Joaquin Phoenix’s Napoleon could well be Ridley Scott’s biggest triumph since Gladiator

So it sounds as if there will be plenty for Phoenix to work with: his Napoleon should be nothing if not complex. That alone will make him very different from many of the better-known depictions of Napoleon in cinema over the years – perhaps thanks to Gillray, he’s often been a gag character in English-language productions, from James Tolkan’s frisky portrayal in Woody Allen’s Love and Death, to Ian Holm’s cantankerous take in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits and Terry Camilleri visiting a water park and going ten-pin bowling in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Before moving into motion pictures, the Marx Brothers wove Napoleon into their 1924 Broadway revue; naturally, the part was played by Groucho, who offered such updates on his military progress as “The Russians are in full retreat, and I’m right in front of them.”

There has been grit and gravitas too, though: Marlon Brando played Napoleon in Désirée, as did Herbert Lom in The Young Mr Pitt, and Rod Steiger in Waterloo. Interestingly, this very French historical figure been played on film by non-French actors twice as often as he has by a fellow countryman, which suggests he inspires a level of cross-cultural fascination that, say, Winston Churchill or General George S Patton do not. For their part, the French don’t seem too protective of him – but then, they got to him first.

In 1897, he was the subject of an early Lumière brothers short – and, 30 years later, there was Abel Gance’s five-and-a-half-hour-long Napoleon, one of the great silent epics. In the early 1960s, Stanley Kubrick began planning his own Napoleonic blowout, writing a 150-page screenplay and compiling his own casting wish list, including Audrey Hepburn as Joséphine, the protagonist’s famously unfaithful empress. For Napoleon himself, he initially wanted David Hemmings, before considering Oskar Werner, Robert Shaw, and later Jack Nicholson.

The Kubrick project foundered as its projected budget ballooned all the way to $5.2 million – an unheard-of sum to sink into a film at the time, though Kubrick’s own production notes suggest it would have been spectacularly spent. He set aside 30 of the 150 proposed shooting days for battles and marches alone, had opened talks with the Romanian army with a view to enlisting 50,000 soldiers as extras, and planned to film in palaces and villas around France, Italy and Sweden. 

“It has everything a good story should have,” Kubrick wrote. “A towering hero, powerful enemies, armed combat, a tragic love story, loyal and treacherous friends, and plenty of bravery, cruelty and sex.”

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