November 2023 is a month I’ve been eagerly anticipating ever since I read an article in The Times about Ridley Scott commencing the filming of Napoleon, starring Joaquin Phoenix.
The news sent shivers down my spine, stirring a deep sense of nostalgia and excitement within me. The thought of Lincoln Cathedral transforming into a cinematic canvas for Napoleon’s story was thrilling.
I’ve always been captivated by Napoleon Bonaparte. As an Englishman, it might seem unconventional to admire a man who was once our nation’s arch-enemy, even treasonous. Two hundred years ago, this kind of admiration to the nations foe, might have seen me swing from the gallows. But Napoleon was more than just an adversary; he was a game-changer, a military genius with a sense of humour that was as legendary as his campaigns.
The prospect of seeing Phoenix, an actor known for his intense and immersive performances, stepping into the shoes of Napoleon was a film I have been waiting since I watched a grainy video of Rod Stinger’s performance as the reviled ‘Boniface’ in the film Waterloo in the early 80s. Christopher Plumber playing the role of the Duke of Wellington.
Ridley Scott, with his knack for epic storytelling and visually stunning cinematography, seems like the perfect director to bring the complexities of Napoleon’s life to the big screen. This film promises to be more than just a historical drama; it’s a window into the life of a man who reshaped the world. How would the world have looked today, if the fate of war hadn’t swung in the way of the French in that small farmstead in Belgium, known throughout the military world as Waterloo.
My fascination with Napoleon isn’t just about his military conquests or political acumen. It’s about his human side – his ambitions, his flaws, his humour. It’s about understanding a man who, in many ways, was ahead of his time. The anticipation of seeing how Scott and Phoenix capture the essence of this enigmatic figure is almost palpable.
As November draws closer, I find myself reflecting more on Napoleon’s legacy. His impact on Europe, his visionary reforms, and his ultimate downfall are stories that have stood the test of time. They are stories that resonate with our own struggles and triumphs, reminding us of the fine line between greatness and hubris.
The release of Napoleon isn’t just another date in the cinema calendar for me. It’s a moment where history and art collide, bringing to life a figure that has long fascinated me.
Napoleon’s early days paint a picture of a man who was always somewhat of an outsider, a Corsican in France. Born in 1769, just a year after Corsica was ceded to France by the Republic of Genoa, he grew up in a family that was neither affluent nor influential in the grand scheme of French society. This outsider status could have been a hindrance, but for Napoleon, it seemed to fuel his drive and determination.
His Corsican heritage was a complex part of his identity. On one hand, he had a deep connection to his place of birth, speaking the Corsican language and growing up with the island’s customs. On the other hand, he embraced his French identity with a fervour that was almost defiant. This duality was a defining feature of his character, making him a fascinating study in contrasts.
Intellectually, Napoleon was a standout from a young age. He was sent to the mainland for his education, attending school in Autun before moving to the military academy in Brienne-le-Château. Despite facing discrimination for his Corsican accent and modest background, he excelled, particularly in mathematics and history. His academic prowess was a clear indicator of his sharp mind and capacity for complex thought.
But it wasn’t just his intellect that set him apart. Napoleon was ambitious to the core. He had a vision for himself and a drive that was astonishing. This ambition was not just about personal gain; it was about making a mark, about changing the status quo. During the tumultuous times of the French Revolution, when the very fabric of society was being torn apart and re-stitched, Napoleon saw opportunities where others saw chaos.
Napoleon’s ascent in the military hierarchy during this era was nothing less than astonishing. By the tender age of 24, he had already earned the rank of brigadier general, a clear indicator of his exceptional military insight and leadership prowess. His approach in the Italian and Egyptian campaigns broke new ground; they weren’t merely effective, they revolutionised the conduct of military operations.
This phase in his life was pivotal in moulding the leader he was destined to become. It was a period marked by significant personal and professional evolution, a time when this Corsican outsider methodically forged a new persona for himself as a central figure in the annals of French history. The transformation of Napoleon from a young boy in Corsica to a commanding presence in France is a testament to his remarkable abilities and indomitable spirit.
Napoleon’s military expertise was a fusion of strategic ingenuity, pioneering tactics, and a remarkable talent for motivating his forces. His military philosophy was anchored in rapidity, adaptability, and the element of surprise, frequently catching adversaries unprepared and exploiting their confusion. Tactics as a young commander in the military myself, was taught.
A cornerstone of his military ingenuity was the implementation of the ‘corps’ system. This groundbreaking method segmented the army into autonomous units, each equipped for both defensive and offensive operations. This arrangement endowed Napoleon with an unprecedented level of agility in manoeuvring his forces, often overwhelming his foes with their speed and precision.
His battles are exemplars of military mastery. Consider the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, often hailed as his crowning achievement. In this engagement, Napoleon’s prowess in misdirection and strategic positioning was on full display. He deceived the Austro-Russian forces into underestimating his army’s strength, leading them into a well-laid trap that culminated in a decisive victory for the French. This encounter not only highlighted his tactical expertise but also his ability to outthink and outmanoeuvre his adversaries.
Another significant battle was Marengo in 1800. Confronted with a superior Austrian force, Napoleon orchestrated an extraordinary turnaround towards the end of the day, snatching a victory that seemed all but lost. This victory cemented his status as a formidable military leader and was a critical juncture in fortifying his position in France.
But Napoleon’s ethos extended beyond mere strategy and tactics; it was also about morale. He forged a unique bond with his soldiers, affectionately known as ‘the Little Corporal’ among them. His practice of visiting the front lines, engaging with his soldiers, and empathising with their conditions endeared him to his troops. He was perceived as a leader who not only commanded but also shared in the trials of his men.
The devotion and affection the French armies held for their commander-in-chief were extraordinary. Napoleon’s soldiers were prepared to follow him into the most formidable battles, galvanised by his leadership and his knack for turning the tides of war in their favour. His addresses and bulletins frequently ignited a sense of national pride and motivation, spurring his men to engage with fervour and commitment.
However, Napoleon’s military career was not devoid of miscalculations. His later campaigns, especially the 1812 invasion of Russia, revealed a degree of overextension and a misjudgment of logistical complexities. Nonetheless, even in these instances, the allegiance of his troops remained steadfast, a reflection of the profound rapport he had established with his army.
In essence, Napoleon’s military ethos was characterised by innovation, strategic acumen, and a profound comprehension of both the art of warfare and the hearts of his soldiers. His battles were more than mere conflicts; they were masterclasses in military strategy, with his rapport with his troops playing a critical role in his numerous triumphs.
Indeed, while I hold a certain admiration for Napoleon, I’m acutely aware of his shortcomings. His autocratic rule, a hallmark of his reign, ultimately led to his undoing. This unyielding belief in absolute power and control serves as a stark warning against the perils of autocracy. It’s a historical lesson that remains relevant, especially when observing some contemporary leaders. Figures like Putin and Trump, with their own brand of authoritative leadership, seem to overlook the lessons history has taught us. Autocracy, as history has repeatedly shown, often leads to a leader’s downfall. Napoleon’s trajectory is a case in point, illustrating how a relentless pursuit of power can lead to a dramatic fall from grace.
His ill-fated invasion of Russia in 1812 is a perfect example of overreaching ambition colliding with harsh reality. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t solely the might of the Russian military that led to his defeat; it was the brutal Russian winter. This catastrophic miscalculation underscores the importance of understanding and respecting environmental forces, a crucial aspect often neglected by even the most astute leaders. Napoleon’s Russian campaign is a testament to the fact that there are elements beyond a leader’s control, and failing to acknowledge and prepare for them can lead to disastrous consequences.
This episode in Napoleon’s career is not just a military lesson; it’s a broader metaphor for leadership and ambition. It serves as a reminder that a leader’s vision, however grand, must be tempered with a realistic understanding of limitations and external factors. The Russian campaign’s failure also highlights the importance of adaptability and humility––qualities that, when ignored, can lead to a leader’s downfall.
Exiled to Elba following his initial downfall, Napoleon’s story took a remarkable turn in 1815. In what can only be described as a testament to his enduring charisma and influence, he escaped from Elba and astonishingly returned to power in France. This period, known as the Hundred Days, saw Napoleon rally support and reassert his presence on the European stage. It was a testament to his ability to inspire and mobilise, even when the odds were stacked against him.
However, this comeback was short-lived. The Battle of Waterloo, a name that has since become synonymous with final defeat, was Napoleon’s last stand. In June 1815, the combined forces of the British, led by the Duke of Wellington, and the Prussians, under Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, clashed with Napoleon’s army in what would be one of the most famous battles in history. The defeat at Waterloo was decisive and marked the end of Napoleon’s rule and his military career. Following this defeat, he was exiled to the remote island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, a far cry from the power and glory he once held. It was on this isolated island that he spent the last years of his life, dying in 1821.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s influence on Paris is a tapestry of architectural splendour, cultural advancement, and administrative innovation. His imprint on the city is a vivid reflection of his grand ambitions and his vision for a capital that epitomised the power and prestige of his empire. The transformation he brought to Paris wasn’t just about erecting monuments or buildings; it was about reshaping the very essence of the city.
From the commanding presence of the Arc de Triomphe, a symbol of military triumph and national pride, to the expansive renovations of the Louvre, turning it into a beacon of cultural richness, Napoleon’s touch is evident. His initiatives, like the creation of the Rue de Rivoli, showcase his desire to modernise Paris, making it not just a seat of power but also a hub of beauty and order. The Vendôme Column stands as a testament to his military victories, a reminder of his prowess and the glory of his reign.
But Napoleon’s legacy in Paris goes beyond the physical and the visible. He redefined the city’s administrative framework, setting the stage for the modern governance of Paris. His introduction of the Napoleonic Code was a revolutionary step in legal history, influencing legal systems far beyond France’s borders. This blend of tangible and intangible changes brought about by Napoleon in Paris is a mirror to his complex legacy on a global scale.
Celebrated as one of history’s greatest military strategists, his campaigns are dissected for their brilliance and audacity. Yet, his impact extends into the societal and legal realms, with the Napoleonic Code marking a significant stride towards legal modernisation. Napoleon’s legacy, therefore, is multifaceted – he was not just a military leader but also a reformer whose influence reshaped not just Paris but also the broader contours of European history.
Yet, on the other hand, Napoleon’s legacy is marred by the darker aspects of his rule. His autocratic style of governance, his relentless pursuit of power, and the wars he led that resulted in immense suffering and loss of life, paint a picture of a leader whose ambitions often overshadowed his sense of humanity. The Napoleonic Wars reshaped Europe but at a tremendous cost of lives and stability.
In sum, Napoleon Bonaparte remains a figure of fascination and controversy. His life and actions continue to evoke debate and introspection about the nature of leadership, the ethics of power, and the costs of ambition. He is a figure who, in many ways, encapsulates the extremes of human potential – both its brilliance and its capacity for destruction. His story is a powerful reminder of the complexities inherent in great historical figures and the dualities that they often represent.
History, in many ways, has not done justice to Napoleon, I believe. He was, in essence, no different from other European autocratic rulers of his time, who wielded their powers with a heavy hand. Even our own British royalty are not exempt from this critique. In fact, a significant part of the British fear during Napoleon’s era stemmed from the apprehension of a revolution at home, inspired by the French. This fear was one of the underlying reasons why Britain engaged in prolonged warfare across Europe.
It brings to mind the words of George Orwell, who famously said, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” This statement rings particularly true in the case of Napoleon. The narrative of history is often shaped by those in power, and the story of Napoleon has been no exception. His legacy, while complex, is undeniably enduring and multifaceted.
So, as I reflect on the legacy of Napoleon, a legacy that continues to resonate through time, I find myself compelled to echo the sentiment that once rallied armies and captivated nations: Vive l’Empereur! Long live the Emperor!
In these words, there is a recognition of his impact, a nod to his enduring influence, and perhaps, a subtle challenge to the way history has portrayed him.