“If you wish to be a success in the world, promise everything, and deliver nothing.” It sounds like something Donald Trump might say. But, no, it was Napoleon Bonaparte. And, just like with other charismatic world leaders – your Hitlers, Caesars and Trumps – it’s hard not to be fascinated by Napoleon. A revolutionary soldier with revolutionary ideas, Napoleon conquered Europe in a devastating manner while also ushering in many progressive economic, religious and educational reforms.
Despite meeting his Waterloo just over 200 years ago, he still permeates culture on many levels – everything from psychological complexes dealing with height and delusions of grandeur to Russian cakes to Boogeyman nursery rhymes, and pop songs from Coldplay, Dire Straits and ABBA.
So you won’t be surprised to learn that Napoléon, starring Gerard Depardieu, John Malkovich, Christian Clavier and Isabella Rossellini, is one of the most expensive European productions ever. And so it should be. The scale of the story is epic – let’s remember, the Napoleonic wars lasted nearly two decades, millions perished and Europe (and beyond) was ravaged from Lisbon and Egypt to Austria and Moscow.
The behind-the-scenes political machinations were just as Shakespearian. Then, there is the torrid fashion that "Bony" conducted his romantic affairs.
For those intrigued by France’s grand European empire and the mindset of an ambitious revolutionary dictator, here’s what you need to know...
Did Napoleon suffer from small man syndrome or was it all a tall tale?
The word is that "Little" Napoleon wasn’t so miniscule. Originally listed as 5’2”, Napoleon’s height was being measured in French units. In modern international units, he was 5’6” (168 cm), taller than the average Frenchman of the time, and the same height as Winston Churchill, Admiral Nelson, Phil Collins and Daniel Radcliffe. Incredibly, the actor portraying Napoleon, Christian Clavier, is also listed as 168 cm. So this tale of seeking power, war and conquest is set to scale.
Not tonight, Josephine’s busy
Apparently Napoleon’s famous phrase, “Not tonight, Josephine,” actually came from the title of a 1915 song popularized by the music-hall actress Florrie Forde. Napoleon and his first wife, the Empress Josephine, are renowned as one of the great European love stories but, as the phrase implies, it wasn’t all beer and skittles in the boudoir. Napoleon is often depicted as besotted whereas Josephine definitely wasn’t. Neither was particularly faithful. She entertained other suitors while her husband was in the field of war. He conducted numerous affairs, too.
In Napoléon, Isabella Rossellini stars as Josephine while Anouk Aimée plays Napoleon’s mother, who doesn’t exactly approve of her son’s choice of paramour. “I don’t want that woman coming between us,” she warns. “I wish you had never mentioned her.”
There’s plenty of plotting in the Parisian passages of power
French diplomat Charles Talleyrand has been a central figure in a number of takes on Napoleon’s story. This time around, it’s John Malkovich who portrays the conniving and cynical politician. And his face just screams machinations. Malkovich was subsequently nominated for an Emmy for the role.
Napoleon loves a Parma
It’s Charles Talleyrand who sowed the seeds of Josephine’s downfall and pointed Napoleon to the advantages of squiring Austria’s Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma, to help produce an heir. “Who will, no doubt, speak French with a terrible accent,” spits an unimpressed Napoleon. “France has already had an Austrian woman, Marie Antoinette. You can’t build a future on bad memories.” But, of course, that’s before "The Little Corporal" had seen Marie Louise – here played by Mavie Hörbiger – in the flesh.
And you must contend with Gerard Depardieu: the nose that knows
Clive James recently wrote that Gerard Depardieu’s nose “once looked like a pair of lorries parked side by side, but now the lorries are the size of trains”. Depardieu’s nose is on full display as he plays the role of Joseph Fouché, the conniving and cynical chief of the secret police.
Keep in mind, the "Nightmare of Europe" REALLY hated cats
Camels, yes. Cats, no. One tale that has taken hold of the public imagination – now disputed – is that Napoleon suffered from ailurophobia or a fear of cats. It was apparently a trait he shares with Hitler, Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. Is there a pattern forming?
And he always exhibited a genius for carnage
Napoleon is hailed as history’s great military genius – an innovative tactician and strategist ahead of his times. He fought 60 battles and lost only seven, mostly at the end of his career.
In Napoléon, grand battles like his stunning victory against the Russians at Austerlitz and ultimate defeat by the Brits (and others) at Waterloo are savagely depicted. You get a whiff of the grapeshot; sense the fear and the carnage. You can certainly feel the rifle balls as they rip at skin and bone. “Victory is not always winning every battle,” Napoleon says, “but rising when you fall.”
The entire Napoléon series is streaming now on SBS On Demand: