[Make sure to read Daniel Greenfield’s contributions in Jamie Glazov’s new book: Barack Obama’s True Legacy: How He Transformed America.]
Before 2020, movie theaters were dominated by superheroes. After the pandemic and the race riots, it’s been biopics. 2023 superhero movies like The Flash, Blue Beetle and The Marvels bombed, but biopics are booming. From Elvis to Oppenheimer to Napoleon, audiences have grown tired of special effects superpowers and are longing for real life larger than life figures.
But Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is every bit as unreal as Batman or Captain America. The lavish but hollow spectacle stretched out at its longest to four hours is not about Napoleon, but about the postmodern idea of him and of all the great men of history as both superhuman and flawed.
The seemingly wide range of biopics actually tell the same story over and over again. The protagonists may be rock stars, race car drivers or dictators, but they succeed without really trying and fail because of their troubled personal lives, not their lack of skill. The dramatic arc makes human beings seem superhuman only to cut them down to size for being all too human.
Napoleon the movie perpetuates many of the myths that Napoleon the man wove around himself. Where a French king might have proclaimed, “l’etat, c’est moi” or “I am the state” by virtue of divine right, Napoleon briefly made himself equivalent to France through heroism. The heroism was part real and part fiction. Napoleon was only the latest heroic figure to bestride the stage of the nation after the Revolution replaced monarchy with cults of personality.
The Renaissance had unleashed a wave of celebrities, artistic and criminal (some like
Benvenuto Cellini, the Florentine sculptor who alternated between stunning works of art and brutal murders which were overlooked because of his talent, managed to do both). Italian cities warred with each to bury great artists the way that they might have once competed to provide a resting place for the bones of saints. Greatness had become holiness and fame was a pagan immortality that could outlast the centuries better than any dream of heaven.
Scott’s Napoleon biopic has a poor understanding of European warfare or French politics, all it knows is fame. It is no coincidence that the dead Corsican stands out among a wave of biopics about rock stars, musicians and other celebrities. In the style of the conclusion of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, it collects as many apocryphal Napoleon legends as it can, then strings them together with grandiosity and insipid dialogue. Want to see Napoleon take a shot at the Sphinx? It never happened, but like so many made up stories, it’s there in the movie.
Ridley Scott, a director who specializes in making movies that look good with nothing more underneath, and David Scarpa, the writer responsible for the equally hollow Man in the High Castle streaming series, have wasted hours of film and countless millions of dollars to distill a major historical figure to the ahistorical cliches that people who don’t know much, know.
Napoleon the movie isn’t in the business of history, but of celebrity, yet it has no actual insight into its real narrative, not about a long dead historical figure, but about the hunger for fame. To Napoleon, the cult of personality he developed was a political tool that allowed him to wield power, but to those who perpetuate the legend, fame becomes an end in and of itself.
The French turned to Napoleon, as the Italians would later turn to Mussolini and the Germans to to Hitler, because he appeared superhuman. Napoleon accomplished many things, including social and educational reforms, which are usually ignored in favor of war stories, and rallied men under impossible conditions on the battlefield, but he could not save France from itself. Nor could he save himself from his own weaknesses and frailties. No man, no matter how accomplished or lucky, which Napoleon also was, can ever live up to a cult of personality.
The cult of personality clashed with the cult of democracy that France had introduced with the Revolution. And it never resolved the question of whether ordinary men were fit to rule. While America ultimately (and perhaps temporarily) came out for the right of the common man to decide his own affairs and to govern: the cult of personality sidestepped that vital question.
Great men elevated from more ordinary ranks appeared to overlay meritocracy atop democracy, but the lie at the heart of the cult of personality was that extraordinarily gifted people were like gods who bestrode the earth and could accomplish what no amount of ordinary men could. Much as after the Revolution, Napoleon’s cult of personality once again convinced French military men to abandon reason and pursue grandiose wars that made no strategic sense:
That same destructive notion has a sizable footprint in American life. Superhero movies alternate with biopics for unrealistic depictions of great men who seem to accomplish the impossible because of some intangible gift. This narrative satisfies a belief that greatness is inaccessible to ordinary people (and we shouldn’t even try) but when applied to real figures it also dooms those mortals who possess it. It’s a quintessential belief taken from Ancient Greece with its obsession with hubris and the fickle favor and scorn of their all too human gods.
While it helps to have certain natural gifts, accomplishment in real life is the result of hard work, persistence and a certain amount of luck. Even those geniuses who have incredible inborn talent in a particular area have to struggle to apply it in a way that makes a difference in their chosen profession. In real life, genius is overrated. Like child actors, the 11-year-olds you hear about applying to college and then graduating rarely amount to anything in their adult lives.
But that’s a message few want to hear. In a culture where every other urban high school boy wants to be LeBron James and every other urban high school girl wants to be Kim Kardashian, celebrity, with its magical ability to do anything, is a much more compelling vision whether it is represented on the big screen by Superman or Napoleon.
The roster of narcissistic influencers who have never learned how to do anything except be famous makes celebrity seem empowering, but it’s actually disempowering. Accomplishment is democratized and merit isn’t a magical gift you’re born with: it’s one you work hard for. Potential isn’t entirely universal, but it’s much more so than celebrity culture would have you believe.
Cults of personality urge us not to try. They assure us that if we were going to be successful, we would have done it already. Famous people have innate gifts that we do not. And they succeed without having to work hard. That is the opposite of the actual message of Napoleon’s life. And that of the lives of many successful people, including celebrities, who worked hard to succeed.
But in a culture whose leftist politics have convinced much of the public of the general unfairness of life, cults of personality resonate much as they did in post-revolutionary France. Democracy appears to have failed and hard work seems futile in a social setup that leftists have indoctrinated people to believe is rigged against them. Why even bother trying?
A cult of personality offers the possibility of a savior who can do what we are convinced we cannot. And so many Americans wait for someone special to come along and save them.
But no human being can ultimately do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Biographies of famous historical figures used to offer inspiring and meaningful lessons, but Napoleon the movie is never more its lavish costumes and sets, the strained performances led by Joaquin Phoenix who in every movie is in can’t help playing an actor who’s trying too hard, and the theatrics of what a top-level historical drama should be, but without the content.
Why make a biopic of Napoleon or anyone else? The invariable answer is because they’re enormously famous and controversial enough to be debated, but not canceled. Fame is the only true narrative in Napoleon, not his fame, but the fame of an industry that is addicted to it, which trades in it as the only vital currency and whose obsession with fame has deranged our culture.
Cults of personality are a form of despair masquerading as glory. A people who become obsessed with them have given up. That is in some ways as true of America as it was of Napoleonic France. The real Napoleon complex is not the one he suffered from (he was actually 5’6) but that of nations who stop believing in themselves and embrace cults of personality.
We don’t need strongmen or superheroes to save us, we need to find our own strength.