Napoleon in movies and film
I'd like to give my thoughts on a handful of Napoleon movies, but I think a few words about the popular perception of Napoleon are in order first. The adage that 'history is always written by the victors' is probably exemplified in the case of Napoleon Bonaparte better than most other prominent figures. The Napoleonic Wars, though they involved numerous nations and spanned two decades, were basically a struggle between England and France writ large. Of course we all know that Napoleon's France was not the victor after the Battle of Waterloo and that England was. Thus we have the skewed historical version put forth by the English that has been perpetuated and handed down through the generations. Napoleon is not the only figure that has suffered under this type of faulty historicity, but he is certainly an excellent example.
The much-maligned figure of Napoleon Bonaparte has suffered countless assaults over the past two centuries from disinterested historians who, when mentioning his name, fall back on the standard description of the man as a diminutive ogre who was bent on the destruction of Europe. Such a myopic view of Napoleon was of course promulgated by his main enemies during and after the Napoleonic Wars - The English. So, it isn't surprising that most Americans, Englishmen, Canadians, Australians, and anyone else who speaks English consider this summation of Bonaparte to be true. A much more balanced view of the man lies within the histories written in other languages, most notably French. To be sure, over the years Napoleon has also basked in the adulation of hero worshipers who are just as polarized. But in general it is negative ideas that lurk in most people's minds when Napoleon is mentioned. I blame this on sloppy historians and writers who have perpetuated fallacies with their intellectual laziness. Oh…how the silliness abounds!
My Favorite Napoleon Movies
OK, now that my scathing diatribe against all detractors of Napoleon is complete I'll move on to my list of the best movies about Napoleon.
1. Waterloo (1970) - This gem of a movie features Rod Steiger in the role of Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as Wellington. The film's two hour treatment of the Battle of Waterloo is generally good, though I would have liked it more had the introductory battles of Qautre Bras and Ligny been included. The battle scenes are pretty spectacular considering the fact that none of it is computer generated, all of those uniforms marching around are really there! I think that Steiger's part as Napoleon is well done if one recognizes that he was portraying the man on that day of battle, a day which most scholars believe he was not his usual self. If one takes Steiger's role as an accurate portrayal of Napoleon in general I think that would be a disservice to the emperor and the actor. In addition, according to what I know of the Duke of Wellington, Plummer's portrayal of the man is dead on.
2. The Emperor's New Clothes (2001) - I'd have to agree with an Amazon review about this film - 'Alternative history and whimsical imagination make comfortable bedfellows'. It is a highly original Bonaparte movie with good sets and good acting. This was Ian Holm's second time being cast in the role of Bonaparte and his looks help him pull it off. I don't know if the irascible and impatient elements that Holm displays in his character are due to his interpretation of Napoleon or because that is what the director wanted him to portray. But, it isn't really a fair picture of the man and it does get a little annoying at times because it helps to perpetuate the inaccurate perception that Napoleon was simply a petulant, ranting, and importunate megalomaniac.
3. Napoleon TV series (2002) - This was a very good portrayal of Napoleon Bonaparte. Christian Clavier has obviously studied Napoleon thoroughly; his playing of the man doesn't suffer at all from the typical banality, but is instead a highly mature rendering of his subject. The film is historically accurate and gives the viewer a more complete picture of the man than most films do. We see, not only his genius as a military commander, but also his abilities as a legislator and emperor, as a lover of the arts and culture, and as a father and husband. As a historian I wish some more emphasis was put on other parts of the Napoleonic story, but I understand that running time limits the director and writer. It has an all star supporting cast to boot - Isabella Rossellini, John Malkovich, and Gerard Depardieu.
Napoleon TV series
4. Napoleon (1927 & 1955) - Of course I can't leave out these two classic movies of the same title. For the longest time they were considered THE CLASSIC Napoleon films. The earlier is a silent film that was redone by Coppola in the earlier 80's with the addition of a film score. However, it has been undergoing legal battles for years and is devilishly difficult to find, so I haven't seen it yet. I include it because of the universal acclaim that it has received over the years. The more recent I have seen and still enjoy watching at times, but I must admit that the cinematics of modern movies is often more alluring and conspires to push this one towards the back of my DVD shelf. However, the acting is great, it is an accurate account of the main events of the Napoleonic story, and it definitely deserves to be in the library of any true fan of Napoleon.
5. Monsieur N. (2003) - Well, I've saved the best for last. Of all the feature films and bit parts that have portrayed Napoleon Bonaparte none compares to Philippe Torreton's brilliant and artful rendering of the man. In one breath he shows us a stern, calculating, and shrewd Bonaparte, while in the very next he exposes the compassionate, kind, and forgiving nature of the man. He mixes and intermingles these opposing traits so well that the viewer can begin to see Napoleon as the human that he was rather than as some distant iconic figure. Torreton also displays Napoleon's "penetrating presence" so very perfectly. If you want a true picture of the man, then you must watch this film; Torrenton is Napoleon in the flesh. The viewer should be mindful that the characters and setting are all factual, but the plot is fictitious. However, it is a fascinating story, showcasing a much speculated upon theory about Napoleon's possible escape from exile and disappearance in the US. I've never bought that theory because I don't think the evidence supports it, but as Napoleon points out in the film - people WANT to believe just about anything...
Great men are never without flaws, but neither are they without magnificent traits that caused them to rise to such heights.
Additional Napoleon Movies
The following are a few remaining films of note that I have yet to see. I especially look forward to watching Napoleon & Me, starring the talented Daniel Auteuil and the heavenly Monica Bellucci.
Maria and Napoleon (1966)
Eagle in a Cage (1972)
Napoleon and Me (2006)
Saloon Singer on July 04, 2012:
My personal favorite Napoleon is Brando's in Desiree. As Laurence Olivier himself observed, 'Brando was the best Napoleon because like Napoleon he is a genius. And I think it takes a genius to play a genius.' By genius I believe he meant the ability to solve a problem in an original way that astounds us because it totally changes our perception of the problem and how to solve it.
Lontio on June 16, 2012:
I've been searching this hub for the reason to find a movie acted by. (I'm not sure whom exactly, but one of them should/is to be the one.) Either "Bob Hoskins" "Anthony Hoskins" or "Anthony Hopkins". What I need is, the title of a napoleonic film acted by one of these actors. I appreciate it if answered.
Sylvain on December 29, 2011:
The best movies about Napoléon are Monsieur N, Napoleon t.v. series, Abel Gance Napoléon and Austerlitz, Napoleon PBS home video. I dont like Waterloo, Blucher is the hero of the battle not Wellington. The Guitrys movie have many mystakes. I have see Emperor`s new clothes, the wrost movie about Napoléon ever made. If you want to lurn about Napoléon, reed Max Gallo series of books Napoléon and Ben Weider Murder at St-helena
Lisa on September 19, 2011:
What is the name of the movie where Napoleon fakes his death, has a man who looks identical to him stay in exile, while the real Napoleon returns to Paris as a commoner, hoping to one day reveal his true identity and regain his power? He hooks up with a widow who, I think, is an inn keeper. It takes him a long time, but finally he convinces her he really is Napoleon. She threatens him that she will have him put in an insane asylum if he does, in fact, "out" himself. His short stint in a hospital for "crazies" is very scary, in my opinion. I would really like to know what the name of this movie is. If you remember the father (or for that matter the movie) in the movie "In the Bedroom," that English actor played Napoleon in the movie I am referring to. The movie was made in the last ten years and perhaps not that long ago (maybe 7-8 years ago). Thanks for your help.
carnyx on July 27, 2011:
The Abel gance's movies are a must see!
I am writing this note a few meters away from the Napoleon familly house entrance in Ajaccio!
Vive l empereur et vive la France!
andrebreynolds on July 01, 2011:
I can't believe Napoleon had movies. Thanks for this hub.
Otto on April 16, 2011:
Great site and thanks for searing it with us seen it manny time.
I'll waihting wen i cant seen the hole movie from Napoleon.
Can you say me who i can find and seen the hole movie from Napoleon the oldie's from 1960 Battle from Austerlitz and from 1970 with Wellington and Napoleon
asleemdsafdsdfdf on February 03, 2011:
One to avoid then
Amir08 on January 28, 2011:
Don Simkovich from Pasadena, CA on December 23, 2010:
I'm a Hubber and I found this Hub in Google today after I typed, Napoleon movies. I was trying to remember the Rod Steiger movie. Nicely written Hub. I was watching a documentary on Napoleon from PBS yesterday.
Andre on October 10, 2010:
lemuer8 on September 29, 2010:
for movies on napoleon check out the best one --Sacha Guitrys epic napoleon made in 1954.
lemarquis72 (author) on September 20, 2010:
Yes, I've been to the battlefield also. I was amazed at how little it has changed. Other than the big mound and the vistor's center, the battlefield remains largely unchanged. Thanks for your comments.
brijam from Belfast on September 20, 2010:
Great Site. I enjoyed all the clips. For many years now I have been casting and painting Napoleonic soldiers. I have made a few diaoramas about Waterloo and have even been to the battlefield. It was great to meet another person sooooo interested in the life and event of Napoleon. Thanks.
ADIL1999 on August 10, 2010:
WATERLOO IS THE BEST MOVIE I EVER SEEN ABOUT HIS LIFE.HE WAS A GREAT MAN IN MODERN HISTORY
Fern on May 26, 2010:
thanks for this, ill checkout Monsieur N. now
Pete on May 17, 2010:
Cool site, though one you might enjoy is a series on I.T.V. Starring Ian Holm (again, and Billie whitelaw as Josephine)called 'The Loves of Napoleon' also the silent 1927 'Napoleon' and the 1960's The battle of Austerlitz'
blue parrot from Madrid, Spain on May 13, 2010:
This was an interesting hub. I have to say that what I know of Napoleon comes largely from one source, and it wasn't written by an Englishman but by the Dictator's Master of the Horse, Caulaincourt (With Napoleon in Russia).
Napoleon comes off very badly, in spite of Caulaincourt's admiration for him. One sees a man mad with optimism and his own importance. Meanwhile his army suffers unspeakably the consequences of his errors.
The "great" Napoleon doesn't sound very different from the dictators we have seen in modern times--brave, single-minded, prodigies of will who were responsible for much suffering and hardship.
nightstalker on April 11, 2010:
I totally agree with Cris A. I had no idea there were so many movies about Napoleon. Personally I was very interested in Waterlooo.
Helios on April 08, 2010:
Long live the Emperor!
iPhone movies on April 02, 2010:
I have never heard of these movies but now I will have to look them up.
daisy on March 18, 2010:
I love Napoleon. He is my hero .
Christian on February 24, 2010:
Thanks, I had been looking for the emperor's new clothes but I now will try to get ahold of a few of the others you mention. My son is now into the Total war series and Napoleon TW just came out. It should spark new interest in the emperor. The game is excellent, historical accuracy and visuals amazing.
bambito on February 22, 2010:
Haha german dubbed film...sounds just so horrible, why on earth someone wants to ruin a good movie???
lemarquis72 (author) on December 20, 2009:
Mark W. - Isn't it funny how many histories tend towards defending the wealthy and powerful? Thanks for the honesty of your comment.
Mark W on December 20, 2009:
As an Englisman I agree with your comments on Napoleon, Our own history of the world is very controlled and easily kept that way. As is said an "island mentality" this is very true!
Our history appears to have suited the wealthy not the poor?
Tye 21 email@example.com on November 17, 2009:
I think you defiantly know a lot about the great Napoleon Bonaparte and it is refreshing to know that someone is also able to decipher the propaganda from the truth. (In regards to historical data).
Anyways I digress. I think it’s an excellent choice, however believe for all you amateur historians out there that Napoleon series 2002 is the best place to start when it comes to accurate portraits of the man.
Scott V on November 08, 2009:
I agree with with your selection for I own all of these titles and watch them frequently.The Napoleon film of 1955 I think your refering to is the sequel to Napoleon of 1927 by the same director Abel Gance called The Battle of Austerlitz (1960). In my opinion it is the best example of what Napoleon was about. His passion his temper, his brilliance. The actor who played him was amazing. The film is panned for being to lengthy but if you give it a chance you will see it is perfection.
crystolhslc on November 06, 2009:
I just finished the Josephine B. book series by Sandra Gulland and I'm so fasinated w/Napoleon now! It is an amazing story from his wifes point of view, 3 book series. It showed him as a very strong General, passionate but hard to be married too husband, but truly and amazing tale of how he honoured his family, took in the children of Josephine's (Eugenie) first marriage and loved them as his own never to be able to procreate w/Josephine but still honoured their marriage, until the end that is. I'm excited to learn more about this powerful man, and hopefully excite others to learn the truth about his tragic yet heroic life.
lemarquis72 (author) on January 07, 2009:
Yes, and there are a few more, but I didn't want the list to get too long. I'm going to do another hub on great movies about the 'Napoleonic Era' as well.
Cris A from Manila, Philippines on January 07, 2009:
I have never realized there are several movies about Bonaparte until now. He is quite an interesting historical figure - glad you shared this! :D