average height for his day.

The real issue is that this shallow and cartoonish film omits both Napoleon’s greatest achievements and his most despicable atrocities.

There is no hint in “Napoleon” that the real-life Napoleon was, as Roberts points out, an indefatigable and inventive administrator who modernized the laws of France (aspects of the Napoleonic Code have been adopted in 40 countries); built bridges, roads, sewers and reservoirs still in use today; set up lycées (secondary schools) that still educate students today; created a Legion d’Honneur to recognize meritorious soldiers and civilians whose red ribbon is still coveted; and supported academic inquiries whose results are still invaluable. (The scholars he brought to Egypt discovered the Rosetta Stone, which made it possible to read ancient hieroglyphics.)

Nor does the film acknowledge that Napoleon reinstated slavery in 1802 after it had been abolished by the French Revolution. (In 2021, on the 200-year anniversary of Napoleon’s death, French President Emmanuel Macron called this, with considerable understatement, a “mistake, a betrayal of the spirit of the Enlightenment”.) Napoleon then sent troops, led by his brother-in-law, Gen. Victor Emmanuel Leclerc, to wage genocidal war to reinstate French rule over Haiti following the first successful slave revolt in history.

The French imported attack dogs to rip apart Black prisoners, threw Black soldiers into the ocean to drown with heavy sacks tied around their necks, burned alive Black insurgents, and even suffocated Black prisoners with sulfur fumes in a makeshift gas chamber in the hold of a ship. Despite — or perhaps because — of all these atrocities, Napoleon’s legions were defeated, and Haiti emerged free, but only after a horrifying bloodletting: The dead numbered at least 200,000 Black Haitians and 50,000 French soldiers.

While Napoleon’s actions in Haiti were probably his worst (if least known) crimes, a similar story played out in many of the European countries that were occupied by his troops. Inevitably there were popular uprisings, and just as inevitably they were met with great brutality by Napoleon’s men. The Spanish painter Francisco Goya left a haunting depiction of the revolt in Madrid on May 2-3, 1808, after Napoleon tried to install his older brother Joseph, the former king of Naples, on the throne of Spain. Goya’s oil painting “The Third of May 1808” shows a French firing squad about to execute a Spanish rebel, his arms stretched out in submission and a pile of bloody bodies at his feet, while other Spanish prisoners cover their eyes in horror.

French brutality in Spain predictably backfired, leading to a larger guerrilla war (the origin of that term) that drained Napoleon’s resources and hastened his downfall. The brutal French repression of conquered populations was a sad and sordid aspect of the Napoleonic Wars far removed from the glorious cavalry charges and thunderous artillery salvos depicted by Scott.

It is no easy thing to render final judgment on Napoleon, considering his impressive highs and dismaying lows. He was undoubtedly one of the most talented generals in history (he won more than 50 battles), and the greatest conqueror Europe had seen since the days of Charlemagne, or even the Romans. He won the devotion of his soldiers by tending to their well-being but led them to slaughter in campaign after campaign. (At least half of his Grande Arméewas killed in his doomed invasion of Russia alone.)

He professed devotion to the ideals of the French Revolution and indeed helped spread those ideals across Europe but ultimately usurped the revolution and proclaimed himself emperor. He began leading French armies in wars of self-defense against foreign invasions and then himself became an inveterate invader of other people’s countries who seemed to be motivated by no higher ideal than an addiction to military glory. (“I wanted to rule the world — who wouldn’t have, in my place?” he later said.)

It is hard to better the verdict of the 19th-century French writer and diplomat François-René de Chateaubriand, who described the emperor as “this man whose genius I admire and whose despotism I abhor”. Scott does not do full justice to either Napoleon’s genius or his despotism, but perhaps that is impossible to do in a movie, even one that is nearly three hours long.

His film does, however, attest to the enduring grip that Napoleon continues to exercise on the popular imagination. There are few if any parallels to “the little corporal’s” astonishing rise and precipitous downfall. It is a morality tale that today’s admirers of dictators or budding dictators should keep in mind. If Napoleon’s career teaches one thing, it is what the Founding Fathers knew: that no individual — no matter how brilliant — can be entrusted with absolute power. Those in search of soldier/statesmen to admire would do better to look to democratic leaders such as George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower, George C. Marshall — and of course France’s own Charles de Gaulle. I’d rather watch biopics of their lives than another retelling of the Napoleonic legend.

Max Boot is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam”.

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