In times of misery, people turn to that which can deliver them. And during the French Revolution, there’s a whole lot of misery going around.
Plenty of people are just trying to save their necks from Maximilien Robespierre’s guillotine—including Robespierre himself. Riots plague the streets like Bubonic rats. And France’s enemies threaten war all the more. The chaos demands a stable hand to commandeer the helm—a helm that Brig. Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte feels is well suited for him.
To be sure, Napoleon has the track record and the fame to back his resume up: The general’s victories speak for themselves, and the cheers he receives upon returning to France are like those of … royalty.
So, after routing enemies in France and Egypt, why shouldn’t Napoleon join a coup attempt to rout the French Directory and make himself First Consul of France?
And that’s all well and good by Napoleon. But the Austrians, British and Russians are a constant thorn in France’s side, one that needs a powerful hand to pluck out and discard—like, perhaps, Napoleon. Hmm…Emperor Bonaparte does sound nice.
But despite all his victories, there is one place where Napoleon feels defeated again and again: in his marriage to his wife, Josephine. While the two proclaim their undying love to each other, they also engage in affairs. And even if they were as much in love as they claimed, that doesn’t change the bigger issue: Emperors need heirs to guarantee stability—and Napoleon hasn’t been able to conceive a child with Josephine.
For now, France has an unsteady stability with Napoleon in charge. But as his marriage begins to crumble under political and emotional stresses, so, too, does his country.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Napoleon is the danger of insatiable greed and pride. For every bit of power and success Napoleon obtains, it does not satisfy him; he desires more and more. He’s scarcely happy, and his pursuit of glory eventually culminates in the loss of nearly everything.
Likewise, the film also shows the dangers of the mob mentality. Napoleon’s rise to power is filled with coups, threats and charismatic speeches that influence many to fall in line and support him. And even when some French officials try to hold Napoleon accountable for wrongdoings or for his attempts to seize power, they’re essentially silenced by Napoleon and the literal army of supporters that follow him. It’s not until Napoleon suffers horrible defeat in Russia that officials gain enough power and support to hold him accountable.
Catholic clergy lead Napoleon’s coronation before he takes the crown for himself. Napoleon speaks occasionally of destiny bringing him to where he is. He likewise refers to being placed where he is by “Providence.”
We hear about someone who received last rites before death. Nuns released from prison lift their hands to God in praise. An Egyptian general yells that “Allah has given us this day” before battle.
Napoleon and Josephine have many sexual encounters. We see them having sex on a couple of occasions, though nothing explicit is visible. Another moment shows Napoleon crawling under a dining table’s tablecloth to have public sex with Josephine. And in another instance, Napoleon begs Josephine for sex. During one encounter, Josephine spreads her dress open so Napoleon can see her genitals (hidden from the camera’s view).
Josephine has an onscreen affair with another man. We see his bare backside, and her breast is partially exposed. When Napoleon learns of this, he is devastated, though he also reveals that he’s had affairs, too. Later, Napoleon is told to have sex with an 18-year-old woman to determine if he or Josephine is infertile, and he does.
Women wear dresses and corsets that accentuate cleavage. Using a prop of Marie Antoinette’s head, a man in a play pretends to use the prop to pleasure himself. Another man in the play is dressed to look like a woman.
Violence can get pretty intense at times, reaching levels similar to gruesome wartime images in films like Saving Private Ryan.
To catalog all of the people who are shot, stabbed or blown up in battle would take a long time. But suffice to say that many people meet grisly and bloody ends in those ways.
Some people lose limbs and desperately attempt to crawl away from battle. Others simply vanish after being hit by cannonballs. Men are thrown to their deaths. Others burn to death. An army marching on ice falls into freezing water and drowns. A horse takes a cannonball to the chest, and we see its organs spill out as its entire front half is obliterated. Revolting peasants are decimated by grapeshot. Someone is fiercely beaten, and another man is trampled.
The opening scene shows the execution of Marie Antoinette. She is decapitated by a guillotine. Her severed head is lifted up for all to see, blood and sinews dripping from the neck. Later, Maximilien Robespierre shoots himself in the jaw to avoid the guillotine, but he misses, leaving only a nasty wound, which an assailant sticks his finger into. He’s later sent to the guillotine offscreen.
Bodies are seen strung up in trees. A horse carcass is cut up for meat, and what looks to be a man’s body is found frozen to death. Moscow is burned down. A woman dies of an illness. A man slaps a woman.
The f-word is used four times. The s-word is used once. We also hear one use of “p-ss” and “slut.” God’s name is used in vain once. Jesus’ name is used in vain once.
People drink alcohol. Someone smokes a cigar.
It is difficult to truly deduce whether Napoleon and Josephine loved each other. On one hand, their letters gush with the passion of two people who are madly in love with one another. But their actions and the way they treat each other often bears painful witness to emotional abuse and a deeply broken relationship.
The jagged edges of their brokenness show up in many ways. The two of them use abusive language with one another. Napoleon tells Josephine that she is nothing without him. She insults his eating habits, calling him fat. Meanwhile, Napoleon criticizes her frequently for not being able to give birth to an heir, and he resolves to divorce her in order to have a child with someone who can (though the two seem upset about the circumstances).
When discussing getting married to someone, a man tells Napoleon that the girl in question is only 15 years old, to which Napoleon replies is just “a detail.”
Napoleon is often prideful and emotional.
Though unconfirmed, many claim that Napoleon Bonaparte’s last words were as follows:
“France … Army … Josephine.”
And director Ridley Scott’s historical epic does indeed center upon these three themes.
Half of his film devotes its time to Napoleon’s rise to power and a few of the battles into which Napoleon guided his men. To that end, we see battlefields stained red and the streets of Paris smeared the same color.
The other half of the film shows another kind of battlefield, the one found in the marriage of Napoleon and Josephine. Through countless letters, the two profess love for each other. But it’s painfully apparent that those statements are in stark contrast with the broken relationship they truly have.
And though actors Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby put on powerful performances in this compelling portrait of French history, both of the story’s primary battlefields have their own content issues. Napoleon’s skirmishes are rife with gory deaths. And back home, viewers will be in the bedroom for intimate moments between Napoleon and Josephine (as well as Josephine and another man). There’s a bit of language to contend with, too.
In terms of viscerally violent imagery, Napoleon joins the ranks of Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge in severity. And while all three of these wartime movies tell compelling stories that will certainly attract viewers, Napoleon, especially, deserves to be approached with a great deal of careful consideration.
Kennedy Unthank studied journalism at the University of Missouri. He knew he wanted to write for a living when he won a contest for “best fantasy story” while in the 4th grade. What he didn’t know at the time, however, was that he was the only person to submit a story. Regardless, the seed was planted. Kennedy collects and plays board games in his free time, and he loves to talk about biblical apologetics. He doesn’t think the ending of Lost was “that bad.”