Culture

Napoleon and Navigating the War Film in 2023 

The film marks the first reunion in 23 years between veteran-director, Ridley Scott and Academy Award winner, Joaquin Phoenix as the titular French emperor.

Nov 14, 2023 | By Max Sin
Joaquin Phoenix in Napoleon on horseback.
Photo: Apple Studios

Fresh off the bat with the back-to-back House of Gucci and The Last Duel in 2021, decorated director-veteran, Ridley Scot, shows no signs of slowing down with the announcement of his latest historical action epic, Napoleon. News of the first French emperor’s biographical drama was officially announced earlier in April by Apple Studios. A global theatrical release in partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment is set for 22 November before the film goes to streaming on Apple TV+. 

Much of the film has been shrouded in anticipatory mystery up till now, with only short interviews from Scott and the members of the cast he has meticulously pieced together. Apple finally released the official trailer earlier in July to the tune of bluesy rock vocals interspersed over a grand orchestral march fittingly played over episodic snapshots of Napoleon’s illustrious political career, oscillating between snippets of his mythic military conquests and voyeuristic peaks into his titillating courtship with Empress Joséphine as well as possibly other historical love affairs. 

Video: Youtube @AppleTV

The official film website remains bare, save for a single still of Academy Award winner and titular leading man, Joaquin Phoenix leading a calvary into battle with swords overhead and the official theatrical release poster of a grim-looking Phoenix in full French military ceremonial dress. The short synopsis reads, “the film captures Bonaparte’s relentless journey to power through the prism of his addictive, volatile relationship with his one true love, Joséphine, showcasing his visionary military and political tactics against some of the most dynamic practical battle sequences ever filmed.”

Stars Align 

Napoleon marks the first reunion of Phoenix and Scott on the silver screen in 23 years, the last being Scott’s award-winning Gladiator which thrust Phoenix into the Hollywood limelight with his first ever Academy Award nomination. Phoenix has since gone full-steam ahead with an illustrious career filled with brooding, anti-hero types forced by circumstance to contend with the fatal consequences of their own hamartia. With his 2020 Academy Award for Best Actor for Todd Philips’ Joker hot in his pocket, Phoenix is more than ready to take on the mantle of this controversial, history-rewriting enigma of early 19th century France. 

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Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus in Ridley Scott's Gladiator in 2000.

Starring as Empress Joséphine alongside Phoenix is 2021 Academy Award for Best Actress nominee, Vanessa Kirby. Kirby has proven the vast extent of her acting repertoire, from tragic female leads in iconic plays like All My Sons (2010), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2010) and A Streetcar Named Desire (2014) in English theatre to action heroes in both the Mission Impossible and Fast & Furious franchises to considerable international acclaim. The trailer has teased a playful hark back to Kirby’s theatre days with Joséphine’s posturing tittering on the edge between crazed and dramatic, a welcome return nevertheless for Kirby to roles with a darker psychological complex. 

Vanessa Kirby in official trailer for Napoleon as Joséphin
Photo: Youtube @AppleTV

Kirby joins the cast fresh from her last lead role as a woman coming to terms with her miscarriage in Kornél Mundruzcó’s 2020 English debut, Pieces of a Woman, for which she won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the 2020 Venice Film Festival.

Both leads are in the good hands of Scott for whom historical dramas and action epics are his bread and butter. Vast world building filled with both sweeping landscapes and minute plot-significant details is a craft Scott has honed over his 46-year-long directorial career, contributing to cinema history milestone films in their respective genres. Standout examples include the original 1982 Blade Runner which has since become a hallmark of neo-noir and science fiction for its depiction of futuristic dystopia comprising equal parts technological advancement and moral decay as well as his last 2001 war film about the 1993 US military raids in Mogadishu, Somalia — Black Hawk Down.

Ridley Scott on set of The Martian

Napoleon sits at the end of a full circle in Scott’s career from his first attempt at capturing the lived experience of the Napoleonic Wars in his 1977 debut film, The Duellists, which centred on the passionate yet vicious rivalry of two officers on opposing sides of the wars. The Napoleon trailer hints at a similar tactic of revisiting 19th century bloodshed and political turmoil through a more intimate look at the internal strife of the people who lived them acting as allegory for history itself. 

Politics of the War Film in 2023

Fanfare aside, film lovers are also having to contend with the politics of the war film in a time when international conflict is nearer rather than further from the present. The mere mention of war is enough to send a discomforting shiver down the spine when we consider that the last Russian strikes on Ukrainian soil have been as recent as July while the 2021 Myanmar Civil War comes well into its second year. Does the war film really have a place in 2023 when war can be as close as a timezone away? 

Joaquin Phoenix on set of Ridley's Scott's Napoleon in French military ceremonial dress

Film and art have always been a liminal space where people seek refuge in times of great strife or loss. The war film in particular has emerged from this culture of singing elegies as a powerful tool for both remembrance and anti-war education. The line is razor thin however between honouring history faithfully and romanticising the Babylonian scale of destruction which past generations have seen, precisely because they seem so far removed from reality that they become mythical. It is a more than controversial take to say that it is this mythical aspect of war which makes it film-worthy, and is exactly that which Scott seems to cleverly pick up on with his choice of biography.

A Napoleon Bonaparte biography is especially fitting for cinema because so much of Napoleon’s life and political career is indeed filled with urban legends and half-told stories. These myths around his great conquests hence become somewhat symbolic in their epic depictions on the silver screen, serving more so to tell the story of the great ego and behemoth yet ultimately tragic ambitions of the French Emperor.

scene of calvary in motion in Ridley Scott's Napoleon

The trailer gives us ample sneak peeks into some of these fantastical events, such as the fictional shelling of Egyptian pyramids during Napoleon’s four-year campaign to overthrow the Ottoman stronghold of 19th century Egypt and Syria and the decisive 1805 Battle of Austerlitz which was such a tactical masterpiece that it spawned the infamous myth of Napoleon luring Anglo-Swedish allied forces onto a frozen lake before firing artillery shells on them, drowning the allied forces in freezing waters. 

Joaquin Phoenix in Ridley Scott's Napoleon
Photo: Youtube @AppleTV

These dramatisations collectively piece together a figure of Napoleon as someone so much larger than life that they become synonymous with French history itself, embodying in the nationalistic obsessions of a single artillery officer-turned-general the civil unrest of an entire generation desperate to break away from aristocratic rule. Other iconic moments of French history teased in the trailer include the 1793 public execution by guillotine of the last Queen of France, Marie Antoinette; the 1795 defeat of French royalists where Napoleon ruthlessly ordered his artillery to fire on protestors in the very streets of Paris; and most cathartically so, the infamous 1804 self-coronation of Napoleon as Emperor of France in direct antagonism of the Catholic Church and Pope Pius VII. 

Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon crowning himself as emperor of France in Ridley Scott's movie Napoleon
Photo: Youtube @AppleTV

Box Office Potential and Competition for Netflix 

Napoleon comes as a strategic move from Apple who has reportedly committed a new high of around US$1 billion to its film production efforts, supposedly in efforts to raise the status of AppleTV products in Hollywood. The bold increase in investment follows Apple’s historic Academy Award wins for Sian Heder’s 2021 CODA which Apple acquired distribution rights to for a record US$25 million and the 2022 Apple Originals animated short, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, co-directed by Charlie Mackesy and Peter Baynton. The film’s winter release also brings it competitively closer to the 2024 Academy Award season as well as a chance for a preview at the Venice Film Festival in August or the Toronto International Film Festival in September. 

If Christopher Nolan’s impressive box office opening weekend for Oppenheimer has shown us anything at all, it is that the historical drama retains its incredible staying power even today. Napoleon is standing as a refreshing reprieve from summer Barbie fever and is on schedule to take over its highly successful war film predecessors from the past five years including Edward Berger’s 2022 All Quiet on the Western Front which emerged as one of the most-awarded foreign films at the Oscars and has since gone to streaming on Netflix, as well as the equally acclaimed 1917 from Sam Mendes in 2019. Expectations are high for Napoleon and understandably so with a star studded cast and production team, as well as for Apple in its own battle for streaming service dominance against the likes of Netflix and Disney. 

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