Ridley Scott’s Napoleon: Accidentally a Comedy?: It’s a portrayal so undignified that I almost expected ABBA’s “Waterloo” to play over the credits. (David Klion, November 20, 2023, New Republic)

But then there are the dialogue and the performances, above all Phoenix’s, which suggest a different genre altogether: high camp. At the critics’ screening I attended, there were regular snickers at a film that isn’t being marketed as a comedy—and yet I suspect that laughter is the reaction Scott is going for. Napoleon doesn’t make a lot of historical arguments, but it does have a perspective on its title character: It sees him not as a genius or a modernizer or a meritocrat, but as an arrogant, vain, bratty, ultimately pitiful little autocrat whose zeal for greatness cost far too many men their lives.

Perhaps this is the perspective that Scott, an 85-year-old Englishman, learned in school; certainly the script (written by David Scarpa, who previously collaborated with Scott on All the Money in the World) seems to have more respect for the Duke of Wellington, the Anglo-Irish aristocrat who handed Bonaparte his final defeat, than it does for Bonaparte himself. Wellington, played by Rupert Everett, describes Bonaparte as ill-mannered “vermin” ahead of the Battle of Waterloo, and by that point the audience has every reason to agree, having watched Phoenix bumble his way through dozens of awkward and embarrassing set pieces.

Much of the awkwardness centers around Bonaparte’s relationship to Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), which provides most of the script’s dramatic heft. It’s no exaggeration to say that the film presents Josephine’s genitalia as the driver of a whole era of world history (10 minutes in, Kirby channels Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, and from then on Bonaparte is under her spell). Phoenix’s Bonaparte is motivated entirely by overcompensation for sexual inadequacy, which is neither creative nor persuasive, but at least it scans in the context of the film. It’s far less clear what motivates Josephine—status? love? lust? money?—but she does make for a plausible object of desire, a haughty dominatrix who cuckolds Bonaparte into invading most of Europe.

Rather than Abba, the soundtrack should be Benny Hill. But the big problem is that when Mr. Scott realized he’d accidentally made a comedy he didn’t go all in on the slapstick. Instead of snickering at what he’s put on the screen we could be guffawing along with him.


A Great Film That Wasn’t: Master and Commander: Far Side of the World is slavish to reality in trivialities, and pure fantasy in much greater, more complicated matters. (Peter Hitchens, Nov 14, 2023, American Conservative)

But my deeper objection is to a grave and mistaken attempt to alter a major element of the books. The title of the 2003 film is Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. And The Far Side of the World is the title of a book to which a lot of the film is closely related—except for one thing. It pits Aubrey in a conflict with the United States Navy, which is harrying British whalers. This important moment in British and American Naval History is also dealt with in an earlier book, The Fortune of War, in which Aubrey takes a slight role in the great 1813 duel off Boston between the USS Chesapeake and HMS Shannon.

These two ships, beautiful, evenly-matched, both with brave and chivalrous captains, fought briefly and savagely and the Americans lost. The War of 1812 might easily have been the first of many between America and Englnd. The soppy view of permanent Anglo-American brotherhood is entirely wrong, ignoring as it does Washington’s stinging fury when Britain built commerce raiders for the Confederacy, and their growing naval rivalry before and after the 1914–18 war. During a voyage to London in December 1918, Woodrow Wilson told his aides that if Britain did not come to terms over sea power, America would “build the biggest Navy in the world, matching theirs and exceeding it…and if they would not limit it, there would come another and more terrible and bloody war and England would be wiped off the face of the map.”

The historian Adam Tooze revealed recently that growing naval confrontation between these two supposed shoulder-to-shoulder eternal friends was so bitter that “by the end of March 1919 relations between the naval officers of the two sides had degenerated to such an extent that the admirals threatened war and had to be restrained from assaulting each other.” My father’s attitude towards the U.S. Navy was never especially generous (I used to wonder why) and he perhaps recalled the Suez crisis during which the then head of the USN, Admiral Arleigh Burke, discussed open warfare between the two nations with the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles.

There’s a strong spirit here of Bill Haydon’s rant at the end of Tinker, Tailor, where he explains to Smiley that he hates America because Britain exists only in its shadow.