On December 2, 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte was preparing to crown himself Emperor of the French in Notre Dame Cathedral. The pope had arrived to bless the ceremony. Hundreds of musicians were playing hymns and ceremonial marches. Napoleon himself was wearing a thick, heavy mantle of ermine and crimson velvet, and a laurel wreath on his head. And there, standing in the nave, he turned to his older brother Joseph and allegedly whispered, in their native Corsican dialect, “if only Dad could see us now!” It is moments like this—in which Napoleon seemed as amazed as anyone else by the heights to which he had risen—that help to explain the peculiar fascination that he continues to exert over modern imaginations.
Indeed, it remains surprisingly, temptingly easy to identify with Napoleon—and therefore to focus on his personality rather than on a political record that was, on balance, enormously destructive. This is notably the case in Ridley Scott’s colorful new biopic, which makes his story almost entirely one of personality. Yes, Napoleon rose—and rose meteorically—from relatively humble origins to become one of the greatest conquerors in history. Yes, he governed one of the greatest empires seen since the days of the Romans, before falling as swiftly as he had ascended. And throughout it all, he remained capable of stepping back and recognizing how unlikely his story had been. In his final exile, on the small South Atlantic island of Saint Helena, he exclaimed: “what a novel my life!”
But if these intensely human qualities keep us fascinated with Napoleon more than two centuries after his death, so too should the terrible things that he did: The wars he fought led to millions of deaths; he ordered the execution of prisoners, and in retribution for guerrilla attacks his forces deliberately targeted innocent civilians; he ruled France as a dictator, quashing democracy, free speech, and arresting political opponents (although he rarely killed them). Worst of all, perhaps, he reversed the decision of the previous, revolutionary regime and restored slavery where he could in France’s Caribbean colonies, putting hundreds of thousands of people back in bondage. And it’s precisely this dichotomy—how he managed to remain in power and fight war after war, while also remaining surprisingly relatable—that is at the center of history’s obsession with him.
While the new film does gesture towards the dark side of Napoleon’s rule, with gory battle scenes, and grim statistics showing the death tolls of those battles, it spends far more time on the central love story of Napoleon’s life. When he was 26, and engaged to another woman, he met a seductive widow six years his senior, Joséphine de Beauharnais, and immediately fell under her spell. Within a few months they had married. The relationship was tumultuous, with affairs on both sides, but also deeply passionate. “Sweet and incomparable Josephine,” he wrote to her in 1795, soon before their marriage, “what a strange effect you have on my heart! […] I draw from your lips, from your heart, a flame that burns me. […] I will see you in three hours. In the meantime, mio dolce amor, here are a thousand kisses; but give me none, for they burn my blood.” They did not have children, and in 1809 he divorced her in order to have an heir to his throne. But he remained deeply affectionate towards Josephine and her death left him grief-stricken.
So intently does the film concentrate on this human and vulnerable side of Napoleon, that it attributes two of his most consequential actions—his return to France from Egypt in 1799, and his escape from exile in 1815—entirely to the love story, rather than to the political calculations which were actually uppermost in his mind. (It even moves the date of Josephine’s death by nearly a year—from May 1814 to March 1815—to make the narrative arc work.)
It’s true that Napoleon’s emotional relationships did matter enormously to his career and his likeability, but not only—indeed, not primarily—the one with Josephine. Both his military victories, and his rule at home depended in large part on his ability to elicit passionate support and loyalty, both from his soldiers and from the French public. He was remarkably at ease with and friendly towards ordinary soldiers, and they, in turn, adored him, and fought fiercely for him. His great adversary, Britain’s Lord Wellington, once referred to his own army’s rank-and-file as “the scum of the earth.” Napoleon, by contrast, loved to tease and joke with his men, even to pinch them playfully on the ear. At the Battle of Lodi, in 1796, he stepped into help load a cannon at a crucial moment, and afterwards, the cannon crew told him he could become their new corporal. The nickname “the little corporal” stuck. Meanwhile, Napoleon made brilliant use of propaganda to present himself to the French public as a superhuman hero who could pull the country out of the chaos and divisions of the French Revolution. Even as he was crushing political freedom, he enjoyed genuine popular support.
It was these connections that made possible the single most dramatic chapter of Napoleon’s life: the 1814 escape from exile. After his catastrophic defeat in Russia in 1812, and a set of ferocious campaigns that drove him back across Europe to the very gates of Paris, he abdicated the throne, and was sent by the victorious allies to Elba, an island in the Mediterranean within sight of his native Corsica. But less than a year later he slipped past the British fleet, landed on the southern coast of France with a thousand soldiers, and began marching towards Paris. A week later, he found his way barred by a regiment loyal to the new French government. Napoleon stepped out in front of his men, and opened his old, gray army coat, exposing his chest as a target. “If there is any soldier among you who wants to kill his emperor,” he declared, “here I am!” For a long moment there was silence. But then the opposing soldiers started to cheer “long live the emperor!” and rushed to embrace him and his men. The confrontation had been partially stage-managed. Officers from the two sides had conferred before Napoleon stepped forward. But he had still taken an enormous risk.
He continued to Paris and managed against all odds to take power again. Despite the disastrous wars with their millions of deaths, economic ruin, and the loss of conquests that pre-dated Napoleon’s rule, much of the enthralled French public still rallied behind him. The episode lasted a hundred days, and ended with his final defeat, at Waterloo, in June of 1815.
The enduring fascination with Napoleon echoes, in many ways, the emotional reactions he elicited during his lifetime. His life was, indeed, a novel, and like a character in a great novel, he remains someone easy to identify with, fictionalize, and even put on a pedestal. But his story should remind us of the darkness that humans are capable of—and not just the grand adventures.
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