The History Book on the Shelf is Always Repeating Itself
Napoleon Bonaparte was the last great emperor. Many of us bear surprisingly little ill will against him. Maybe it’s because his rise from modest means appeals to our democratic impulses. Or perhaps we appreciate the precocious lil’ corporal’s life story, its plot points laid out like a pilgrim’s progress or the burn and crash cycle of our favorite celebrities. It’s a story based in fact but heavily burnished by fiction. And it was written by Napoleon himself. His last great maneuver was a best-selling memoir. He said, “There is no immortality but the memory that is left in the minds of men.”
Empires: Napoleon director David Grubin duly follows this “memory” from quelling the riots of Paris to marrying Josephine, his great success in the Italian campaign, European domination, Elba, Waterloo, then St. Helena. The documentary begins with Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of France in 1804, and returns to it two more times using the same language and imagery, laying heavy burden on the line, “Seizing the crown, he held it aloft, then brought it to rest on his own head.”
The coverage of these major events from political, social, and military perspectives is thorough and entertaining. The strategies, successes, and failures of his campaigns are clearly laid out with maps and reenactments, explained by European and American historians and colored in by historical accounts. The amount of care invested in even the most minor details is shown in a cut accompanying mini-documentary that tracks the shooting of low-budget reenactments in Europe. The only major obstacle to get over is David McCullough, the official voice of American history, narrating a documentary about Europe in his folksy drawl.
But what lies outside the demarcated lines of popular history? Most of the images we associate with Napoleon—the coronation, sitting on his Sun King throne, atop a white steed while crossing the Alps—are ridiculously heroic. One of Bonaparte’s early self-promotional coups was to order paintings depicting his conquests. To counter these images, which illuminate little more than early 19th century propaganda techniques, Grubin presents a satisfyingly unflattering array of earlier portraits, when Napoleon had long straggly hair and was a skinny, bilious youth. The pictures, more than the narrative descriptions, capture him as an ambitious and awkward social outcast at the military academy, when he was shunned by Parisian society.
The first awkward fumblings towards fame tend to be the most insightful portion of celebrity biographies. As Bonaparte is quoted as saying, “there is only one step between the sublime and the ridiculous.” Reversing this truism, his rapid ascent obliterated the wonkish nerd from his post-pubescent facade and with it some of the documentary’s pictorial insight. Any visible personality was also obliterated by the blossoming of one of history’s great super egos, which is adequately documented. He always spoke of his star of destiny; after his victory at Lido, he sounded like Ziggy Stardust, “Already I felt the Earth flee from beneath me, as if I were being carried into the sky.”
Napoleon had one major vulnerability during his first major military successes, and that was his desperate love for Josephine, a wife who didn’t love him back. Grubin weaves his relationship with her into the entire documentary—his touching clumsy letters, Josephine’s eventual acquiescence and sympathy for her husband, and his reluctant divorce when she could not produce an heir. (According to the documentary, he announces, “I’m looking to marry a womb.”) Their relationship, itself an essential part of the mythology, grounds Napoleon’s larger exploits in recognizable terms: a classical God with human imperfections.
If the documentary has a major flaw, it’s in the third of its four sections, titled “Summit of Greatness,” which covers Napoleon’s prime years as emperor and conqueror of Europe. Bonaparte’s influence during this time was so immense and far ranging that its implications can hardly be covered over an hour. So we get a little bit about his battles with Britain, Russia, and Spain and a little about his Civic Code and self-serving promotion of revolutionary ideals, without ever getting a multilayered sense of how he, according to the opening, “changed the world.” Despite the large amount of information presented, this section feels lifeless and flat, a series of rote happenings instead of a seamless integration of historical events. Napoleon, the man, disappears in the chaos of wars and societal upheavals. But the documentary recovers wonderfully for the closing section, when Napoleon’s needs and flaws resurface during his downfall.
Further contemplating his future legacy Napoleon announced, “History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon.” This documentary is hardly a collection of falsehoods, but it sticks to an established script. This makes a thorough yet standard PBS documentary, an excellent primer and learning tool. However, it falls short of venturing much past well-trod territory, failing to provide enough probing insight or illuminating evocation of time and place to make Napoleon seem much more than, as interviewed French historian Jean Tulard puts it, “a hand in a shirt… a strange hat.”
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article