Screen Grab from Napoleon Trailer

Sony Pictures Entertainment/Youtube

Debate about Napoleon’s morals arises after the trailer debuts

Will the movie glorify Napoleon's actions?


Michelle Jaworski

Internet Culture

Posted on Jul 11, 2023   Updated on Aug 16, 2023, 8:12 pm CDT

On Monday, Apple and Sony debuted their first trailer for Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, a biopic centered around Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) and Empress Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby). But amid the depiction of Napoleon’s rise and hints at his downfall on and off the battlefield is a debate about the possibility of the film whitewashing or romanticizing one of history’s most infamous rulers.

The trailer looks as though it spans several decades of Napoleon’s life, including scenes set during the Reign of Terror, his ascension to the French throne, and several battles he has either planned or taken part in, including one where he appears to best his enemies. 

Napoleon shows us the ruler’s life on an epic scale. While we’ve only seen a couple of minutes of footage so far, there is some fear that a new delve into Napoleon’s life might gloss over some of the more egregious parts of his legacy—his tyrannical reign, the careless disregard for his soldiers’ lives, and reestablishing slavery in France, to name a few—to portray him as an upstart kind of hero who rose to prominence in a country riddled with turmoil. And a movie epic like Napoleon could fuel the propaganda spin of making someone monstrous look cool.

“Napoleon Bonaparte was a TERRIBLE PERSON,” historian David Andress tweeted. “He was a TYRANT. He betrayed every ideal he ever claimed to stand for. He was a shameless pathological liar who killed millions of people for his own insatiable vanity. He is literally one of the worst people in history.”

Will Napoleon tackle the more unsavory parts of his life? From what little we can tell (and most of what we have to go on is the trailer and Sony and Apple’s marketing), it likely will to some extent. On Apple TV+’s landing page for the film, it’s described as a “personal look at the French military leader’s origins and swift, ruthless climb to emperor.” Sony’s tweet debuting the film’s first poster labels him a “tyrant,” among other things.

But right now, anything else about how much, if at all, the movie will glorify Napoleon is speculation. And while Hollywood has whitewashed stories about powerful men before, Andress’ tweet is getting ratioed for applying modern-day morality arguments to seemingly condemn the newfound focus on Napoleon with Film Twitter (some of whom are thrilled about getting a new Scott movie) poking fun at the notion.

It hits a similar vein to the ongoing discussion about Oppenheimer’s morals. Depicting something isn’t an endorsement of the thing, and making a movie about men in history whose actions led to the deaths of countless people doesn’t mean the filmmakers support those actions.

And it’s not even the first Ridley Scott movie to be prejudged for what early marketing showed us: The Last Duel faced controversy for the focus of its true story (and for the people who were telling it). But the execution was much more nuanced than marketing or controversy suggested.

Andress’ tweet also launched a copypasta meme as people used it to denounce fictional villains as tyrants. (With the recent release of the first Wonka trailer, Willy Wonka was the subject of many of those iterations.) 

Napoleon will arrive in theaters on November 22 and be available to stream on Apple TV+ at a later date.

We crawl the web so you don’t have to.
Sign up for the Daily Dot newsletter to get the best and worst of the internet in your inbox every day.
Share this article
*First Published: Jul 11, 2023, 6:30 pm CDT