Big little man. Napoleon's epopoeia cast a long shadow over the entire 19th century

The scope and effects of the French Emperor's wars were much more significant than previously thought. The Little Corporal ploughed through the economy, international trade, human consciousness and mentality. Bonapartism became a constant temptation for politicians. The legacy of that turbulent era was also the codification of law and faith in science, a course towards modernisation and meritocracy.

Napoleon eternally alive! It seemed that silence would descend upon this figure after going through all the anniversaries (the last of which was the bicentenary of the Emperor's death). None of these things! The year 2023 again belongs to the winner from Austerlitz.

Ridley Scott's film is entering cinema screens, and a book has been published, shedding new light on the era in which France set an example and simultaneously was a threat to the rest of the world. A few days ago, a Bonapartist who wished to remain anonymous paid almost two million euros at an auction in Paris for the idol's two-horned hat. A lot, considering the fact that twenty such artefacts have been preserved. A pair of the Emperor's leather riding boots were sold recently for only 117,000, while the original marriage certificate of Napoleon and Joséphine de Beauharnais was sold for 437,500

A visit to Hell The film is 158 minutes long, and the announced director's version is about four hours long. In the category of "spectacularity", it deserves high scores. From the siege of Toulon to the disaster at Waterloo, the battles that are turning points in the biography of the "god of war" are shown with a panache and pathos worthy of Soviet remarkable superproductions. Unfortunately, boredom reigns on the screen when the guns fall silent, and the cameras leave the war inferno. It's hard to say something new about a man about whom over 75,000 books have been written and over 700 films have been made, but screenwriter David Scarpa didn't even try to go beyond the clichés.

Anyone who expected that 85-year-old Scott would commit an epopee will be severely disappointed. Historical revisionists will not feel satisfied either. The director - who apologised to the Arabs for the Crusades with "Kingdom of Heaven" and provided arguments to supporters of the thesis that the discovery of America brought more harm than good with "1492: Conquest of Paradise" - this time refrained from referring to the present day. "Napoleon" is reminiscent of the giant costume productions that were popular when Sir Ridley was young. They were created to expose the advantage of cinema over television. Monumental decorations, glitz, and a star cast could successfully cover the infantilism of the plot.

A historical intrigue is usually accompanied by a melodramatic story. The main plot of "Napoleon" is also about love - for himself and Josephine. The political dilemmas of the time are beyond the scope of Scott and Scarpa's interests. They don't waste their time disputing the arguments of Bonaparte's opponents and allies, defenders of the old order and supporters of the permanent revolution. They prefer to peek into the bedroom of the debauched empress and cheer on the Corsican's procreation obsession.

Ruthless sissy

Jack Nicholson was supposed to play Napoleon in Stanley Kubrick's would-be film. This Emperor would probably carry a spark of madness within his character. Joaquin Phoenix could do even more, although he is at the age when Bonaparte was dying in exile. Unfortunately, this American actor had to play a rather unpleasant figure. A brutal man obsessed with fame and founding a dynasty. When he speaks of "the greatness of France", he means his own elevation. On a whim, he orders to shoot a cannon at an Egyptian pyramid.

Commodus from "Gladiator" was a huge villain, but Napoleon with the face of Phoenix is a common boor. To degrade him even more, Scott and Scarpa suggest that without women, he would be nobody. A refugee from Corsica was climbing up the career ladder to satisfy his mother's wishes. Not only Letizia Bonaparte surpassed Napoleon in strength of character. In Paris, the young general becomes involved with an iron-will woman.

When Joséphine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby's signature role) says, "I should be the emperor," she hits the nail on the head. Her husband has only one talent: military, which makes him dangerous to those around him. As you can see, the black legend, promoted by critics of the Little Corporal since the end of the 18th century, still finds its followers. Sir Ridley does not seem to notice that by belittling the enemy, he is thereby reducing the importance of the victories of Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.

In the propaganda network

Hollywood producers adopted the British point of view because they did not know history. The United States of America owes a lot to Napoleon. First, he sold them Louisiana. Secondly, he absorbed London's attention effectively and long enough for the young American state to be established. It was no coincidence that the defeated Emperor wanted to spend the rest of his life in the USA.

The French have an ambivalent attitude towards Bonaparte. Therefore, we should not expect them to film "The Memorial of Saint Helena" in response to Scott's film. This greatest bestseller of the 19th century was also a masterpiece of propaganda. The author, acting on behalf of future biographers and historians, presented himself as a liberal (!), a pacifist (!!), a sincere democrat (!!!), and a friend of oppressed nations. Times have changed. Today, the vision of uniting Europe by force is unpopular even in Brussels. What rules here is the spirit of Talleyrand, a perverse and corrupt minister whom Bonaparte abhorred but was unable to find anyone better to replace him.

"Napoleon" ignores Poles, although there were many of them around the hero. Maybe they'll appear in the director's cut, but I wouldn't get hopes too high. Considering the creators' attitude, they will at most include Mrs Walewska, pushed into the bed of the conqueror of the Prussians by our patriotic elite. By the way, Mary was the only woman who remained loyal to the Emperor at the time of his defeat. Poles would have to shoot the episodes with the participation of Prince Józef Poniatowski, the chevaulegers from the battle of Somosierra or General Prince Józef Zajączek (who later served the Tsar of Russia just as zealously).

Elephant vs whale

The fact that in Scott's film, only the battle scenes are of good quality somewhat confirms the thesis that Napoleon was a genius only on the battlefield. His personal policy and private life can inspire the creators of burlesque and less-than-romantic comedies. Historian Adam Zamoyski, raised in England, goes even a step further, calling Bonaparte a "clever small-town manipulator" and a poor strategist. Alexander Mikaberidze, author of "The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History", a two-volume book that aspires to be a bible for those interested in the era, avoids extreme assessments. He does not turn a blind eye to the Corsican's flaws (ruthlessness, cynicism, nepotism) but appreciates his advantages: diligence, photographic memory, analytical mind and the ability to separate important from secondary matters, which made him a very effective leader and administrator.
This historian - working in America but born in Georgia - emphasises that Napoleon inherited the wars from the Republic. He was not opposed to peaceful solutions in principle, but he always had to do it his way and achieve peace on his terms. After taking power, he persistently sought to soothe relations with the eternal enemy of France. The Treaty of Amiens lasted 420 days before the English broke it. They could not stand the situation that on the Old Continent, there was a country clearly stronger than the other ones.

The scale of the struggles was constantly growing, and the colonies were also their arena of animosity. Mikaberidze uses the term "elephant and whale clash" because the French dominated the mainland and the British dominated the territorial waters. His Majesty's Admirals fulfilled the expectations of their compatriots: they managed to drive enemy ships from the oceans. Napoleon lost the global war before he marched on Moscow.

The dream of hegemony

France, previously Europe's most populous country, bled dry after 23 years of almost constant conflict, losing one and a half million citizens. Estimates put the number of victims in Europe at four million. Spain suffered the most in percentage terms. Napoleon's campaigns were a hecatomb spread out in instalments. The First World War brought a similar scale of losses.

Bonaparte surpassed the success of Louis XIV, who dominated Europe by imposing the French language and culture on its elites. In Russia, however, he lost almost all of his cavalry, artillery and, more importantly, the nimbus of the Invincible. According to the American historian, the Emperor made several mistakes. He unnecessarily agreed to a truce in the spring of 1813 (although victory over the allied army was within reach) and refused to make peace when the enemy was already at the gates of France.

The Emperor had already alienated Catholics. High taxes, army recruitment and the expansion of the police force and secret services did not bring him popularity. In neighbouring countries, the French who considered themselves liberators, were increasingly perceived as oppressors. "Reforms lost much of their charm when they were implemented by force, under gun barrels," admits Mikaberidze. However, he believes that the Napoleonic system, with all its flaws, had no better alternative in Europe at that time.

The scope and effects of the French Emperor's wars were much more extensive than previously thought. The Little Corporal's epic story cast a long shadow over the entire 19th century. It ploughed through the economy, international trade, human consciousness and mentality. Bonapartism became a constant temptation for politicians. Less noticeable but equally important legacies of this turbulent era were the codification of law, faith in science, a course towards modernisation and meritocracy.

He didn't listen to the Poles
Aftershocks swept across the world. The collapse of the Spanish Empire in America proved to be a harbinger of decolonisation. The Dutch and Portuguese also lost their overseas possessions. The strengthening position of the United States of America has already been mentioned. On the other hand, Europe's advantage over the rest of the world was growing. Egypt broke away from the Turkish empire, and the Balkan Greeks and Slavs dreamed of the same. "Bonaparte has given us the example of how we should prevail". Poles still sing to this day.

The Emperor unintentionally contributed to spreading nationalist ideas in Germany and Italy. The defeat and death of the "Corsican monster" gave the divinely appointed monarchs only a moment of respite. The political and social ferment continued. The ancien régime, in order to survive, had to evolve and make concessions. Liberalism gained new positions, and radicals tried to rekindle the revolutionary flame with each crisis.

At the same time when Scott's film was released, two biographies of Napoleon returned to bookstores. Max Gallo, a French journalist and politician who died six years ago, tried hard to penetrate the hero's mind. It's not an example of great literature, but there are more emotions in each chapter than in the production made at a cost of $200 million.

Andrew Roberts also knows how to write with passion and rise above national prejudices. Although an Englishman, he calls Napoleon "The Great". He looks for the key to this character in the years young Buonaparte spent in military schools. The army instilled in him a belief in the importance of practical intelligence supported by hard work and courage. Then, he learned respect for science, law and order, as well as contempt for politicians and journalists.

Historians agree that the Emperor of the French was the last and greatest of the enlightened absolute monarchs of eighteenth-century Europe (though ironically, he became an inspiration for the Romantics). Bonaparte rarely made mistakes on the battlefield. However, on the night of October 25, 1812, he made a decision that led to his downfall. He chose the wrong route of retreat from Russia, which led to the destruction of the Grand Army. That's what Roberts says; from the Polish point of view, things look different. Bonaparte probably could not have predicted that the enemy, avoiding a decisive battle, would shift back to the east and leave scorched earth behind. After capturing Smolensk, Polish generals tried to dissuade him from marching on Moscow. The Emperor did not listen; a year later, he fought for survival.

– Wiesław Chełminiak

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Katarzyna Chocian

Collage of covers and poster. Photo press materials
"Napoleon", director: Ridley Scott, production: Great Britain/USA, cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Ben Miles, Theresa Cabarrus

Alexander Mikaberidze – "The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History", Rebis Publishing House, Poznań 2023

Andrew Roberts – "Napoleon", Wydawnictwo Znak, Kraków 2023

Max Gallo – "Napoleon", Rebis Publishing House, Poznań 2023

Main photo: "Napoleon" - directed by Ridley Scott, script by David Scarpa, cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, music by Martin Phipps. Photo Sony Pictures/press materials
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