Ridley Scott Napoleon is about to invade the global box office and install itself as the supreme leader for the next few weeks. Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby are already picking up awards season buzz for their portrayals of Napoleon and his wife Joséphine and there’s a chance Scott could score the long-denied Academy Award for Best Director.
But Napoleon Bonaparte has been a part of cinema for almost as long as there have been motion pictures, so let’s take a look back at these pictures and pick the ten best. And yes, Bill & Ted Excellent Adventure online game makes the cut.
Joaquin Phoenix – Napoleon (2023)
Let’s get the latest hot out of the way soon. Joaquin Phoenix has been absolutely rocking the wall with his recent performances and his Napoleon is no exception. While many reviews take issue with Scott’s historical accuracy, few find fault with Phoenix. Perhaps the best summary comes from it The Guardian‘ five star reviewwho ends by saying that Phoenix is the key to the film: “a performance as strong as the burgundy glass it knocks back: laughing, crying, crying and winning.”
Albert Dieudonné – Napoleon (1927)
Let’s go back almost a century to Abel Gance’s incredible silent epic starring Albert Dieudonné. Gance’s film shatters the notion that silent films are stuffy and dull with incredible camerawork, nifty effects, innovative use of montage, and a cast of hundreds.
But Dieudonné is at the heart of the film, delivering a truly committed Napoleon for many years of his life. Dieudonné was so pleased with his performance that, in accordance with his last wishes, when he died in 1976 he was buried in Napoleon’s costume. Now that’s commitment!
Dennis Hopper – The story of mankind (1957)
The story of mankind it covers many key moments in world history, although one real highlight is Dennis Hopper’s very early performance as Napoleon at the start of his career. Hopper would establish himself for his eccentric and intense performances in later years, and the specter of his future success can be seen in his ambitious Napoleon roaming Europe and describing his plans to become Emperor. We only wish we had gotten a full movie of this!
Ian Holm – Time Bandit (1981)
Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandit Thieves steals treasure from important events in the past, so no particular effort is made for historical accuracy. However, we have always loved The Lord of the Rings and Foreigner icon Ian Holm’s all-too-brief scenes as Napoleon, all presented in a dialect that somehow straddles realism and parody.
Holm would return to Napoleon in 2001 The Emperor’s New Clothesbut we prefer this strange take.
Marlon Brando – Désirée (1954)
Acting legend Marlon Brando donning the boots of Napoleon Bonaparte? How can you go wrong? Well, while Brando is predictable as Bonaparte (playing opposite Jean Simmons as Josephine), there’s a reason Désirée which is not generally included among the great Napoleon films. The first is that this is more of a romance film than a war film, and the second is that any subsequent Brando attention will focus on his next release that year, ie. On the Shore. But hey, Brando as Bonaparte? That can’t be denied!
James Tolkan – Love and Death (1975)
The jury may still be out on whether it’s okay to enjoy a Woody Allen film, although I’ve always liked 1975 Love and Death, which pokes fun at pompous adaptations of Russian literature. James Tolkan plays Napoleon, with Woody Allen’s character thinking he plans to assassinate him to spend time with his wife. Napoleon Tolkan is very broad, but still draws some very goofy chuckles.
Rod Steiger – Waterloo (1970)
Sergei Bondarchuk’s book Waterloo did not skimp when it came time to recreate the title battle. An additional 15,000 were hired for his Battle of Waterloo scene, all in authentic period costume, all recreating the battle as it actually was. This still holds the record for the highest number of on-screen costume releases and, since battles like this would now be almost entirely CGI, they’ll probably take that crown.
But even against those shows Rod Steiger’s Napoleon stands out by a mile. There’s some scenery chewing, but when you’re playing a guy who wants to conquer Europe that’s understandable.
Phillipe Torreton – Monsieur N (2003)
Everyone knows that Napoleon died on St. Helena. What do you think this film … maybe not? Monsieur N It is a very entertaining alt-history that explores how Napoleon could evade his captors and retire to a quiet life in Louisiana, going so far as to imagine him attending his own burial in Paris.
It’s a goofy story and Phillipe Torreton makes fun of Napoleon – and he rarely sees his later days in the confines of a movie. Torreton is assisted by his English nemesis played by Richard E. Grant, who always gets good value for money.
Mel Blanc – Napoleon Bunny – Part (1956)
Although not a movie per se, Napoleon Bunny – Part indeed it was shown in theatres. And hey, it’s Bugs Bunny vs. Napoleon, what more do you want? As you’d expect, this is a very funny caper where Napoleon plays the willing straight man against Bugs as he sabotages his plans.
There is – perhaps inevitably – a scene where Bugs crosses and pretends to be Josephine, and Napoleon is very pleased with his bunny-like lover. Voice acting titan Mel Blanc provides the voice for both Bugs and Napoleon and, well, it’s great.
Terry Camilleri – Bill & Ted Excellent Adventure online game (1989)
Although a film in which a time traveling Napoleon finds joy in bowling and water slides is not particularly educational, this was my first exposure to Napoleon Bonaparte and between the silly gags I learned I am quite about it. Camilleri’s most recognizable role remains Napoleon, although he has appeared in several television shows, most recently on Sermon. Even among the cinematic titans above we will always have a soft spot for them Bill & Ted Napoleon – aka “The short dead guy from our history review!”
Napoleon coming to theaters on November 22.
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