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Guitry would have been very amused by some the comments posted here. It never was his intent to do an historically accurate movie. Anyone slightly familiar with his filmography knows the subtle derision he infused in all his storytelling. I found that movie very entertaining but I know, as some of my fellow commentators should too, that for factual accuracy one must look elsewhere. I too recommend his rendition of the highs and lows of the French monarchy in " Si Versailles m'était conté ".
These big budgets works-there were only a few in France of the fifties ,foreign users would be surprised if they were told that only a very small percentage of movies were shot in color - have all something in common: the main character,Napoleon or La Fayette is played by not-very-famous actors (Here Raymond Pellegrin,in Gance's "Austerlitz " (not to be mistaken for his silent movie of 1927),it's Pierre Mondy ,and in Dreville's "La Fayette" ,it's Michel Le Royer,whereas the supporting cast includes all the who's who of the FRench cinema (not only ,Orson Welles shows up from time to time).
For instance,in "Napoleon" there are plenty of stars:Michèle Morgan ,Danielle Darrieux,Jean-Pierre Aumont,Henri Vidal,Jean Gabin,Michel Simon,Jean Marais,Serge Reggiani,Pierre Brasseur,Daniel Gélin (as a young long-haired Napo) etc etc etc
The film when you watch it in FRench is obviously desperately in need of humor,Guitry's forte.It looks like a beautiful pictures book which could be summarized as "Napoleon was a great man.Period".The less glorious episodes are almost passed over in silence ,like the Trafalgar disaster or the Russian retreat.Only Montand's song and Lannes ,now a legless cripple,pointing to the ambulance full of dying men and screaming "Enough!" have some emotional power.
The crowning in Notre Dame is botched (Abel Gance found a better treatment of that scene in his own "Austerlitz ")
Get the follow -up "Si Paris M'Etait Conté" instead !This was to be Guitry's testament
The French version of the film actually has some continuity lacking in the English version. But most people in the U.S. have seen (if they have seen it at all) the English version. It is best known because of the cameo appearances, in particular of Orson Welles as General Hudson Lowe (who? - he's the British official who was appointed to be the jailer of Napoleon on St. Helena, but who managed to botch his assignment) and Eric Von Stroheim (very briefly) as Beethoven. Guitry, a talented boulevardier type, essayed the role of Talleyrand. None are shown to great advantage.
It is set (apparently) in 1821, with Guitry in his Paris salon, talking to his intellectual friends, upon hearing the death of his former master. To be truthful, knowing Talleyrand, he would have said a word or two about Napoleon but then turned to more interesting current matters. The film does not go into the collapse of the relationship between the great Emperor and his gifted Foreign Secretary. Talleyrand was noted for his selfish ability to destroy a government that was no longer benefiting him, and then reappear in a more powerful position in the next regime. He helped destroy about seven of them, including Napoleon's. Historians have despised his selfishness, but they have usually praised him for knowing when to ditch the Emperor (Talleyrand was wary of the constant warfare, which the Emperor did not seem to know when to stop - he seemed to be using war to cover previous failures of policy, and to build up his remarkable reputation). The final blow was when Napoleon discovered that Talleyrand had been contacting Metternich and other foreign adversaries about undercutting Napoleon's diplomatic forays. In front of the whole court Napoleon cursed out Talleyrand, calling him a silk stocking full of "merde". He then left the court with his chief courtiers. Talleyrand watched thoughtfully, and said, "How sad that such a great man is so vulgar!" He redoubled his activities, assisted by his rival and foe (usually, but not here) Joseph Fouche, the head of the secret police. In 1814-15 they beat Napoleon at last.
None of this is in the movie (at least the English version) that we see. Talleyrand is very philosophical, telling the story of the rise, fall, and rise of Napoleon and his legend. But in cramming the events from 1785 to 1821 we get a too rapid outline. The film though does even more than this. Talleyrand tells of how Napoleon's remains are returned to France for burial in Les Invalides (his magnificent tomb in Paris). But this happened in 1840, ordered by King Louis Philippe for popularity reasons. Only problem is that Talleyrand was dead by 1838.
Since Welles is in the film for about two minutes, I might as well discuss this. In 1955 he was filming CONFIDENTAL REPORT (a.k.a. MR. ARKADIN), and (like OTHELLO) he was partly paying for it himself. So Welles was willing to appear in many films (especially in France) in bit cameo roles. His part is that of Lowe, who was a mediocre military figure who got the job as a last choice (the first choice, the Duke of Wellington, felt he and Bonaparte could never share an island together). Lowe was introduced to Bonaparte in the latter's residence of Longwood, and Bonaparte was polite like a host. But Lowe just glowered at him (as Welles does here). Bonaparte, quickly judging the idiot that he was stuck with, put his own hat on to show his contempt. It never improved, but we only see this scene.
After Bonaparte died, his aides wanted a suitable tomb for him, but every time they presented a statement for the tombstone (General of the Armies, Emperor of France), Lowe turned down the recommendation. In disgust, they suggested a blank tombstone. Stupidly, Lowe agreed (as a surprised Welles does). Lowe never realized how truly eloquent the empty tombstone was - loyal Bonapartists from around the globe would know at that tombstone that no words could describe the giant who was under it adequately. Napoleon really did not need Les Invalides, but the French wanted to do it properly.
The film is a total waste as a decent historical chronicle. Catch the 1927 Abel Gance classic, or CONQUEST or even DESIREE (even though it is a wretched film in it's own right - at least it gives the viewer some idea of how Sweden's modern royal family came into power). Catch the Armand Assante two part television movie about Napoleon and Josephine. But, unless you want to see all of Orson Welles or Eric Von Stroheim's performances, ignore this one. For Orson and Eric I give this a three.
I start off by saying it is incredibly boring; practically unbearable. Second, cramming Napoleon's life into such a short time frame is ludicrous; that's a job for Kubrick.
Now, most people don't like to nitpick, but I do, and these things not only make for a bad historical film, but just a bad film in general.
1. Too much reliance on narration; almost no speaking lines.
2. Toulon taking place on a bright sunny day? 3. Napoleon's 1790's uniform looks like it was made by a 4th grader's mother.
4. "Whiff of grapeshot" taking place on a bright sunny day? 5. Tell me the point of the garden dancing scene.
6. Napoleon's charge at the Bridge of Arcole mysteriously morphs into a painting.
7. Napoleon's Egyptian servant was a black man in a Santa Clause costume? 8. To transition from the young looking Napoleon to the older Napoleon, the director uses a "new haircut" scene, in which he just switches the actors. Tell me that isn't clever film-making! 9. The mighty Battle of Austerlitz in interrupted by a giant green laser. I'm not kidding.
10. The helmets of the Imperial Guard troops are about three times as large as they should be. You cannot look at them without laughing.
11. During a battle with Austria, an Austrian grenadier randomly decides to do an awe-inspiring front flip while charging down a hill. Bravo.
12. The spectacle of Moscow burning is obviously a model set up 3 feet from the window set piece.
13. Waterloo was pathetic. Napoleon had one poorly dubbed line in the entire scene. A British soldiers gets smacked in the face with a cherry bomb. The Old Guard sings. The suspense of whether it was French or Prussian reinforcements lasts about half of a second. French and British troops charge each other, reach each other, and then stand there.
14. Orson Welle's "me not talk-talk" acting technique makes him look like Frankenstein in a British uniform.
15. Napoleon returns as a zombie at the end of the film.
16. The "The End" title card looks like it was borrowed from "West Side Story".
This film is good to laugh at, but as far as a Napoleonic film goes, or a film in general, it is by no means worth your time. Avoid it like the plague. Try Abel Gance's "Napoleon" or perhaps "Waterloo".
Consequently I think that this would be a very good movie to show to adolescents and young adults, as a first introduction to the life of Napoleon and to French history between, say, 1770 and 1830. These were, of course, exceedingly dangerous and exciting times, with France careening wildly between the extreme right and the extreme left while going through a dazzling array of regimes and constitutions.
The casting and acting are good and the production values are high. Sadly, the characters (and hence the performances) tend to be pretty one-note. Napoleon, for instance, is nearly always pictured as brave, resolute, sombre and ambitious. Still, it is a pretty safe bet that the man, during his stay on this earth, must have spent at least some time picking apples, stroking puppies or recovering from a hangover. Beautiful Josephine, his first wife, is feminine to the extreme - think charm, frivolity, sentiment - but again, one can safely assume that somewhere during her lifetime the real Josephine filed a tax return, solved a mathematical problem or kicked an attacker in the groin. Indeed, the simple fact that the real-life Josephine survived the French Revolution and its immediate aftermath indicates a high intelligence, a considerable degree of political insight and an excellent survival instinct.
To return to the movie : the various battles and campaigns seemed pretty realistic to me, although I've got to add that I'm no expert on Napoleonic warfare. It's entirely possible that military historians or historical reenactors will spend much of the movie's considerable duration screaming : "No ! Every child knows that a 'sapeur des grenadiers en grande tenue' wore his coat ON THE LEFT SHOULDER ONLY !" However, the list of battles and campaigns contained some interesting omissions. For instance, the disastrous retreat from Russia, which caused so much death and suffering, disappeared almost completely. Were these scenes omitted because they were too difficult or expensive to shoot ? Or were they judged too depressing ? Or too humiliating for France, mother of all sciences and fountain of all skills ?
If you would like to know more about Napoleon (the man, the times, the myth) and if you are able to read Dutch, there exists a fine book by historian Jacques Presser, which I warmly recommend. It's an interesting work which acknowledges Napoleon's genius and bravery, but does not shy away from examining his less desirable traits such as greed, vindictiveness and pettiness. The other members of Napoleon's family get the same treatment, resulting in a darkly entertaining portrayal of something that feels like an unusually successful Mafia clan. As a portrayal it's far more dark, varied and profound than the portrayal shown in the movie. Presser's book also contains episodes of surreal weirdness, such as the episode where Napoleon names his own illiterate mother Secretary of State for Female Education.
Professor Presser also pointed out that Napoleon, who was obsessed with his public image, liked to stage scenes which were supposed to turn him into a glorious exemple for the ages. (In other words, Napoleon was a man who did not only live his life, but also embellished, staged and edited it.) Again, this is a level of critical analysis you won't find in the movie, or only rarely.
Aah, well, you know what they say. "When in doubt, print the legend"...