Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon’: The Horses Were Great. The Movie ….?

Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon’: The Horses Were Great. The Movie ….? November 26, 2023

Characters in historical military garb lead a saber charge on horses.
Joaquin Phoenix (third from the left) leads a charge as the title character in ‘Napoleon’/Columbia Pictures and Apple Original Films, through Sony Pictures Releasing

At some point in director Ridley Scott’s historical epic Napoleon, I was sufficiently bored to muse to myself about the horses.

I commented to my seatmate that they looked Spanish, and then wondered where the movie was shot.

As an entertainment journalist, I always have multiple tracks of thoughts while watching something, but one should not be wondering aloud about horses in the middle of a big battle scene.

As for the answers to my questions … regarding the horses, I haven’t been able to nail it down. But, they have the muscular, compact bodies, elegant legs and thick necks of Andalusians, and, as many were gray, they may well be that.

Concerning the other question, the answer is multiple locations, including in England and the Mediterranean island of Malta.

So, Is Napoleon Good?

Joaquin Phoenix gives his usual twitchy performance as the Corsican military genius, although Napoleon’s Corsican-ness and military genius are sublimated to a tiresome love story between Napoleon and his first wife, Josephine (the sly and still always watchable Vanessa Kirby).

Frankly, Napoleon as a lover is just not very interesting (and frequently icky). He was known primarily as a general, and while the battle scenes are the best things in the film, there aren’t enough of them.

Also, while Phoenix was perfect as the unstable, perverse emperor in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, he just never comes across here as a leader of men.

(Ironically, some scenes were shot at Blenheim Palace, England’s gift to the first Duke of Marlborough, aka John Churchill, after his 1704 defeat of the French at the Battle of Blenheim during the War of Spanish Succession.

I’ve been reading Winston Churchill’s biography of his ancestor, and I’m dismayed at being unable to find a film of Marlborough’s life. It would be fascinating, and just the wigs would be worth it.

And no, The Favorite — about Queen Anne and Marlborough’s wife Sarah — doesn’t count. Artistic license is one thing, but that one crosses over into calumny.)

Ah, the French

It doesn’t help that Napoleon is layered over the chaotic post-Revolution politics in late-18th-century and early-19th-century France.

The political climate swings from monarchy to a utopian republic to brutal tyranny (which earned its nickname, the Reign of Terror, especially for Catholics), back to monarchy and thence to making Napoleon an emperor (you’re free to try to sort it all out here).

Unless you know something about this period — I know a bit, thankfully — you’ll be lost, because none of it is explained.

Napoleon Is Too Short (No, Really), and …

Oddly, Napoleon is at once too long and too short. Without sufficient connective tissue, the story becomes disjointed and hard to follow, which makes it drag.

But to add the material to flesh out the sagas of both France and Napoleon would be more suited to a four- to six-hour miniseries.

However, if producer Apple Studios did that, it couldn’t get the promo bump and Oscars potential from releasing Napoleon in theaters, leading up to the film’s premiere on AppleTV+.

In this case, the dual purpose of the film hasn’t served it well.

Ultimately, it’s got some great moments, but I don’t think many of the choices in writer David Scarpa’s script, the casting of Phoenix, or the runtime, do Napoleon any favors.

My best advice: wait for it on AppleTV+, so you can fast-forward over the dull bits.

How Do Catholics Fare?

As for religious content, there’s not a lot. A nun can be seen collapsing in gratitude after being sprung from prison following the end of the Reign of Terror.

Also, while Napoleon gets married in a very civil French Republic ceremony, his crowning as emperor is done with full Catholic religious trappings (similar to the Church of England ones folks saw during the recent coronation of England’s King Charles III).

Anyway, About Napoleon’s Horse

Getting back to horses, putting Napoleon on a gray is historically accurate (shooting a cannon at the pyramids … not so much).

He’s reputed to have ridden a small gray Arabian stallion named Marengo — reportedly acquired in Egypt — in many, if not all, of his military campaigns and major battles.

According to the story, SPOILER ALERT, after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo — in the movie, Rupert Everett sneers his way through the role of the victorious Duke of Wellington as if he was in an Oscar Wilde satire — the British captured Marengo.

He was put on display in London, later turned out to stud in England, and lived to the ripe old age of 38. His skeleton (most of it anyway) is on display at the Waterloo Gallery at the National Army Museum in Chelsea.

There’s some historical dispute about Marengo’s name, but equestrian artists loved to paint his portrait.

Napoleon is R-rated and earns it, both for sexual content and violence (horse lovers may find some scenes particularly hard to take).

And here’s a peek:

Image: Columbia Pictures and Apple Original Films, through Sony Pictures Releasing

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About Kate O'Hare
Based in Los Angeles, Kate O'Hare is a veteran entertainment journalist, Social Media Content Manager for Family Theater Productions and a rookie screenwriter. You can read more about the author here.
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