Napoleon. Photo: Apple Studios/Scott Free Productions
Napoleon. Photo: Apple Studios/Scott Free Productions

Jimmy Haddow, Socialist Party Scotland

Director Ridley Scott’s new film Napoleon stars Joaquin Phoenix in the title role and Vanessa Kirby as Joséphine Bonaparte leading a cast of other brilliant actors.

Cinematically it is outstanding and the battle scenes are out of this world – brutal as befitting the epoch. The filming is marvellous and the soundtrack is wonderful. The film is more of the story of Joséphine and Napoleon rather than just about Napoleon, although I considered the acting by Phoenix and Kirby brilliant.

Scott and the scriptwriter took huge artistic license with some of the history and have been criticised for it. Scott’s response, according to film critic Mark Kermode, was to say: “When I have issues with historians, I ask: ‘Excuse me, mate, were you there? No? Well, shut the fuck up then.’” Although I watched Kermode’s review of Napoleon and did not agree with his interpretation of it at all.

I enjoyed the film, the acting, the music and so on but it should not be taken as a true representation of Napoleon, or more importantly from my point of view, the social, class and political events of 1789 to 1815.

Only flashes

The film’s representation of the epoch of the French Revolution as the rise and fall into Bonapartism is superficial at best and Anglocentric at worst. There were only flashes of the real class events of the time – the peasant-based troops supporting him, the English capitalist class hating the revolution and, more notably, Napoleon’s support for the Republic – ie the sweeping away of the feudal regime in France and the rest of Europe, and Egypt.

The foreign wars that Napoleon led were on behalf of the new ruling class that was turning into the capitalist class. The regime of Bonaparte represented reaction, against the working-class left element of the French Revolution, and the Royalist usurpers; but also against the rest of the feudal and semi-feudal world.


British capitalism was terrified of losing its profits from its foreign holdings because of Napoleon’s victories and, more importantly, the class sympathy the French Revolution gained in the British working class was worrying to the British rulers as well, hence their intervention.

I would recommend the film – but if you want a real class history of the French Revolution and Bonaparte’s part in it, I suggest there is no better book than ‘The Masses Arise – the great French Revolution 1789-1815’ by Peter Taaffe.