Napoleon would love Ridley Scott's mistakes

Napoleon Bonaparte was an egomaniac and a great self-publicist, obsessed with adjusting reality to his desires and going down in history with his best version.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
17 November 2023 Friday 09:23
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Napoleon would love Ridley Scott's mistakes

Napoleon Bonaparte was an egomaniac and a great self-publicist, obsessed with adjusting reality to his desires and going down in history with his best version. Did he win? It was because of his talent. Did he lose? It was the fault of his generals and marshals, who did not know how to strictly carry out his orders. This is the character portrayed in Ridley Scott's film. Flesh and blood Napoleon would have loved his Napoleon.

A group of lucky people had the opportunity to see the film this Friday, which will be released on the 24th (the chronicler was sitting right behind the actor Ricardo Darín). Here it is not possible to say, like Rajoy with the Bárcenas papers: “Everything is false, except for something.” The director has been meticulous in the recreation of events and battles, such as the taking of Toulon, the first great success of Captain Bonaparte, then still Buonaparte.

But in many other ways Ridley Scott has followed John Ford's opinion in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. And, between the truth and the legend, he has stayed with the legend. The great loser of the Battle of Austerlitz in the film is not only the coalition of Russians and Austrians, but the truth. As on other occasions, there were moments in the conflict when victory could have fallen to one side or the other.

However, throughout his life, and especially during the six years of his second and last exile in Saint Helena (or Saint Helena), the emperor dedicated himself to rewriting history as he would have liked it to happen. When he was at the peak of his immense power, in addition, he controlled the press with an iron fist and had speakers such as Le Moniteur Universel and the bulletins of the Grande Armée.

They were very effective instruments for distributing blame, appropriating other people's successes and discharging responsibilities. They also allowed anecdotal events to be magnified and turned into capital events. The film perfectly reflects one of these events and shows how thousands of Russian and Austrian soldiers drowned in Austerlitz when Napoleon, the foresight, bombed the frozen lakes through which they fled.

In one scene we see a cuirassier sinking into an abyssal chasm, typical of James Cameron's Titanic. And that could never happen. Not like that. Napoleon turned his sights to the continent when he became convinced that he could not cross the English Channel and invade Britain, as he had planned. That is why he wanted Austerlitz, the first major battle he fought after the change of plans, to be not a victory, but the victory.

French bulletins, written at his dictation, explained that in the lakes alone “20,000 enemies drowned.” The man who ruled Europe continues to rule today in posterity because numerous historians of his time and ours accepted this exaggeration without question, even though it was denied from the French countryside a few days later without any use. Between truth and legend...

It was difficult to drown in lakes Menitz and Satchan, which were more like ponds. The water would not have reached Napoleon's shoulders, who was over 1.65 meters tall, a more than acceptable average, although many still consider him short even today (because of British caricatures and because he always had huge veterans of war at his side). the Old Guard with bearskin caps that further enhanced their size).

The great Napoleonic historian David Chandler (Napoleon's Campaigns, in The Sphere of Books) says that 20,000 united combatants could not drown either for the simple reason that "there were only 5,000 Russians and Austrians near the lakes." The French general Suchet, commissioned by Napoleon himself to drain the area, declared that he only found "38 cannons, 130 bodies of horses and three corpses of soldiers."

The director has succumbed to the same spell as many artists and historians. He filmed the coronation of the emperor as a copy of the famous painting The Consecration, by Jacques-Louis David. The painter portrayed Maria-Letizia Ramolino, Madame Mère, the emperor's mother, in a box, although she was not at the event (she did not like her daughter-in-law). She did it because her master wanted her to be there. And Ridley Scott has done the same.

Perhaps the first inaccuracy of the film is in the title, which is not Napoleon and Josephine. The emperor's last words were: “France, l’armée, tête d’armée, Joséphine.” The director does justice to the dethroned empress and reflects her importance. The problem is that from her coronation to the defeat of Waterloo in 1815, barely eleven years passed, but countless events, and not just love turbulence.

It had to be shortened, of course. As far as battles are concerned, the film has focused on the taking of Toulon, the Egyptian adventure, Austerlitz, Borodino (and the destruction of Moscow), as well as the swan song at Waterloo. Any of these episodes makes for a conventional movie. But the director summarizes so much that discussing historical aspects is meaningless, except in flagrant cases like Austerlitz.

In Egypt, for example, we see the pyramids, the scientists of the expedition and the mulatto general Thomas-Alexandre Dumas de la Pailleterie, father of Alexander Dumas, but little else. In the disastrous invasion of Russia, it is said that Napoleon commanded a huge plurinational army of 600,000 “French, Austrians, Prussians, Italians and Poles”, but nothing is said about the Spanish, who were also mobilized.

Spain is one of the director's great ellipses. The War of Independence, “the wound that never healed,” does not appear, at least in the commercial production that will be released on the 24th. Ridley Scott is as in love with his character as the Count of Las Cases, saying amen and giving everything for good while they dictate the Saint Helena Memorial. Only in this way can we understand this Napoleon leading cavalry charges at Waterloo.

By then the star of the God of War had long gone out. He commanded the Waterloo operations from a buggy due to his apathy and poor health. And, according to some, due to a hemorrhoid problem that prevented him from riding a horse. Another great ellipsis is the suffering caused by “the great maker of orphans and widows of France”, as Chateaubriand baptized him (Of Buonaparte and of the Bourbons, in Cliff).

Napoleon is one of the most biographed characters in history, perhaps the most biographed after Jesus Christ. It is often overlooked that he did not single-handedly win any of his battles (both those that appear in the film and those that do not), in the same way that Julius Caesar did not cross the Rubicon alone nor did Alexander the Great conquer an empire alone. incredible. But no one remembers the anonymous heroes. Neither does cinema.

The essays and works of fiction about his figure are endless, more than 600,000. One of our latest authors to increase this literary Everest is Albert Sánchez Piñol, who in The Monster of Saint Helena (Alfaguara, La Campana in Catalan) does with Napoleon what Quentin Tarantino did with Hitler in Inglourious Basterds. But, despite his creative freedom, a character in the novel speaks truths like fists.

And he blames Napoleon: “In 1814 you were already recruiting fourteen-year-old children, fourteen! They were so young that they were born with the century and died before the ship that would take you to Saint Helena left. Doesn't such ignominy overwhelm you? When Abel Gance premiered his Napoleon on April 7, 1927, the Paris Opera collapsed. In the audience two young people were applauding wildly: André Malraux and Charles de Gaulle. Will that happen now?