Ridley Scott: "Napoleon is more than God, more than Caesar"

London, Paris, Madrid.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
20 November 2023 Monday 10:31
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Ridley Scott: "Napoleon is more than God, more than Caesar"

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

Napoleon begins with Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine in a Parisian square full of revolutionaries to make way for a Bonaparte who is about to be promoted to colonel after defeating, with more wit than force, the English at the Battle of Toulon

The falling in love with Josephine, the appointment as consul, the campaign in Egypt, the victory at Austerlitz, the coronation as emperor after conquering much of Europe... Ridley Scott's Napoleon is two and a half hours of pure cinema. Two and a half hours to go.

Because the self-made emperor of France only lived 51 years, but they achieved a lot. In other words, there could be a lot more teak in Scott's film and the filmmaker is aware of it. He admits he has about four hours of publishable material.

But the director of Blade Runner (1982), Thelma (1991) or Gladiator claims his right to the final cut after the years he has been behind the camera: "I've earned it", he says in a chat with journalists at the 'Ritz hotel in Madrid prior to the preview of the film at the Prado Museum.

"It's like when you write a book, you think everything is important and you keep writing and writing until you have an unattainable text left, so you call an editor to read it and start cutting", compares the filmmaker.

And he explains that in his team he has several editors who have been responsible for reducing the footage of Napoleón "without spoiling the film", but even so there were three hours of film left and I had to make a cut, because basically my job is to decide how long my film will last".

The filmmaker does not clarify whether that 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, painted pictures and talked about it to the point of boredom. Napoleon is more than God, more than Caesar, more than any artist who has ever existed”.

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

Ridley Scott, who will be 86 years old in a few days, does not lack experience in bringing history to the big screen. In Gladiator, for example, he chose a piece of uppercase history to tell a lowercase story. "This is the usual when filming this genre," he says.

But for Napoleon this technique did not work. It was not a matter of explaining a small part of his life, it was necessary to explain everything or almost everything, because "I gave up childhood and youth and preferred to start with a man who had already become a military man 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 around?" he asks, slyly, and since there aren't any, he blurts out: "The Italians surrendered in the cathedral of Milan and handed over the most valuable treasures of their heritage to Napoleon, who they were taken to France. Since then they have been coming and going, coming and going...".

The War of Independence doesn't 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've 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 Catalan screens on Friday: "There is a lot of information about Napoleon, but you can absorb it and continue without knowing- nothing, without knowing the character. About Napoleon there are myths and truths, and to narrate his life you have to speculate a little", 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 this nebula that still surrounds the figure of Bonaparte, Scott does draw some clear conclusions. He maintains that "he was a self-made man and this 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 the gift of people, and for the French... the French are divided on this question”.

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 behind the old regime and he establish a new bureaucratic system that lasts to this day".

Napoleon continues to make people talk a lot two centuries after his death, and Ridley Scott admits: "Maybe I'm a little responsible for his resurgence."