Written by:
David Gaffen
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Napoleon. The role of the French Emperor and ruler of Europe has been played by more actors in more movies than any other historical figure. So it might be expected that a four-hour documentary on the man would provide exquisite details on the progression of his life as well as insight into his character and the times he lived in.

David Grubin’s documentary, Napoleon, has a wealth of the former and a dearth of the latter. The events in Napoleon’s life, large and small, are accounted for like a to-do list. It’s well researched, but ultimately methodical in its almost day-by-day chronicle, narrated in prosaic manner by David McCullough.

Napoleon never quite rises to the level of fascinating; it surely should since the man’s combination of hubris, ambition and intelligence ranks with that of other driven world leaders, from Caesar to Richard Nixon. Grubin doesn’t provide the deeds and misdeeds with sufficient historical and societal context. The influence, good or bad, that Napoleon had on the people isn’t broached. Why did his people love him? How did he manage to run a monarchy not all that different from preceding ones, yet still seem like a refreshing change? These questions are left unanswered.

Napoleon was a common French military figure from the Mediterranean island of Corsica; he rose in the ranks to commanding general, winning medals for bravery during the years following the French Revolution. He later married his love, Josephine de Beauharnais, and was crowned Emperor in 1804.

The documentary has lengthy commentary by historians and quotations from both Napoleon’s writings and the writings of others. With the exception of thoughts regarding his relationship to Josephine, and the minutiae of his war strategies, the insights are banal and superficial. For example, late in the fourth hour, which chronicles his downfall, it’s noted that "his star had left him" at his famous defeat at Waterloo. While it’s certainly likely that Napoleon’s inspiration and passion had deserted him, it also seems that the judgement and good sense that made him such a successful wartime commander had vanished as well.

What the film does well is to contrast Napoleon’s more tyrannical sensibilities with his foresight and intelligence. In some respects Napoleon’s personality differs only slightly from the Bourbon kings that preceded him, but he didn’t confine his endeavors to serving the monarchy. He also took the initiative in creating modern infrastructure in Paris, issuing the Civil Code of laws, building bridges over the River Seine, and establishing the Bank of France.

These accomplishments are attributed to his modest upbringing on the Isle of Corsica; Napoleon didn’t come from nobility, and that lack of pedigree probably motivated his populist goals. Unfortunately, these events are given short shrift; their enduring influence is hardly discussed. Instead Grubin concentrates on war, war, and more war.

The documentary discusses the French Revolution in the most perfunctory manner, but it refers on multiple occasions to the "principles of the Revolution," Napoleon’s desire to uphold them, and the French people’s acceptance of him as representative of these principles. But what are the principles? It’s not explained. Once entrenched in power, Napoleon cracks down on the press, punishes dissenters and makes a mockery of Parliament. He seems to have been not much better than his predecessors–perhaps with an added pinch of benevolence and that only so long as nobody crossed him. Again, Grubin’s documentary just presents this information and moves on.

Perhaps the most interesting details come from the military historians, who painstakingly recount his military successes and the tactics employed in both motivating his troops and defeating better-armed and larger armies. The victories include significant battles in the South of France when he was only a lieutenant, and later victories in Italy, Austria, Prussia and Egypt.

Napoleon’s tragic flaw was his insatiable desire for power. His better instincts, which surely would have told him not to invade Russia with winter approaching, were overcome by overreaching ambition. Eventually defeated in Russia, he was exiled, later to return, only to be defeated again in a spectacularly detailed battle at Waterloo. The last hour of the film is the most interesting section, detailing his downfall and later effort to shape his image by writing his memoirs. Media savvy before there were mass media, Napoleon knew that his words would shape opinions of him for centuries to come. But Grubin doesn’t get under the surface of Napoleon’s ambition and drive, nor does he offer any depth in observing the political situation that made it possible for him to take control.

– David A. Gaffen

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