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While traveling in the Netherlands and London, I saw Ridley Scott’s Napoleon biopic.

The last time my butt felt the fold-out cushion of a movie theatre was before COVID.

I’ve been in a movie funk for a while.

It seemed like yesterday that I was following my curiosity for classics that stemmed from the New Wave Cinema of French class. Names like Louis Malle and Francois Truffaut introduced me to worlds where ordinary people can have extraordinary circumstances.

As someone moderately knowledgeable about Napoleon and his running rampant through Europe with skill, speed, and a touch of megalomania, I didn’t watch the film for new historical facts or insights.

A film’s deviation from historical precision often disappoints purists. It would be great if a historical film stayed the course, but I could easily watch a thorough documentary or read a book for that.

Sure, some films brilliantly balance the emotional resonance with the historical content, and as you can imagine, they are scarce and hard to do right.

And yes, historical films often have advisors that provide insight into the film’s content. However, artistic vision is prioritized over factual accuracy. David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon, highlighted this at his National Book Festival talk this year, noting the limited influence of advisors in Hollywood’s decision-making totem pole.

The artist has to balance their ego, the feasibility, and the multiple stakeholders that position themselves like land mines on the road to completion.

One could look at another Ridley Scott blockbuster to get a sense of the priorities of the work and the expense of pure fact.

In the piece, “As a History Professor, This is How I Use AI in Class,” Sarah Bond writes of Scott’s Gladiator using Rome as a frame for America. With its extensive documentation of powerful narratives, the Roman Empire provides a clay that can be molded to understand humanity in all its complexities. This is likely why it was and continues to be used as a backdrop in our hearts and minds.

So, how often do you think about the Roman Empire?

The film didn’t focus as much on the glory and the hero worship that one expects from an iconoclastic figure like Mr. Bonaparte. He was aware of the power of the narrative and the shaping of one’s own narrative, not for the immediate but for the future. Simply put, write it down, or it didn’t happen.

In the film, Napoleon is seen through a couple of different lenses.

The first lens is a contemporary view of what history means to today’s greater world.

If we can look up any facts one by one, what do we get out of biopics?

Currently, we find ourselves in an information revolution where people have access to the world at the click of a button and learn anything they want. One can become more enlightened—or create one’s own realities.

More information doesn’t mean a better-informed public.

Issac Asimov once said that the saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.

The second lens Napoleon is seen through is the human nature of those who become Gods on earth.

With this increase in knowledge, we can see these great figures of history not as clean myths but as messy humans.

The film highlighted the complicated aspects of Napoleon’s human relations, most notably with his first wife, Joséphine, who didn’t care much for him initially. Still, they grew fond of one another even after their divorce at the height of Napoleon’s reign to procure an heir.

What we retell of history is narrow, to begin with. The full complexities of historical events get flattened into a nice neat narrative that can travel time. It is only through time passing that the nuances of these events sweat through the pores of our understanding of events and create a fuller world, although some may like the simplicity of the straightforward story.

Although Napoleon did condense and skip over a good amount of Napoleon’s successes on the battlefield and did have liberties with the truth in some capacities (e.g., Napoleon’s presence at Marie Antoinette’s execution, firing at the pyramids in Egypt), it was an interesting character study and an okay film.


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