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Opinion | Napoleon, Once a Legend, Is Now a Mere Movie Star

Admin By Admin Nov26,2023


“History,” the essayist Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1840, “is the biography of great men” — and of these Napoleon, whom Carlyle described as “our chief contemporary wonder,” was considered by many to be the greatest. The “little corporal” who became a general and then emperor, the revolutionary who toppled a dynasty only to found his own, turned rapidly after his death in 1821 into an international legend, admired and reviled in equal measure. The ambitious dreamed of emulating him; inmates of lunatic asylums believed they were him. And now we find him, some 200 years later, larger than life once again, on IMAX screens and in multiplexes in Ridley Scott’s new epic “Napoleon.”

So why does Mr. Scott’s choice of subject feel like something of a throwback? When the philosopher Hegel saw Napoleon on horseback in 1806, he declared him nothing less than the “soul of the world.” Now, even if we can register the enormous impact Napoleon has had, he does not inflame our sentiments as he once did. There are still aficionados among the world’s would-be autocrats: When he was prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi reportedly bought the imperial bed (before having it widened) and hung a portrait of the emperor to greet Vladimir Putin when he came to visit. But for the rest of us, Napoleon has turned from one of those historical protagonists about whose life and exploits it is impossible to remain neutral — like a Hitler or a Stalin — into a titan distanced and defanged by time, like Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan.

What has changed is not Napoleon’s story, but our sense of the possibilities it once represented. The fundamental source of his appeal was that he seemed to incarnate something quite unprecedented in human affairs: the unknown figure who through sheer genius succeeds in becoming an agent of history, overthrowing social and political norms. As a vehicle for change on an epochal scale, Napoleon epitomized the Romantic hero as man of action, and his ascent coincided with a time when mass political activism was a novel and revolutionary force, imbued with optimism.

Today, confidence in the future is vanishing. People (with the possible exception of Mr. Putin) are unlikely to see themselves as history’s protagonists. Like other film directors who’ve tackled the subject, Mr. Scott has tapped into Napoleon’s biography and love life as grist for a biopic, but the Napoleon legend always rested on much more than an astonishing yarn: It reflected the aspirations of an era that now feels very remote from our own.

For one thing, the way war is conducted today bears little relationship to the military life which was Napoleon’s route to power and fame. Back in 1977, Mr. Scott’s very first feature film, “The Duellists,” explored the wonderfully obsessive weirdness of the soldierly code of honor in the Napoleonic era. But in our age of remotely targeted drones, killer robots, counterinsurgents and collateral damage, neither the duel nor the battlefield offer a proving ground for virtue. The combat scenes in Mr. Scott’s latest film offer only nostalgic anachronism: The bared swords and wild charging cavalry hold few moral lessons at a time when our models of leadership are more likely to do battle in the corporate boardroom, their greatness measured by their wealth.

Another essential instrument of Napoleon’s success, his rhetoric, has not endured any better. The writer Alfred de Vigny once described a generation of French writers as “nurtured on the emperor’s bulletins;” Napoleon’s proclamations, first to his troops and then to his country, fueled his popularity. Image mattered to Napoleon, to be sure — the great imperial portraits make that clear — but the visuals circulated much more slowly than the texts, which were the primary source of his political power. His legal reforms changed much of the world and memoirs and biographies secured his legend. In our age of TikTok and headline-grabbing tweets, nothing could be harder for us to comprehend than the cultural force of a rhetorical tradition.

But it’s Napoleon, the Great Man at the helm of history, who now seems most remote of all. In the last few months, there’s been a telling meme. It shows a picture of the former emperor in exile on St. Helena, sitting disconsolately by the shore, accompanied by the punchline: “There is nothing we can do.” This meme is an epitaph for the Napoleon myth. An image once intended to show the noble leader as a pensive intellectual now presents him as powerless and withdrawn from the world and its affairs. He has become a shadow of his former self, a rationale for inaction. This is the Napoleon who resonates today.

Perhaps we should not mourn too much. The crimes of the dictators of the mid-20th century made it harder to trust again in a great national leader leading us to glory. But our contemporary sense of being battered helplessly by forces beyond our control — in the global economy, in the changing climate — is a less comforting reason Napoleon no longer speaks to us as he once did.

Strong on panache and ambition, Mr. Scott’s “Napoleon” is a multimillion-dollar blockbuster with all the trimmings, offering panoramic battles, gorgeous costumes and the always enjoyable spectacle of a world conqueror himself conquered by a woman. Yet its arrival is a reminder that Napoleon no longer exists for us as either myth or model; now, he merely entertains. Greatness is yesterday’s aspiration, a glorious failure: “There is nothing we can do.” Unable to dream of emulating him, we sit and watch him instead.

Mark Mazower is a professor of history at Columbia.

Source photographs by Kevin Baker/Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures and Getty Images.

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