Ridley Scott: “Napoleon is more than God, more than Caesar, more than any artist”

London, Paris, Madrid.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
20 November 2023 Monday 09:22
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Ridley Scott: “Napoleon is more than God, more than Caesar, more than any artist”

London, Paris, Madrid... Ridley Scott, who is taking a break from filming Gladiator 2, and Joaquin Phoenix tour European capitals to present Napoleon, the biopic of the French emperor that is destined to become one of the films of the year .

Napoleon starts with Marie Antoinette on the way to the guillotine in a Parisian square packed with revolutionaries to give way to a Bonaparte who is about to be promoted to colonel after defeating, with more ingenuity than strength, the English in the battle of Toulon.

Josephine's falling in love, her appointment as consul, the Egyptian campaign, the victory at Austerlitz, her coronation as emperor after conquering a good part of Europe... Ridley Scott's Napoleon is two and a half hours of pure cinema. Two and a half hours that fall short.

Because the self-made emperor of France only lived 51 years, but they served him well. So there could be much more in Scott's film, and the filmmaker is aware of it. He acknowledges that he has about four hours of publishable material.

But the director of Blade Runner (1982), Thelma

“It's like when you write a book, you think that everything is important and you write and write until you have a text that is incomprehensible, so you call an editor to read it and start cutting,” compares the filmmaker.

And he explains that on his team he has several editors who have been in charge of reducing the footage of Napoleon "without damaging the film", but "even so there were three hours of film left and I had to use a little more scissors, because deep down My job is to decide how long my film is going to last.”

The filmmaker does not clarify whether this missing footage has been forgotten or will reappear in an extended version in the future, but he does claim his right to synthesize, because “2,500 books have been written about Napoleon, pictures have been painted and people have talked about him.” until you get enough. Napoleon is more than God, more than Caesar, more than any artist who ever lived.”

“He was enigmatic and mysterious and because of him a lot of blood was spilled. That is pure gold for a filmmaker, it could also be a history lesson, but a film director does not need to give a history lesson at all,” he adds.

Ridley Scott, who will turn 86 in a few days, does not lack experience in bringing history to the big screen. In Gladiator, for example, he chose a piece of history with a capital letter to tell a story with a lower case letter. “That is the usual thing when filming films of this genre,” he says.

But for Napoleon that technique did not work. It was not a question of telling a little piece of his life, it was necessary to tell everything or almost everything, because "I gave up childhood and youth and preferred to start with a man who had already become a soldier of some renown," adds the director, who has also omitted, perhaps cut, the chapters relating to the invasions of Spain and Italy by Napoleonic troops.

“Are there any Italians here?” he asks slyly, and since there aren't any, he jumps in: “The Italians surrendered in the cathedral of Milan and handed over the most valuable treasures of their heritage to Napoleon, who took them.” to France. Since then they have been going and living, coming and going..."

The War of Independence does not appear in the film either, but perhaps because his audience is made up of Spaniards, Scott is a little more generous than with the Italians: "I have heard that they were very brave around here."

And he once again claims his piece, in this case, a good piece, of history that he has chosen for the film, which will hit Spanish screens this Friday: “There is a lot of information about Napoleon, but you can absorb it and continue without knowing anything, without know the character. There are myths and truths about Napoleon, and to narrate his life it is necessary to speculate something,” says Scott, who to prepare the film studied, among other things, the Napoleonic battles and the letters that the French emperor wrote to Josephine.

And despite that nebula that still surrounds the figure of Bonaparte, Scott does draw some clear conclusions. He maintains that he “was a self-made man, and that has a different reading in each place. For an American it can be an example of the famous American dream; for a Chinese, a man with people skills, and for the French… the French are divided on this issue.”

But above all “Napoleon went beyond military victories or government tasks, he captured the art of Egypt, which is a fascinating place, he changed the social structure of France, leaving the old regime behind and established a new bureaucratic system that lasts. to the present day".

Napoleon will continue to give a lot of talk two centuries after his death and Ridley Scott acknowledges: “Maybe I am a little responsible for his resurgence.”