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It Wasn't This Year's Most Acclaimed Historical Film—But Napoleon Has Something to Teach Viewers

Joaquin Phoenix in <i>Napoleon</i>. Credit - Courtesy of Apple TV+

As awards season heats up in Hollywood, one highly anticipated blockbuster film of 2023 will face the disappointing reality of being less decorated than its eponymous 18th century-born Corsican military hero. With four wins (including two satirical “Yoga” awards) and 39 nominations, to Oppenheimer’s more than 300 wins out of nearly 400 various nominations, Ridley Scott’s Napoleon has apparently faced its Waterloo.

At the box office, Napoleon, with its almost three-hour runtime, has also fallen short. The film is listed as number 43 in the top-grossing films of 2023 behind PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie and Trolls Band Together (Box Office Mojo). Popular reviews of Napoleon hover between 2/5 (rogerebert.com), 58% (Rotten Tomatoes) and 6.4/10 (IMDb). British and U.S. film critics were mostly positive, while their French counterparts were unanimously disparaging. The right-wing newspaper Le Figaro compared Napoleon and Joséphine to “Barbie and Ken under the Empire.”

The movie reflects filmmaker Ridley Scott’s approach to the genre of historical epic, through which he creates a mirror to reflect, explore, and comment on the contemporary world of his audience. Historical inaccuracies abound, but do not matter. “Get a life!” blasts Scott to this kind of criticism. This is cinema where the story and the meaning for the audience have more value than strict adherence to facts, and where a little fiction may hold more truth than expected.

Read More: How Ridley Scott's Napoleon Stacks Up Against the French Emperor's Real Story

Since the beginning of film history, directors have been adapting the past to fit the big screen, often focusing on individuals such as Joan of Arc (Méliès 1900; Dreyer 1928); Napoleon (Gance 1927); and Alexander Nevsky (Eisenstein 1938). Such early films firmly ensconced the historical epic film in a cinematic tradition that blends fiction and fact. Over time, with advances in technology from hand-coloring of film reels to widescreen format, CGI, and VFX, directors have negotiated historical realism with their audience.

Perhaps none more so than Ridley Scott, who has produced six historical epics (including Gladiator II, to be released in 2024), in addition to one biblical epic, five science fiction films, six thrillers, several dramas, and two comedies. And yet, as with Napoleon today, his film epics have often been criticized for historical inaccuracies. So why have they persisted? Precisely because Scott’s historical epics are provocative and uncomfortable in the present. These films demand that we engage with the issues they raise—from colonialism to democracy.

In Gladiator (2000), Maximus (Russell Crowe) and Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), hero and anti-hero, represent the battle for the Republic against imperial ambition at the beginning of the first millennium. The film’s plot starts in 180 C.E. Marcus Aurelius, emperor and father of Commodus, has appointed Maximus as regent until the Republic can be restored, after declaring Commodus unfit to rule as emperor. Commodus, however, murders his father, stages a coup, and enslaves Maximus. The film’s climax ends with gladiatorial combat between Commodus and Maximus in the Colosseum, which leads to Maximus’s death.

The film is deeply inaccurate. Its conclusion implies wrongly that the Roman Republic was re-established, and kills off Commodus (a victim of politically motivated assassination) in gladiatorial combat. But the film connected with audiences at the turn of the 21st century who were seeking affirmation about democratic ideals and the power of the people. Marcus Aurelius powerfully articulates this dream when he says to Maximus, “I want you to become the protector of Rome after I die. I will empower you, to one end alone, to give power back to the people of Rome and end the corruption that has crippled it.”

During the film’s production, George W. Bush was running his presidential campaign against Al Gore, with the ambition of succeeding President Bill Clinton. Bush lost the popular vote but became president in 2000 after a contentious contest that ended with the Supreme Court weighing in. The film’s release inevitably invited comparisons between President George W. Bush and Commodus. Both were sons of leaders, who came into positions of power under controversial circumstances, and had reputations for levity and ethical ambiguities. Over the next few years, the film resonated even more with contemporary audiences as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq during Bush’s presidency raised interesting points of comparison with the Roman Empire’s patterns of invasion and expansion.

Five years later, Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005) made these connections to contemporary politics even more explicit. Released in the political and cultural aftermath of 9/11, the film revisits the Crusades, and specifically the time between the second and third crusades. Once again, the historical portrait is deeply skewed. The film’s protagonist, Balian, is a blacksmith, who has just lost his wife to suicide following the death of their child. During the burial, Godfrey, the Baron of Ibelin, rides into the village in search of his son Balian, who has not known his father until this point. Balian ascends the social ranks from blacksmith to Baron of Ibelin after following his newfound father on crusade, ultimately forging an ahistorical and anachronistic analogy to the American dream.

But Kingdom of Heaven had a clear message about contemporary American politics. The United States had just launched what President George W. Bush dubbed the "war on terror.” His administration initiated an increased focus on national security through the introduction of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act and the USA Patriot Act. These and other policies were associated with increased racial profiling at a time when racially motivated hate crimes were on the rise. The film, by contrast, presents secularized religions, and highlights points of commonality between different groups. Throughout the film, the battle cry “God wills it!” pierces the battle ranks of both Christians and Muslims. When Balian negotiates terms of surrender ensuring safe passage for the citizens entrusted to his care, he is respected by both Christians and Muslims.

Read More: Why We're Still So Obsessed With Napoleon

In short, Scott’s construction of Balian’s character is not an attempt to recreate medieval history. Rather, the character is an avatar for a contemporary American spectator living the Crusades through the lens of modern foreign policy.

The same dynamics are at play in Scott’s Napoleon story, which is also less about historical accuracy and more a critique of the dictator for 21st century audiences concerned with rising authoritarianism across the globe. The very casting of Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon, with his history of playing psychopathic characters such as Commodus and the Joker, sends a distinct message. Phoenix plays Napoleon anti-heroically, subtly and ironically undermining the “great man theory” of history. His Napoleon is odd, ill at ease, petulant, emotionally immature, and he gets what he wants more often than not. In a notable sex scene with Joséphine, Napoleon stamps his foot repeatedly, like an impatient stallion pawing the ground.

Napoleon is the latest in a series of Ridley Scott films that raise questions about contemporary political trends, interests, and anxieties through the genre of the historical epic. If we take a step back and look at our place in history against the foil of another era, where are we now and where are we going? Is democracy being overshadowed by dictatorial rumblings? Are we in an empire in decline? Are we winning or losing, and against whom? Where do we identify violence and barbarism in our society? Do we have a voice and who is telling our story? Are we repeating the mistakes of history? How will future audiences experience our history on screen?

While Napoleon may have a poor showing at the Academy Awards this weekend, it has used the landscape of history to ask important questions about the contours of modern politics. The fact that Gladiator II is in preproduction with a release date in November 2024, a mere three weeks after a historic presidential election, suggests that Ridley Scott’s films will continue to probe and provoke.

Paula Leverage is an Associate Professor of French at Purdue University and Director of the Center for NeuroHumanities who writes about literature and film.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

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