vive l'empereur!

The Long History of Napoleon Onscreen

Photo: Aidan Monaghan/Apple TV+

For a figure whose onscreen presence is nearly as old as cinema itself, it’s a weird twist of fate that the Napoleon movies that never materialized often overshadow the ones that did. Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon is arguably the Citizen Kane of unrealized projects. Charlie Chaplin wrote multiple drafts of Napoleon’s Return From St. Helena before eventually abandoning it and repackaging its themes in The Great Dictator. Thanks to Ridley Scott’s forthcoming biopic, however, the Napoleon film discourse has returned to those that escaped development exile.

Since making his cinematic debut in 1897 via Louis Lumière’s 42-second Entrevue de Napoléon et du Pape, l’Empereur has demonstrated an impressive range. He’s appeared in leading and supporting roles in historical epics, lavish period dramas, downbeat dramas, buddy comedies, and children’s movies. Around him coalesce the grandest of themes, namely the inevitability of destiny, the nature of genius, and the tragedy of limitless ambition. He encapsulates a distinctly French brand of pomposity, and his comedic caricature as a runty, petulant snob — a bit first committed to by English cartoonists — was revived in earnest on film in the 1970s.

Napoleon is an extraordinarily easy historical figure to adapt to the screen, even for filmmakers without battle-scene budgets. The real Napoleon visually fused his individual destiny with that of France’s, crowning himself at his coronation and burying his face in the tricolor following his abdication. His disastrous snowbound retreat from Moscow is a staggering finale matched only by his final defeat at Waterloo. Denied martyrdom, he died broken and bitter on a windswept island. And he did it all in uniform. His black bicorne bestowed upon him an unmistakable profile; his plain greatcoat and navy-and-green corporal-rank uniforms distinguished him instantly amid the plumage of his generals and opposing commanders.

The scale of Napoleon’s achievements and failures is such that few filmmakers attempt to cram everything in, narrowing their focus to a consequential battle (Waterloo, Austerlitz) or approaching him through a specific relationship (Désirée, Conquest) or while in exile (The Hostage of Europe, Eagle in a Cage). Elsewhere, he is deployed as a cameo catalyst for cataclysmic events real (War and Peace) or imagined (The Count of Monte Cristo).

Through it all, Napoleon is rife with contradictions. That the conqueror of Europe and Emperor of France was this guy is at the root of both the farcical caricature of Napoleon and our collective fascination. He wasn’t even French! He was an incurable Wife Guy! (While his infamous request that Joséphine not wash for three days is unverified, the letters he sent threatening to kill himself if she kept ghosting him are real.) Even if we accept that his enshrinement as the original Short King was just English propaganda, Napoleon was nevertheless slight enough to reportedly enjoy sitting on Joséphine’s lap. He believed destiny ordained him to retrieve the French crown from the gutter with the tip of his sword and not only said this out loud — convincingly reciting his self-aggrandizing proclamations is a consistent challenge for actors — but subsequently backed it up. He was a staunch Republican (not that kind of Republican) who didn’t hesitate to seize absolute power. He was a tyrant responsible for the deaths of millions who executed a bloodless coup, opposed torture, and pretty much single-handedly dragged Europe into a new modernity. Who does that?

In other words, Napoleon is so much more than just a convenient excuse for filmmakers to spend a small country’s GDP on several thousand uniformed human and horse extras shot from above or in panorama. He’s a (short) person, too. Vive l’Empereur cinématographique!

Incidents in the Life of Napoleon and Josephine (1909)

Directed by pioneering animator J. Stuart Blackton, Incidents in the Life of Napoleon and Josephine is arguably the first live-action Napoleon biopic in film history, made specifically to appeal to international audiences and a better-read demographic than the average moviegoer of its day. William Humphrey plays Napoleon as especially vainglorious and melodramatic, beaming with pride over his son and burying his face in the tricolor after his abdication. Besides the flatly portrayed battle flashbacks deployed chronologically from Marengo to Waterloo, the film’s primary focus is his relationship with Josephine and their divorce, presented as a crushing blow to both parties. (His ghostly presence created using superimposition even haunts her after she retreats to Malmaison.) There’s a lot of swooning and posing in theatrical tableaus shot in static frames, as is characteristic of cinema prior to Murnau, and the brevity and flatness of the battle scenes throw the constraints of the medium at this historical moment into stark relief. Interestingly enough as a film history artifact, it will nonetheless take another 18 years before audiences see a silent epic truly fit for an emperor.

Napoleon (1927)

Abel Gance’s 1927 silent epic Napoleon is, among other things, your favorite filmmaker’s favorite film. It blew a young François Truffaut’s mind in 1955. Francis Ford Coppola personally oversaw its American rerelease in 1980. Martin Scorsese called it “a genuine sensation.” It’s inarguably one of the most technically ambitious silent films ever made — so ambitious, in fact, that Gance managed to produce only the first of six planned installments. His manic camerawork — plunged underwater here, strapped to the back of a horse there — is matched only by his rapid-fire editing style and enormous narrative scope, widened to include the assassination of Marat and the execution of Robespierre. At its center is Albert Dieudonné as ambitious young officer Napoleon, whom he portrays with that glowering, hypnotic intensity most associated with his German Expressionist contemporaries. It all culminates in the widescreen triptych finale of Napoleon rallying the Army of Italy, which required cinemas to either letterbox the film or install a Polyvision projection system and subsequently suffocated its commercial potential. It’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking and, in a way, precisely what you might expect from the guy who famously considered filmmaking something “which one should not fail to risk one’s life if the need arises.”

The Fighting Eagle (1927)

Despite being released about a month apart, comparing Abel Gance’s Napoleon and Donald Crisp’s The Fighting Eagle is a bit like comparing 2001: A Space Odyssey with Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. One is a widely influential and stunningly experiential epic that pushed the medium forward conceptually and technically, and the other is, well, none of that. The Fighting Eagle is a comedy based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s lesser-known character Brigadier Gerard, a French hussar who constantly undermines his own achievements through excessive if accurate boasting. Proudly identifying himself as the “favorite soldier of the emperor,” Gerard gets caught up in a zany espionage caper to expose Foreign Minister Talleyrand’s treachery and give Napoleon suitable cause to invade Spain. Played by Max Barwyn, who later played a number of minor uncredited roles in films like The Big Sleep and Grand Hotel, this Napoleon drops in and out to bark orders, demand explanations, and stomp around. There’s not much here besides a few decent slapstick sequences, including a half-interesting carriage jacking and chase scene. Just don’t tell Vin Diesel. The last thing we need is Fast & Furious: Austerlitz Blitz.

Napoleon at St. Helena (1929)

Of the three films on this list centered on Napoleon in exile, Napoleon at St. Helena is the most outwardly sympathetic towards its subject, declaring that Napoleon was “renounced by those who should have defended him to the end” and calling him (to quote Chateaubriand) “the most powerful breath that ever animated mortal clay.” His British jailer Hudson Lowe, by contrast, is “a fool” who (to quote Lord Wellington) “lacked both education and judgment.” Like the exile-focused movies it predates, the power struggle between Lowe and Napoleon dominates the narrative. But unlike its successors, it includes Napoleon’s journey to Saint Helena and a debate in the House of Lords over his treatment as a captive. The final third of the movie drips with pathos as Napoleon is slowly abandoned by his entourage. Werner Krauss plays him with a crushing desperation, manically clinging to a bust of his son or standing pathetically with a little girl’s hat on after her mother shoos her away. It’s a rather arresting performance from Krauss and situated squarely between the defining films of his career: the 1920 German Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the 1940 Nazi propaganda film Jud Süß.

Conquest (1937)

Just two years after collaborating on Anna Karenina, director Clarence Brown and Greta Garbo reunited to make yet another film about a scandalous and politically fraught extramarital affair. Conquest is based on the “immortal romance,” as the opening credits phrase it, of Napoleon and his most famous mistress, the Polish nationalist Countess Marie Walewska. As Napoleon, Charles Boyer is extremely self-possessed. He’s not not suave, yet he’s totally unconcerned with propriety. Eager to get under those gorgeous costumes (designed by Adrian, most famous for The Wizard of Oz), he conveys to Countess Walewska that the aid he’s willing to grant the burgeoning Polish national cause is conditional on her presence in his bed. When the Polish brass urge her to accept this diplomatic mission, Count Walewska gives the film its only real moment of conscience: “Why is it every time this savage spits, every decent man must wipe his face?” She goes. He rapes her. This ends up not being a turnoff because it’s 1937 by way of 1806. But Conquest’s Napoleon is a great man of history forever doomed to choose ambition over love. In other words, even Napoleon can’t have it all.

Désirée (1954)

Considering the countless images of the man himself gazing into the distance from the shores of Elba and Saint Helena, no great conqueror broods quite like Napoleon. And no cinematic Napoleon broods quite like Marlon Brando’s version in Désirée, based on Annemarie Selinko’s 1952 novel of the same name. In Brando’s hands, Napoleon is uncouth and comically self-serious, periodically unfurrowing his brow only to kiss Jean Simmons’s guileless Désirée in the pouring rain. That is, until he discards her the moment Joséphine comes along. Like Conquest, Désirée is notably told from the woman’s point of view and (also notably) the woman in question is not his wife. But Simmons’s Désirée convincingly frees herself from Napoleon in a way Garbo’s Countess Walenska never does, and it’s her character arc and marriage to General Bernadotte, played by a devastatingly handsome Michael Rennie, that make Désirée tick. Whether confronting Napoleon together or playing up a Hays-Code-abiding bedroom scene, Simmons and Rennie’s chemistry is nothing short of delightful. An undercurrent of feminist defiance runs through what might have otherwise been a formulaic ’50s costume drama, and all of Désirée is better for it.

Napoleon (1955)

The trouble with Sacha Guitry’s Napoleon is that it hits all the major plot points in Napoleon’s life so efficiently and dryly that watching it feels tantamount to skimming a Wikipedia entry. This isn’t entirely Guitry’s fault, as a full hour hit the cutting room floor while making the English version. Then again, the shortened, two-hour English version is so plodding that suffering through an additional hour sounds unbearable. Playing the ambitious young general, Daniel Gélin channels Albert Dieudonné’s beguiling severity but overdoes it just a tad, particularly in the scene where he first flirts with Joséphine by staring her down in silence. (Maybe it was the very prominent bulge in his white pants that won her over? It’s that noticeable.) He’s replaced by Raymond Pellegrin as the aging emperor during a neatly executed transition that is, technically speaking, a makeover scene. Guitry plays Tallyrand, his recollections of Napoleon providing narration and the film’s framing device. Despite being shot as close to the source as possible — on location at Fontainebleau, Château de Malmaison, and Versailles — Napoleon never quite manages to find its footing.

War and Peace (1956)

The Soviets may have won the Space Race, but the Americans won the War and Peace Adaptation Race. (The 1915 Russian version is so pre-Soviet that it’s pre-Russian Revolution, so don’t get mouthy in the comments, thanks!) King Vidor’s gorgeous three-and-a-half-hour version stars Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer, and a slightly miscast Henry Fonda as Tolstoy’s iconic trio of Prince Andrei, Natasha, and Pierre. From the historical paintings that backdrop the opening credits to his several appearances as acted by Peter Lom, Napoleon figures prominently throughout the entire movie. He’s grand, inquisitive, eloquent, and tempestuous. He’s also the vehicle for Pierre’s debasement, transforming in Pierre’s eyes from the “greatest man in the world” to the scourge of Europe. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia — 211-year-old spoiler alert! — fails, mostly because his opponents know you never send an army to do a Russian winter’s job. Among the final scenes is an intense close-up of the emperor weeping silently as he flees at the head of his freezing army, a shot Vidor suffuses more with sympathy than schadenfreude. Shallow in places but always gorgeous, the film did so well among Russian audiences that the Soviets had no choice but to respond. And respond they most certainly did …

Austerlitz (1960)

For a movie named after Napoleon’s military masterpiece, there’s disproportionately little fighting in Austerlitz, and the underwhelming battle scenes that do exist have the distinct whiff of a production running out of money. Austerlitz is interesting primarily as a wildly different interpretation of Napoleon by Abel Gance, who revisits the Emperor as a cinematic subject some 30-odd years after his 1927 epic. The film opens not with war but with peace, beginning as the Treaty of Amiens is signed and Napoleon shifts his focus to family squabbles (often instigated by Claudia Cardinale’s Pauline Bonaparte) and throwing things during angry outbursts. Gance burns time on overlong scenes of Napoleon’s sexual escapades, British military leaders plotting strategy and snickering at James Gillray’s caricatures, and Orson Welles as American inventor Robert Fulton trying to sell Napoleon on steamships. (This is not a surprising cameo. Welles also briefly appears in 1955’s Napoleon and 1970’s Waterloo.) The costumes and production design are wondrous, as are Gance’s full-to-bursting frames. Still, Austerlitz feels lackluster, never quite worthy of its historical namesake or its own director.

War and Peace (1966-67)

Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is one of those films no doubt languishing on Criterion Channel watchlists the world over, which is somewhat understandable considering it’s a seven-hour juggernaut. Get around to it. It’s quite possibly the best film(s) set during the Napoleonic Wars, period. Although Napoleon, played by Vladislav Strzhelchik, is a relatively minor character who appears only sporadically during the battles and the occupation of Moscow, he is the film’s principal antagonist. He’s referred to as an Antichrist and a “brazen and insolent Goliath,” whose actions are “too remote from anything human for him to be able to grasp their meaning.” Bondarchuk’s film blames Napoleon above all others for visiting so much senseless death and destruction upon Russia, panning over heaps of the dead after mind-bogglingly massive battle scenes and depicting the French pillaging of Moscow as a slaughter of innocents. No expense was spared by the Soviet government, intent as they were on outdoing King Vidor’s version as a matter of national pride. It’s a masterpiece in every sense. If there was an upside to the Cold War, it’s that it gave us this.

Waterloo (1970)

Having apparently not excised Napoleon from his system while directing all seven hours of War and Peace, Sergei Bondarchuk returned to his favorite victim of Russian winter just three years later with Waterloo. Once again, the sheer scale of the thing is its calling card, from the 15,000-plus uniformed extras to the titular battle scene that lasts nearly an hour. Bondarchuk is so eager to get it going that Rod Steiger’s Napoleon abdicates the throne and stamps both sides of his round-trip Elba ticket all within the first 20 minutes. Once it begins, a peculiar amorality takes hold. Bondarchuk encourages audience identification with neither the French nor the British (nor the Prussians, who show up rather late in a stunning betrayal of German efficiency). And while he crams in a few shallow anti-war sentiments at the back end, Waterloo is a strikingly matter-of-fact war film that’s practically themeless. It does, however, squeeze out some depth by positioning the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon as foils. The stately Wellington, played by a maddeningly hot Christopher Plummer, is pithy and equanimous; Steiger’s portly Napoleon is temperamental, driven by furious determination and pure desperation. Anyway, you know how it ends.

Eagle in a Cage (1972)

There’s a specific type of soapy, historical B-movie you can find for free on YouTube, often uploaded by a channel named something like RetroMovies4U, and Eagle in a Cage is exactly that type of movie. To be fair, it does have an all-timer of a tagline: “War and women were his passions … and no island fortress could cage his lust for power!” Hell yeah! Essentially an alt-history, Eagle in a Cage opens with Napoleon’s arrival on Saint Helena, where he busies himself by pontificating at his physician Barry O’Meara and wearing as little clothing as possible. Get ready for Napoleon skinny dipping, Napoleon in the bath, Napoleon wearing a robe diving in for round two with his mistress, Napoleon walking around with his shirt open practically to his navel, and — the pièce de résistance — Napoleon’s cul en entier. Kenneth Haigh plays the exiled ex-emperor as a wry rake resigned to shagging girls and shooting pool, at least until he’s approached by the British with an offer he can’t refuse: They’ll let him escape if he restores order to France and invades Prussia. Will he take it? Will he put clothes on first? Tune in to find out!

Love and Death (1975)

Although its most enduring legacy may very well be Stefon’s “Sidney Applebaum” joke from Saturday Night Live, Love and Death was well-received upon its release and remains one of Woody Allen’s Woody Allen–est films. It’s a joke-a-minute parody of high-minded Russian epic filmmaking and literature, particularly Tolstoy and Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace, the latter directly referenced in the opening shot of a wide sky. Allen plays his trademark neurotic in the form of Boris Grushenko, a peasant soldier who lacks the expected to-the-death devotion to Mother Russia. Useless as a soldier, he engages mainly in pseudo-philosophical debates with Diane Keaton’s Sonja on the existence of God and the ethics of violence. When Napoleon occupies Moscow, Sonja and Boris decide to try their hand at assassination. James Tolkan’s Napoleon is a lecherous womanizer and one of the movie’s many punchlines, introduced while scolding an aide about how to bake the pastry bearing his name amid his culinary arms race with (beef) Wellington. Few films are simultaneously chock-full of slapstick humor and thematically obsessed with the shallowness of contemporary philosophical angst, but Love and Death pulls it off well enough. Granted, if you share Orson Welles’s opinion of Allen, you’ll hate it.

Time Bandits (1981)

There was a moment in the ’80s when children’s movies took on a distinctly absurdist and even nihilistic outlook, and few exemplify this better than Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. A non-Python production starring John Cleese and Michael Palin, Time Bandits follows Kevin, a young boy swept up by a merry band of time-jumping little people intent on robbing the great men of history. First on the list is Ian Holm’s Napoleon, encountered after the Battle of Castiglione. He’s a farcical character and a sloppy drunk, more concerned with watching a puppet show than military strategy. Nearly every joke is a short joke — “Five-foot-one and conqueror of Italy. Not bad, huh?!” — and he spends dinner with the bandits rattling off the heights of assorted luminaries from military history. Of all the episodic encounters, the Napoleonic segment is the weakest, lacking the wit and creativity of the visits to Sherwood Forest with Robin Hood and Greece with Agamemnon. Time Bandits’ denouement is pessimistic to the core, as are its themes: technology as a breeding ground for evil, God as fundamentally apathetic, the inherent soullessness of consumerism. They just don’t make ‘em (for kids) like this anymore.

The Hostage of Europe (1989)

A later work by the magnificent Polish director Jerzy Kawalerowicz, the French- and English-language drama The Hostage of Europe is the best Napoleon-in-exile film yet made. Much of the credit rests on French actor Roland Blanche, whose unsparing interpretation of Napoleon envisions him as rotting physically and spiritually from the inside out. Cast in dark shadows and filmed uncomfortably close, Blanche’s emperor in decline looks so bloated and ghoulish that he very nearly resembles Danny DeVito’s Penguin. He taps into the justified indignation and mutual impotence at the core of the pitiful power struggles with his jailer Hudson Lowe, which culminate when Napoleon (correctly) asserts that Lowe’s eventual historical significance will be due to proximity alone: “You will go down in history thanks to me … Everything that is linked to my person belongs to history!” Although it drags in places, The Hostage of Europe deftly captures the cruel irony of Napoleon’s anti-climatic end without boring its audience to death. If Eagle in a Cage is any indication, that’s harder than it looks.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

Napoleon shows up early in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the goofball sci-fi cult classic about a pair of friends who travel through time in a telephone booth to snap up history’s biggest names for a school report. Although certain jokes show its age, it’s still stupid funny and endlessly quotable — “Strange things are afoot at the Circle K” — and best watched toasted, no matter how many times Keanu Reeves insists that the titular characters are not stoners. First described by Bill as “a short, dead dude” and later by Ted as “a very famous French dude,” Napoleon is the first historical figure airlifted out of his era, zapped off the Austerlitz battlefield and deposited in San Dimas under the charge of Ted’s little brother, Deacon. Much to the dismay of Bill and Ted, Deacon ditches l’Empereur after he cheats at bowling and devours a gargantuan ice-cream sundae. The subsequent exchange is the funniest Napoleon joke of the movie: “Deacon, do you realize you have stranded one of Europe’s greatest leaders in San Dimas?” To which Deacon responds, “He was a dick!” Terry Camilleri is the best of the comedic Napoleons, particularly during his montage at the local waterpark named Waterloo. Continue la teuf mec!

The Emperor’s New Clothes (2002)

What if Napoleon didn’t die on Saint Helena — riddled with stomach cancer and environmentally poisoned by his wallpaper or unintentionally poisoned by his doctors or deliberately poisoned with arsenic, depends who you ask — but instead escaped using a look-alike and returned to Paris to become the father who stepped up for a single mom and her son? Whew! No movie on this list comes nearly as close to fake-show-on-30-Rock territory as The Emperor’s New Clothes, a well-meaning and stakes-free abomination caused by crossbreeding the History Channel with Lifetime. Still, its premise hits on something interesting: trying to convince a bunch of French people in 1816 that you are Napoleon back from exile is like trying to convince a bunch of people at any time that you are the second coming of Christ. A scene where he escapes an asylum chock-full of headcases also claiming to be Napoleon, uniforms and all, underscores this point in the most obvious terms. Insofar as the Napoleonic-cinematic-thematic conflict of love versus destiny is concerned, The Emperor’s New Clothes is perhaps the only time love wins — even if, technically, the choice is less love versus destiny than love versus the loony bin.

The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)

Before getting struck by lightning during The Passion of the Christ set him on the path to becoming a multi-hyphenate hard-right wackjob, Jim Caviezel was just another reasonably good-looking and passable actor making okay movies. The Count of Monte Cristo is one such okay movie, notable for the unshakable commitment of Caviezel as Edmond Dantès and Guy Pearce as Fernand Mondego to read every other line as unnaturally as possible. But let’s not pretend we were expecting a painstakingly rendered literary adaptation about the cost of vengeance from an early 2000s swashbuckler by the guy who made Waterworld. Although only present in the opening of the movie, Napoleon (Alex Norton) sets The Count of Monte Cristo in motion. After rowing to Elba to seek a doctor, sailors Edmond and Fernand are attacked by British soldiers and subsequently saved by a Napoleonus ex machina. The ex-emperor emerges from the darkness in uniform, dishes out some snappy bon mots, and entrusts Edmond with smuggling a letter off the island. Some other stuff happens too: betrayal, imprisonment, a Baz Luhrmann–esque party entrance via hot air balloon, a steam-room interrogation that makes no physical sense. You get it.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009)

Recognition is both the lowest form of entertainment and the entire foundation upon which Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian rests. Demanding no more from its audience than essentially the Leo DiCaprio pointing meme GIF’d out of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — Jeff Koons’s balloon dog! Muhammad Ali’s robe! American Gothic! Darth Vader! — Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian makes the case that the first film was as far as its premise could go and still be funny. French actor Alain Chabat plays the reanimated Napoleon, one of “the most despicable, the most feared leaders in all of history,” who’s enlisted alongside Al Capone and Ivan the Terrible by the evil pharaoh Kahmunrah to help open a portal to the underworld. Operating under the presumption its entire audience is encountering Napoleon for the first time, I guess, the sequel makes sure to explain its own short jokes: “You’re Napoleon. There’s, like, a complex named after you. You’re famous for being little.” Hard to say if this is just bad writing or a damning indictment of the American public education system, but either way, thank you, Ben Stiller, for that illuminating history lesson.

The Long History of Napoleon Onscreen