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290: Napoleon with Alexander Mikaberidze

Alexander Mikaberidze is a historian and professor at Louisiana State University who specializes in Napoleonic studies. Today he’ll join the podcast to dig deep into the historical accuracy of 2023’s Napoleon.

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

Dan LeFebvre: I know this is a movie that we’ve both anticipated for quite some time. But before we dig into some of the details, Let’s just start with an overview. If you were to give Ridley Scott’s Napoleon a letter grade for its historical accuracy, what would it get?

[00:00:15] Alexander Mikaberidze: F. No, maybe D minus. I don’t know. Somewhere between F and D.

There is enough, just enough…I think I would give him F for battle scenes. And I think C for some other scenes that do convey the historical. Maybe in general outlook convey the historical events, but then make changes as Ridley Scott was going along the way.

[00:00:45] Dan LeFebvre: And we’ll get into some of those details. As the movie starts off in 1789 in France, and it tells us that people are driven to revolution by misery, and then they’re brought back to misery by the revolution. Talks about food shortages and economic depression, driving anti royalists to send King Louis the 16th and 11, 000 of his supporters to a violent end. And then after that, the French people set their sights on the last queen of France, Marie Antoinette. And we see in the movie, the beheading of Marie Antoinette before public audience, who just cheers at her death. Do you think the movie did a good job setting up the way things were at the beginning of the French revolution in 1789?

[00:01:24] Alexander Mikaberidze: I think that scene actually is among the the better ones in the movie. I think he does convey the. The drama, the tragedy of the French Revolution, I wish Scott simply had maybe stayed a little bit closer to actual events because that would have underscored really the dramatic side of it.

For example, that scene where Marie Antoinette at the beginning of the movie is huddling her kids and she has this wonderful, beautiful hair, right? In, in actual history, that hair was shorn. It was cut off. She was taken to the guillotine with this kind of shaved off head. And I think in the movie, she still has the beautiful hair.

If he had actually shown what happened, it would have underscored the profound fall that this woman experienced from being at the top of the world to being to, to being this ridiculed acute, mistreated, humiliated. And tragically the person but by October of 1793, when she’s executed.

And then of course the scene itself is set in what looks like a backyard of some Persian residents when of course in actuality all of this was state or the executions were taking place in a massive square, right? One of the key areas in Paris, which we still can visit Place de la Concorde.

Where, if your listeners are ever in Paris and to visit that place and see where the Egyptian obelisk stands back in 1793, that’s where the guillotine stood and that’s where the queen was executed. So I think the scale of it is also missing. But overall, I think the emotional side is conveyed in that particular scene.

I think Ridley Scott has a problem overall with the with the dealing with the history of both Napoleon and revolution in that he dumbs it down too much, simplifies it too much. And so we are then after this dramatic scene of a queen’s execution, we are then thrown shown a effectively caricature, a lampoon version of revolutionary debates or revolutionary discourse that was taking place there.

We see Roby Spear that is gonna combine image of Rob Spear and Danton. He looks absolutely nothing like Joe Rob Spear. And of course the debates that Wrigley, Cortana shows us, they, in many respect are torn out of the context. And so by the, if in effect the, I think the viewer doesn’t get a sense of the magnitude, the importance, the transformative nature of revolution.

Instead, what we see. It’s a bunch of radicals running around and behaving people.

[00:03:55] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah, I could see how that’s, that, that’s a challenge. ’cause that could be a movie in an all in and in of itself outside of Napoleon. And so trying to capture Napoleon as I was watching that, those. The scene with Marie Antoinette’s beheading, we see Napoleon there, do we know if he was actually there?

I got the impression the movie’s trying to tie him into this historical event to show him because it is a movie called Napoleon.

[00:04:18] Alexander Mikaberidze: That’s right. And we do know, again, that’s one of the issues is that Napoleon is among the most documented historical figures. So we can retrace him throughout his life.

Down to effectively now, so that, that degree can come to, so this whole little Ridley Scott’s famous where are you there? How do you know? If you look what, how historians actually work and what the job of historian is, what the profession, the field of history is about, that we’re not simply inventing stuff, right?

We’re following the evidence and the evidence tells us that Napoleon was not in Paris in October of 1793. And that he was in the south of France but having said that, I’m fine, see, this is the thing, is that I’m fine with movie film directors, artists, writers taking artistic liberty with those kind of things in order to emphasize the drama, as you pointed out, I think setting Napoleon there, Is it cool?

Is it is actually a nice way of opening the movie because we know that Napoleon was at a different event. He was present in the storming of the Royal Palace in August of 1792 which was a violent event, much more violent than this we’re talking about. A massacre of Swiss guards and the fall of monarchy.

So it’s much more dramatic and a bigger scale. And we know that Napoleon was very critical of how the king’s government essentially how the state responded to this. And so he was dismissive of this rabble that he looked upon. And I think that scene where Ridley Scott shows him President and he condescendingly, in some respects, looks at this rabble that Napoleon I think it works for me.

It just it didn’t happen.

[00:06:00] Dan LeFebvre: Creative license, as they say. The first battle that we see in the movie is at Toulon and Napoleon he’s a captain there, according to the movies, in charge of taking the town. Although The movie says it’s not really a town. Napoleon in the movie calls it a port.

He says there’s 2, 000 English soldiers there, the British Navy controls the harbor, and it’s trapping half of the French fleet. If the French lose those ships, then the entire Republic will fall, so it seems like a big deal to take that. And then we see the battle on December 16, 1793, according to the movie, when Napoleon’s men take the fort first, then they turn the cannons on the British ships in the harbor.

After the victory, Napoleon is promoted from captain to brigadier general. Is that a pretty good depiction of what happened at TU Long?

[00:06:43] Alexander Mikaberidze: Again I, in general terms I think yes. So it’s a very simplified narrative. It makes kinda, and I understandably, because you have only, Ridley’s Scott only has what about two and a half hours to fit all of this events.

And I think broadly, as you’ll see, as we’ll, discuss the movie, you’ll see the time. And again I’ll point out that I think. The movie’s key fundamental problem is that it tries to cover too much in a very short period of time, and therefore it has to quickly throw a viewer into historical scenery without providing the sufficient historical context.

And so here in Turon, it’s actually a very interesting historical event because It is not necessarily the royalists who are rebelling in the city against the revolution. It is not simply the British who are taking over the city, but rather it’s the moderate revolutionaries who are resisting the radical revolutionaries in what is known as the Federalist Revolt who in August of 1793 concerned that a revolution was getting too radical, they decide to defy the power, the authority of Paris.

And so in, in Toulon, in other cities, more moderate revolutionaries come to power and not listening to the central government in Paris. But the problem they, these moderate revolutionaries have is that they don’t have enough force, manpower. And so when the central government responds by sending troops, these moderates have to find some protection.

And in Toulon, they made, I think, the worst of the decisions that they could have made, and that is they invited a foreign power. In fact, foreign powers. What the movie doesn’t show is that it’s actually Anglo Spanish expedition that comes to Toulon, takes over the city, and that decision is absolutely politically disastrous for the, for this modern revolution, because it portrays them as traitors to the nation.

of all the nations to surrender your fleet, British, right? If you’re French, you’re going to give it to the British. And and the movie is correct in terms of underscoring the importance of it, right? Here in, in Toulon, we have one of the largest naval bases that France has, and indeed the sub substance, substantial kind of portion of its fleet, or almost all of its Mediterranean fleet.

Was anchored here. So the loss of that the loss of that fleet would have caused significant damage to the French naval power. Not that maybe it necessarily precipitated the fall of the Republic, but certainly would have been disastrous. And that’s why the the Parisian this radical revolutionary government is so keen on recapturing Too long.

And I love the fact that see, this is where Ridley Scott sometimes pays attention to small things and it gets them right and then screws up the bigger picture. So he was right. It’s correct that when, when Barra commissioner, who is by the way, never identified as such, right? We don’t really know what Paul Barra, who plays such an important role in his life and is shown in the movie, but what does he do really?

We were not sure. But in any case, Baha is correct to say that the Commander in Chief of the Army that was sent to Toulon was actually a career painter, right? There’s a downside of revolutionary a tribulation that it may open careers to the talent, but sometimes it’s also opens careers to political appointees like Jean Francois Carteau.

But Carteau doesn’t serve in charge, doesn’t command the army for too long. It’s clear that he’s incompetent and he’s replaced by a capable guy and that’s missing in the movie. Jacques Francois Dugommier, who needs an artillery commander, somebody who can direct the artillery. And that’s when Napoleon’s name is mentioned.

And as, as the movie shows, he’s a young officer. And he’s giving the charge of artillery to all and, and he comes up effectively with a plan on recapturing the sea. So

[00:10:39] Dan LeFebvre: As he was the leader of the artillery, not necessarily the leader overall, the movie makes it seem like he’s the one, the grand strategy strategist behind this whole, whole

[00:10:46] Alexander Mikaberidze: thing.

That’s right. So he’s not in charge of the army. That’s correct. But he is involved in crafting this strategy. The alongside the actual commander in chief, Jacques Francois Dugommier. And interestingly, again, to Americans the connection the guy who is a, the British officer who is in charge of of the expeditionary force at Toulon is actually General Charles O’Hara, the same guy who fought in the American Revolutionary War.

And surrendered at Siege of Yorktown, and he comes over to

[00:11:19] Dan LeFebvre: Toulon,

[00:11:22] Alexander Mikaberidze: fights Napoleon, yeah, so he faced both Washington and Napoleon. The way this scene is set in Toulon itself. The fighting is again, simplified and some is dramatized but not maybe enough actually. So let’s say the cannonball hitting Napoleon’s horse.

After a drop in, it increases the drama of it, but interestingly, Napoleon was wounded in this action. And this was the closest he ever got to actually being killed. So maybe that should have been shown, especially since the movie does show him fighting hand to hand and then leading the charge.

So it would have been interesting to show that this is not the kind of a coward who stands behind and and directs the troops from a distance. But he when it was needed, Napoleon could. coUld and did expose himself to violence. But the way the finding itself is done is nowhere near the actuality because the fortifications that the French were storming were not the stonemason kind of massive.

Bastions that you see, those actually be part of Maltese defenses, uh, but rather this is where the earthworks can passively constructed for forts of batteries as were known in the middle of the peninsula. That work that they did indeed overlook the bay and only correctly predicted that if they take those batteries.

they will they will gonna force the British to evacuate. I think the biggest peeve I have in for that scene is that while the British and the Spanish did lose quite a bit of, quite a bit of men, they did not lose ships. Only one, one British ship was captured. And then the, none of the ships, the British or Spanish ships were actually damaged or destroyed.

Instead, it’s mostly that they. The revolutionaries were able to try to save the the French fleet that the British have. But even then many of the ships that the British left behind the French ships right, they were damaged.

[00:13:21] Dan LeFebvre: It’s interesting you, when you mention the ships, and I didn’t think about this until just now, the movie sets up, if the French lose half their fleet there, it’s going to, the Republic’s gonna fall.

But then throughout the rest of the movie. We don’t see them using the ships that they were supposed, that they were trying to save there. And so they just shift away from the importance as far as the movies setting that up.

[00:13:40] Alexander Mikaberidze: Oh, yeah. And Napoleon, remember, Napoleon complains about boats.

[00:13:45] Dan LeFebvre: You think you’re so great because you have boats. Oh, yes. We’ll get to, we’ll get to that. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So after too long then, was he, Brigadier General? Or is that kind of, that’s the way the movie shows it as. his rise and

[00:14:00] Alexander Mikaberidze: rank. Yes, Napoleon is indeed promoted to to bring the general and then of course, the for his contribution to the recapture of Toulon, which if Toulon makes Napoleon a name that is recognized across France.

So it’s mentioned in the contemporary press. He I would go as far as to say he’d make him a national hero because or at least a hero to the radical revolutionary cause because at this very point, he actually is identifying himself with this Jacobin cause, with this radical revolutionary cause.

He writes a very interesting piece, Political Treaties, called Sapporo Bokure, in which he advocates in favor of radicalism. laTer on when he becomes an emperor, he will try to eradicate any mention of that book that he wrote. anD and of course the movie doesn’t show it as such.

After the downfall of Robespierre and the Jacobins in the summer of 94, Napoleon was arrested for his radical for being associated with the Jacobin cause. He was fortunate that he had friends at the right places. And who made sure that he remained imprisoned in the south of France, where the anti Jacobin terror was not as prevalent.

And so he, if he had been sent to Paris, who knows how things would have turned out because a lot of those Jacobins where they executed or simply exiled. So history might’ve been different, but as it was. After the fall of Robespierre, he was detained, imprisoned, then released, and then he found himself essentially unemployed because he has this political stain on him.

[00:15:32] Dan LeFebvre: Mentioning Robespierre now, it shifts after too long in the movie, it shifts to the end of the Reign of Terror. According to the movie, Napoleon’s brother, Lucien, tells his brother that Robespierre is unfit to rule. And then we see him talking to French Assembly, things turn violent, and he runs away, pulls a pistol on the men chasing him, but then that misfires, and then he pulls another pistol and shoots himself in the head, but it’s not a fatal shot, although it seems that he intended it to be.

And then the movie cuts to some prisoners who find that their prisoner, prison guards just seem to be completely missing. They get a key off a desk there, release themselves, and the movie has some text on the screen to let us know that this is the end of the Reign of Terror, July 27, 1794. 41, 500 prisoners are released.

And I was watching this, I just felt like the movie was just cutting so quickly. Between these different events saying he’s unfit to rule really without much of an explanation. Why then we see him being attacked goes to the extreme of killing himself, trying to kill himself at least and then just showing the prisoners seem to be ordinary citizens.

But again, it doesn’t really give a lot of context to a lot of it. Can you fill in some historical context about what’s going on with Rose Fierre and the Reign of Terror?

[00:16:40] Alexander Mikaberidze: Absolutely, and I think you’re absolutely, you’re right that the movie moves so quickly into these through all of this that I know that my friends who are not historians have felt confused and desolate and thrown into the deep water without Able to understand what and why and how but in a nutshell, what happens is that in the fall of 1793, right?

We have several factions emerging in amidst this revolutionary government. You have a factional kind of ultra revolutionaries. Who demand for more substantive reforms and especially focused on social and economic equality. So this is a group led by Jacques Hébert, very interesting guy who spoke about, oftentimes spoke in, in, in favor of kind of redistribution of the wealth, creating a more utilitarian, egalitarian society.

And then you have on the opposite end, in many respects, you have the more moderate revolutionaries who thought that what Hebert and his supporters wanted was too radical, was too, just was going too far. And these were the people who rallied around Danton, this remarkable figure, one of the giants of French revolution.

And so these two big factions are fighting over what kind of reform should we introduce? What is the future really of France? What is the future of revolution? What kind of society we want to build? And in between We have these Jacobins led by Maximilian Robespierre who are exploiting both sides, both groups for political purpose.

Ultimately, what Robespierre concludes is that he can, that he concludes that the Hebert and his radicals are too radical. Especially after they started pushing for de Christianization, closing churches, suppression of organized religion. And so in the fall, late fall of 1793, it’s almost winter of 1993 Robespierre uses Danton and the moderates to destroy the radicals by accusing them of being too radical for their own good.

Once they are destroyed, and literally, we talk about them being executed. Once they were removed, Robespierre then switches and hates the D’Anton and his supporters as being too moderate for the good of revolution and has them detained and executed in the spring of 1794. So by the time we get to the summer, as the movie has shown, Robespierre and this Committee of Public Safety, this group of 12 men from the Jacobin, uh, group that are running this show.

They feel unchallenged, right? They have this enormous power. They justify that power by saying that we need to win the war. We have too many challenges. We have too many enemies. But by the summer of 1794, situation has changed. France actually put in place remarkable system of mass mobilization population control, and that allowed them to defeat the invading armies and by 94 actually start, and this is quote unquote liberating neighboring territories, right?

So spreading on a revolution to the to places like Belgium or Rhineland. And that then caused the members of the French parliament, this national convention to ask. Why do we need this emergency measures? Why do these 12 men in the committee of public safety led by Robespierre, why do they have this enormous power?

They all this time, they were saying that we needed to win the war. It seems like we’re winning, right? Can we undo the terror, right? How can we undo this emergency loans that. You effectively make any French citizen a suspect in the eyes of the government. And so when Robespierre pushes back and says no, we are not winning yet.

We need this system to make sure that all these enemies, whether overt or covert enemies are eradicated. That’s when on, in July of 1794, a group of members of the part of the national convention, French parliament, decide to take matters in their own hand. And it’s a fascinating scene of two kind of political factions maneuvering around, because Robespierre is fully aware that this coup is coming, so it’s not as spontaneous as it’s shown in the movie.

And of course, it doesn’t all take place in the same room, effectively, the movie shows. But I think for the romantic purpose, I would have been fine with that scene if it was set in the proper context. So as it was, Robbie Smear is indeed injured and there is a debate whether he shot himself or somebody else shot him.

I think all the evidence suggests that he tried to kill himself but missed. And he indeed shatters his jaw in that scene where Baraa sticks his finger in his injury. Oh, that was, I think that was actually a good scene. And Robespierre indeed on the following day, on July 28 Robespierre and his members from the Committee of Public Safety are all executed, which marks the end of terror and the beginning of this so called thermidorian reaction when the, those who were in power are now removed and are being actually victimized by the people that were victims yesterday.

And part of the Thermidor reaction was releasing political prisoners. And among these prisoners was indeed this young widow. Josephine De

[00:22:03] Dan LeFebvre: So the movie then got, ’cause they, it does show one of the prisoners being free to focus is on her who then she meets, at least in the movie, she meets Napoleon at something called The Survivor’s Ball in the summer of 9 17 94.

[00:22:14] Alexander Mikaberidze: And that’s actually one of my favorite scenes. I, I think I don’t recall ever seeing the survivor’s Ball actually shown on, on, in, on, in the film and that it. Take place. And if you notice in the movie the Josephine is wearing a red. Got a red thread or red ribbon on her neck that was against defying that she was a survivor of the terror and she lost a family member to the guillotine.

So those little details I think are quite interesting and overall this, that particular scene I think works.

[00:22:45] Dan LeFebvre: yEah, in the movie we see Napoleon getting Pretty much smitten by her, once they love at first sight, but it has that kind of feel to it there. And then a little bit later, again, the movie’s moving pretty quickly.

We see the two of them getting married. Do you think the movie did a pretty good job of showing how Napoleon and Josephine met and then got married?

[00:23:07] Alexander Mikaberidze: yEs and no, is that on one hand, Ridley Ailes, Ridley Scott has to move, keep the pace and keep us moving. But of course that means that we are never shown why exactly these two individuals from a very different background, different experiences, in many respects, character wise very different, why they fell in love with each other.

Napoleon passionately loved this woman and did so throughout his life. We know that for sure. With Josephine, that’s where the big question is raised. I think in the first few years, she went, or at least certainly the way she met him, she went into this relationship from a very pragmatic. Point of view by 1795, it’s 94, 95, when she meets Napoleon she is 32 years old.

She is the widow. She has two children from previous marriage, and in many respects, she has very little kind of prospects for the future. So he actually understands that she needs to find a way to connect. settled down. And for women at this time, settling down was indeed to marry well, right? The revolution did open a system.

They did give women a lot of new rights and including the right to divorce and all that. But still for a woman like Josephine, who comes from a more aristocratic background how is she going to earn money, right? How is she going to feed her children? And so for her, it’s to find somebody who would support her.

Time, at one period, she had, she was a mistress of Paul Barat, which is shown at the moment. But I think they, she realized that Barat has many mistresses, right? He’s an equal opportunist in that sense. And so she needs to find something more steady, and that’s where Napoleon was for her, that steady relationship, the one who can commit, the one who can marry her who can provide for her and her chil her children.

And I have to say that Napoleon was throughout his life rather I think loving stepfather to Josephine’s children, especially who is shown as a little child. And then he effect what disappears. But Eugène de Beauharnais was was a person that Napoleon trusted. He raised him with this idea of with a vision of him being an imperial, a crucial imperial figure.

And so if you read letters, for example, that Napoleon writes to different people and then read what he writes to Eugène, clearly here’s, there’s more fatherly concern to educate, to explain to give Eugène an opportunity to grow. As for the relationship between Napoleon and Josephine, it was an intense relationship.

And I think the movie shows Napoleon as a a weirdo and into a degree he was I love that scene when she comes over and ask him what costume you’re wearing and she’s it’s not a costume, it’s my uniform, uh, because the if you actually look the history, that was the only clothes he had since, again, it’s not explained in the movie, but remember he’s attending a survivor’s ball, which is celebrating the end of the terror perpetrated by the jacobins.

One of his supporters was Napoleon.

So he, and this, at that time, he’s simply unemployed. He can’t find a job. Because he’s politically unpalatable to the ruling government.

[00:26:34] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah I definitely got the sense that especially from the very beginning, like I said, pulling love at first sight and kind of smitten with her, but I did get the sense that Josephine was say, I don’t want to say using him, but like she knew what he could provide and she didn’t really have.

Many options it seemed, to rise up just being released from prison or getting out of prison having the kids, as you mentioned, you see them Eugene is the one that comes and says, Hey, can I get my father’s sword? It’s the only thing we have left of him, that little boy that correct.

[00:27:07] Alexander Mikaberidze: Yeah, that’s right. Even though the, in, in the timeline the movie shows it happening too early in the relationship or because we have the boy coming over to Napoleon asking for the. Sword and Napoleon tells him you can’t have it because it’s a weapon. The reality is, he says that because that scene should have taken place after that mass, cannons firing at the people and murdering them.

Because that was the Royalist Uprising in October of 1795, which was crushed by Napoleon and as part of that suppression, there was a push to confiscate weapons. That’s why when the kid comes over and says, hey, can I have the weapon of my father, Napoleon’s no, it’s a weapon. And I think because otherwise it feels weird, right?

And it it at least to me it feels out of context because it’s unclear why weapons are denied to this to, to the family. But yes that indeed did take place. And in fact, that was a way for the relationship to grow since Napoleon did. Take the weapon over and effectively going to use that as a way of building building on the relate on the previous acquaintance with Josephine.

[00:28:12] Dan LeFebvre: If we go back to the movie, not long after Napoleon and Josephine are married, we get a glimpse of a few scenes of Napoleon in Egypt. He mentions following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great and Caesar, which makes me think that he’s already thinking of himself in. More historical sense when we hear letters, the kind of voiceover from Napoleon writing back to Josephine saying that he’s conquered Italy.

He’s dealing with the sweltering heat in Egypt. We also see Napoleon’s cannons hitting the pyramids themselves, which then tells me that maybe he’s thinking about himself in history, but maybe he doesn’t really care about preserving history in his campaigns. What are your thoughts about how the movie portrays Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt?

[00:28:53] Alexander Mikaberidze: Let me maybe start with saying that even though that bombardment of the Egyptian pyramids never happened, I think overall that scene is dramatic enough to work, right? I think one of the interviews with Scott was saying that he wanted to go for that allegory of Napoleon bringing the transformative impact to the Middle East.

And considering how short that scene is Pyram is going to come on, on, on screen, get hit by the bombardment, and then they disappear, and we’ve actually done with the campaign. So I think overall, that scene, to me, it it’s as ahistorical as it is. I think it works. I think the bigger problem is that Napoleon’s previous campaign, probably his most brilliant campaign, is not discussed at all.

There is only, as you said, just a small reference that Napoleon makes if he was in Italy. But it’s that’s the campaign that makes him who he is, right? That’s the campaign who actually awakens inside him belief that he can do impossible, that he shouldn’t do the impossible. And of course that leads to the invasion of Egypt in 1798.

But the even bigger issue is that scene of Napoleon bombarding the pyramids and visiting the tomb, actually the scene where he. Gonna interact with the mummy. That’s a direct reenactment of a famous painting by Maurice Orange. And it’s figure for figure clearly lifted from that painting.

But the bigger issue is that how that Egyptian campaign is shown ending in the movie. Napoleon is told that Josephine was betraying him cheating on him with this young dashing officer, which was true. And that Napoleon. Got up got pissy about all of this and told, I want the ship and I’m returning back home.

I wish it was that easy, but of course, first of all, he didn’t just quit because he learned about his wife cheating. I think, on the list of problems Napoleon faced in 1799, His wife cheating would have been, would not have been hot because the movie has no effort to show the wider impact of this campaign or what happened to the French fleet, which is wiped out by the British at the Battle of Albuquerque Bay in August of 1798.

Nelson is actually not mentioned in the movie at all, right? And yet we know how important those boats were, right? That he had. It’s, those are the boats, right? Today’s, as Napoleon refers to them, those are the boats that. Changed the direction of the entire campaign in Egypt because they denied Napoleon fleet.

And without fleet, without the support of having a connection back home, he’s isolated and he feels that he’s, he can’t do much in Egypt. And second important kind of point is that Napoleon returns to France in the summer of 1799, not because of the the the the family concern, but because he receives the news.

of enormous changes that took place in Europe while he was gone. And he, the movie hints at it when Napoleon meets the members of the rectory, but it never really explains that while he was gone, we have an outbreak of a major war that French armies were losing badly. In the span of just three months, from May to August of 1799, French lost all of Italy.

They lost most of Switzerland. The France is on the verge of being invaded once again by this second coalition of European powers. And that’s the news that Napoleon receives in August of 1799. And that’s what makes him. decide to return. wE can debate whether his decision was part of that arrogance that he shows that he’s the only figure who can save France.

We can debate whether his decision to leave the army and go was desertion or not. Those are, I think, important issues to discuss. But as it was, he returned to France in October of 1799 as a national figure who had the only track record of winning. So that’s the fascinating thing is that we know that the Egyptian campaign overall was the failure.

France were ultimately defeated and kicked out. But when Napoleon comes back, he comes back with this aura of exotic. East, this aura of invincibility. He comes with this news that he was crushing the Ottoman, the Mamluk armies. The British victory at Abulkir, which destroys the French fleet is barely having any impact on his reputation because, he’s not enabled to and he could blame that on the Admiral.

So by the time he comes, in October of 1799. I think his reputation is so prominent that people listen to him and they look what he will do. And there is a hope he might bring stability and order to a country that had been lacking them for the past decade.

[00:33:54] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah, the movie does mention very briefly, you said some of those things that you mentioned.

It does heavily focus on Napoleon’s leaving Egypt because he hears about Josephine’s affair. And then when he gets back, he very quickly turns that around to the members of the directory, like you deserted your men. And he turns it around and he’s France is bankrupt. They’re spending money as fast as you can print it.

I. The Anglo Russians have occupied Holland, Austro Russians have overrun Italy, France itself is a verge of being invaded, like you mentioned there. And again, I got the sense that the movie’s just skipping so, so many things. But I also got the feeling that this was perhaps where Napoleon was starting to shift from strictly military to being more political.

Like you’re saying The one that can fix this, the one who can lead France to to do this. Was that kind of his mindset at that time?

[00:34:43] Alexander Mikaberidze: Oh, even earlier. I think that shift already takes place in Italy. We can, which we don’t see in the movie. So exactly. We can, we can trace it back to the spring of 96 and late spring paddles in May and June when he.

Pools would seem to be impossible. He defeats repeatedly defeats Austrian armies. He occupies Italy. He sets up new political entities, republics in Italy, and he governs in Italy in 1796, 97 as a virtual ruler, as a, like a Republican king. So you see that political Kind of sensibilities in him already awakening then and his decision to go east is only kind of continuation of that direction.

So you’re right that by the time Napoleon comes back in October of 99, he is a thoroughly political general, so to speak. And what made him I think in 99, so such a powerful figure in October was that. When he comes back he’s approached by members of the French government who are willing to overthrow the government.

And then the movie does show that even though it doesn’t fully explain that C. S., the guy who is he having the breakfast or lunch, it’s unclear. That C. S. Is the architect of this conspiracy. And that this is actually a republic being betrayed from within and in the scene when Napoleon is fighting the members of the, one of the councils, he does shout that, that you’ve betrayed the constitution, you’ve killed the republic, but it happens in such a chaotic scene that I don’t think listeners really get.

But Napoleon, as we credit him for the coup and we say that he pulled, he started to bring the revolution to an end, and all that. We have to bear in mind that by the time he does all of it, by the time he comes to power, revolution has already gone way beyond where it started. And the directory, the government that Napoleon overthrew, the directory had its own members who were keen and eager to overthrow it.

So even if Napoleon had died in Egypt, these men would have still pushed for a coup, they would have found a different sword. I think Napoleon is lucky that this sword that he has actually had his first choice. Got shot and killed in a battle in August of 1799. And so that kind of paid, opened the opportunity for him to step in and be that sort.

[00:37:15] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah, you mentioned that breakfast or lunch or whatever and that Ciaz mentions there saying something about Napoleon being the French Caesar as the people see him that way. And then in the movie we see he mentions Ciaz, Napoleon and Ducault being the three councils that they’ll transfer power to.

And we see. A bunch of troops going around basically to force people to resign, giving them letters of resignation. It seems, the movie is very adamant that they have to do this before they eat their breakfast. That seems to be very adamant in all the scenes Oh, you can’t have your breakfast.

You have to sign this first. And then that’s how the movie seems to set up the way that Napoleon becomes the first consul of France. Was that basically how the coup really happened?

[00:38:01] Alexander Mikaberidze: I think this is where I was actually laughing at it because I was unsure whether at that stage movie was trying to be farcical, like a comedy or whether this was just inadvertently, right?

Ridley Scott making people laugh. You’re right that the coup itself If we look at the actual history, it’s full of farce, it’s full of interesting developments, but laugh at. But the actual history is far more intricate and far more interesting. In broad scheme, yes, the directors were all those directors who were not involved in the coup were offered a way out.

It was either money, so that scene where Tyler runs the goes and tells Paul Barras to, to resign. That scene could have been so much better if he actually showed that Napoleon offered Talleyrand to offer Barat a huge bribery. A bribe and that Tyler run wanted to mention it but Rob agreed to resign before the animation was needed to Tyler and actually keep the money, which is a lovely

[00:39:04] Dan LeFebvre: detail.

Okay. I’ll keep it.

[00:39:06] Alexander Mikaberidze: Don’t need. All right. That was easy. But once. Once I think the directors are removed, or actually forced to resign and some forcibly and some through greasing the wheel, then the conspirators need to deal with the two councils, and that’s not necessarily as clear in the movie, the Council of Ancients and the Council of Five Hundreds, which to collectively form the French Parliament.

And they were told that there was a conspiracy and a national security problem. That there was a conspiracy underway against the government and that it had, they had to be evacuated to a, from Paris to a neighborhood town of Saint Cloud for safety reasons. And it is alluded to in the movie, but not necessarily made clear.

And once there the, they were urged to give emergency powers to these three consuls. Who is going to save the nation from the radical revolutionary threat. anD of course, the councils had a lot of questions. Where’s the evidence for any of this? And at one point, Napoleon then decides to enter the deliberation, the place where this council was deliberating.

And as he entered, that was a violation of a law where a military officer, especially a senior military officer, could not simply barge into a legislating body without an invitation, without the permission. And I think when he enters and tries to deliver that speech it provokes a lot of kind of response and violent response.

And we know that there was Tussle and indeed Napoleon was going to rough handle Napoleon later claimed that they tried to assassinate him and his brother also claimed that there were daggers pulled, but we know that’s not true. But that scene overall, I think works even as a farce, I think it works and that scene where Napoleon runs and then slips and gets up and gets.

And then Napoleon, his brother points the sword and promises to kill him. That is all true, but I think it doesn’t convey, at least to me, it doesn’t convey the momentous nature of it. It looks like, from a soldier’s point of view, the guys who were standing there, They’re out of the loop, right?

And then this guy comes out, pulls the sword, tries, points at his brother’s heart and tells him to go and overthrow the government. If you’re a soldier, will you really go simply on that? So I think there was a kind of disjointed nature of the film.

[00:41:39] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah, and I, there was a, maybe it was just me when I saw that there was like a brief little nod or something like that, that Napoleon’s brother did when he pulled the sword.

That made me think. He’s just making this up as he goes, like this is just a, last minute thing and just how we got to get these soldiers to to help us, maybe this will do it and it seems to work in the movie at

[00:41:59] Alexander Mikaberidze: least. Yeah, that’s right. And I think overall, I think that is a, one of the better parts of the movie that at least they stuck close enough to, to actual history and conveyed the farcical nature of some of the things that transpired that day.

So I think that part at least works. Okay,

[00:42:15] Dan LeFebvre: okay. One of the impressions that I got while I was watching the movie after Napoleon becomes first consul, the movie very heavily seems to imply that the foreign powers don’t really respect that title. There’s the minister of foreign affairs that you mentioned, Halloran, he suggests that Napoleon then changes title from first consul to victorious consul, or I know the name King, and we see the coronation of Napoleon is not as king, but as emperor.

Maybe it’s just me, but that very slight differences between those two things and how they’re run there. But do you think the movie did a pretty good job of showing that transition into emperor? And I guess as a secondary question there. Did people catch on that basically emperor and they just got rid of monarchy and the king and now we’re having an emperor?

[00:43:04] Alexander Mikaberidze: I think that’s one of the biggest problems this movie has and it is that it tries to rush through four years of remarkable transformations. Oh,

[00:43:13] Dan LeFebvre: that was supposed to be all four. That was four years from. Oh, wow. Okay. Yeah, that was like a couple of

[00:43:18] Alexander Mikaberidze: minutes in the movie. Exactly. And I think what it does essentially, it fails to show why a nation of 30 million people would actually agree to this.

As you said, why would French, uh, who overthrew King just a few years earlier now except Emperor. And the answer to this is because what Napoleon did in those four years of what we historians refer the period of consulate. When as the first consul, he effectively lays the foundation to what is today modern France, right?

Every, every aspect of modern French life, from finance, to education, to firefighters, to policing, all that is traced back to the reforms that Napoleon introduced between 1800 and 1804. It’s a remarkable period of Look at a burst of visionary substantive, efficient transformation that really is why we care for Napoleon.

This is a moment why Napoleon truly shows that he is not an ordinary figure. And especially considering that. He is just 30 years old when he comes to power, that he’s politically, administratively, financially is quite inexperienced, but for him to throw himself onto these national problems, vast national problems that France confronted for a decade and to find a way to solve is absolutely stunning.

Within a few weeks after taking power, Napoleon creates a civil administration, which proves to prove to be the one and only stable political institution France has had for the past 200 years. And then we see the same thing with him establishing Bank of France, with him establishing the new financial standards, rewriting legal codes, code Napoleon not even mentioned in the movie creating new educational system, rewriting tax laws and on.

These are what, as Napoleon put, the blocks of granite upon which his legacy will be built. And these are also those blocks of granite upon which the modern France is built. And that is why Napoleon can get away with a lot of things, like in 1802, after, once these reforms are kicking in and delivering stability, delivering prosperity, delivering this better way of, better life to people, he can ask them, Hey how about you giving me power for another 10 years?

And then he comes back and says, 10 years is too short, you like these reforms? Do you want them to end? Because if I step down, who knows what will happen, right? How about you made me counsel for life? They do. And then in 1804, he says, counsel for life. Why don’t we call it what it actually is?

Empire. I don’t think that progressive evolution, I think is missing. And if you ask me, if it can be so presumptuous. Is that I think the script writer should have focused on that because that small period, about four years, could have shown Napoleon in the complexity that he is. Both a really visionary reformer, but also a ruthless political operator.

You can see him outmaneuvering his opponents. You can use, see him establishing a police system that in many respects is the precursor of police state. And I think that is, would have been such a powerful movie to explore how these men at the young age, 30 years, that’s not particularly full of experience, but to be able to get away with all of it would have been such a better film, but none of it is mentioned in the movie.

And instead we are thrown is straight into the coronation ceremony without understanding why people would have given the tacit approval to it. Yeah,

[00:47:15] Dan LeFebvre: which paints a very different picture of just Napoleon as a person too, because so much more, having him be so much more than a military leader and in the movie when we see him not being a military leader, so much of it is around Josephine and that side of his life.

And he just seems. Very awkward, very socially awkward in those scenarios. So I just assume, okay, if he’s not on the battlefield, he’s an awkward person, but it sounds politically and he’s not.

[00:47:42] Alexander Mikaberidze: Absolutely. Napoleon, I think one of the character traits or actually not one, but maybe a series of character traits that really she showcases during this period is.

His tirelessness, his concentration, his speed at which he understands, consumes this information and processes, his calculation, his ability to analyze later on, he talks to one of his confidence as he says, and it’s a very famous quote that says that work is my element. And he’s right because there are few people in history who were as workaholics as this guy.

He could just take. Five, 10 minute naps during the day and be as refreshed and revived as we are after an all night’s nap. And he works tirelessly at this period. And I call it continuously, when he says, I have known the limitations of my legs. I have known the limitations of my hands and my eyes, but I have never been able to know the limitations of my working capacity.

And that, that shows here at this period, there’s stories, famous stories where he works through the, way past the midnight at 2, 3 a. m. He works through the ministries and wakes up officials saying, Hey, people of France are paying you money. You can’t sleep. We got to deliver. And he creates a remarkable system that is efficient, that delivers reforms that benefit the people.

And again, we can debate. Whether he betrayed the revolution through this reforce or consolidated the revolution, but there is no denying that overall the reforms that he introduced in the short period of time were crucial in bringing France back onto its feet and making France this great nation that would be able to project its power on the continental scale and As I argue in my books on a really global scale.

[00:49:30] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah, which makes then perfect sense as to why the people would accept, basically, another king. Emperor or consul for life or whatever title you want to give. It makes sense that they don’t want to be thrust back into the chaos. You’re talking about all the political chaos and all the chaos that was going on before.

It must be nice to have things be a little peaceful at home. Exactly,

[00:49:53] Alexander Mikaberidze: exactly. thAt’s one of the key ways Napoleon sells himself is saying that, hey, if you give me another 10 years, or if you appoint me for life, I’m going to deliver on that promise of law and order, stability, prosperity. And of course, for example the scene, once we get into the coronation, it’s beautifully done.

And I think that scene it works in the movie. And of course it works because it is almost a direct reenactment of Jacques Louis David’s famous painting, which Jacques Louis David is shown there. I even chuckled because Ridley Scott went as far as to even include Napoleon’s mother in the movie as she is in the painting, even though we know that both David and and Ridley were wrong, right?

Napoleon wanted his mother in the, in, in the painting because she was not present at the coronation, actually. buT there is a reason why Pope is present which the movie never addresses, in that one of the great reforms Napoleon introduced in 18, 1800 1801 was reconciliation with the church.

After what revolution did to the organized religion, to Christianity, to the special Catholic church, with these dechristianization policies, with these shutting down the churches, confiscating all this land that the church had, and then Napoleon then makes a deal with the pope, he makes a deal with the church, and the deal was that the church will come back and start to operate.

and intend to the spiritual salvation of French people. But on the other hand, the church has to accept the core legacy of revolution, including the loss of property. So if you’re one of those hundreds of thousands of French people who actually bought church property, you have now vested interest in seeing this guy in power, because as long as he’s in power, you have the property that you bought from the church.

And that’s one of the ways Napoleon kind of gains the support of the middle class, because this is the people who bought the land, bought these buildings that formerly belonged to the church. And he effectively tells him, Hey, you got to support him because if I’m gone and the new government comes, it’s just an old government.

You don’t know if they’re going to renege on this, all of this promises and you will have to give back the property you’ve acquired from the church.

[00:52:02] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah. Yeah. I and all that is. Lost in the movie. They don’t show any of that at all.

[00:52:08] Alexander Mikaberidze: Yeah, and then of course, it’s a complex issue and They would not have been able to even probably mention But again, that’s that goes to fundamental issue of how the movie was envisioned.

It’s a two and a half hour romp through 20 plus years of Napoleon’s life with very little kind of attention to the substance

[00:52:28] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah. The whole movie could have been just those few years for sure. Yeah. Speaking of the events in the movie, the next big events. And as a little behind the scenes, we are recording this on December 2nd, 2023.

So it’s the 213th anniversary battle of Austerlitz and That is one of the major battles that we see in the movie. Napoleon and the French facing Tsar Alexander of Russia, Francis of Austria. And according to the movie, the way it sets it up, there’s French soldiers defending an encampment in snowy, bitter, cold landscape.

They lure the Austro Russian soldiers into thinking that’s everyone. And then when they attack, Napoleon unleashes his infantry. They’re hiding in an overlook, looking the hill over there and then. They rushed down soon, followed by his cavalry, and then we start to see the cannons start firing and with about this time, we find out that this landscape that they’re on is actually a huge lake.

And so the cannons cannonballs ripped through the ice and fleeing troops, the Austro Russian troops just sink into the icy waters, and it seems to be a pretty clear French victory. And afterwards, Napoleon reminds Francis that he could have captured all of their armies, but instead he chose to accept Francis invitation for peace.

Do you think the movie did a good job showing the Battle of Austerlitz?

[00:53:45] Alexander Mikaberidze: Oh, man, I cried. I cried watching that scene.

I think the only true thing, the only correct thing about that scene was two things. One, that it was in the winter, That Napoleon was there.

[00:54:00] Dan LeFebvre: It happened. That’s the that happened. It happened .

[00:54:05] Alexander Mikaberidze: It’s astonishing the degree to which that DL has been, uh, portrayed. It every of what Ridley Scott shows on the movie in on the screen of that battle is wrong.

Starting from this oversized importance attached to Lake there is no lake there or there was no lake there. There were ponds.

tHese lakes play no role in the actual battle until the battle has been decided and the Russian and Austrian troops have to retreat and some of them chose to pass On skirting those ponds. So not across the pond, but skirting those ponds. And we know this again, Ridley Scott, right? We know all of this because we have documents from Napoleon’s correspondence, the racist generals, their reports, but also from Austrian officials.

We know that after the battle, Napoleon really wanted to see whether he wanted to You know, these enemies, these Austrians and Russians drowned in this lake. So he actually had those ponds drained after the battle. And when they did, they only found three bodies.

[00:55:18] Dan LeFebvre: I think there’s a lot more than that in the movie in just a

[00:55:20] Alexander Mikaberidze: few it’s like the whole army drowned in there, right?

Yeah. Alongside those three human bodies were about 150 horses and about 28 cannons that were abandoned on the edge of the pot. So they got stuck and they couldn’t remove it. That’s it. And that was, by the time the battle is already decided, they’re simply fleeing. and abandoning people or equipment behind.

The battle is, to the present day, Austerlitz is one of the most brilliant tactical operational battles ever fought. There is a reason why the military academy at West Point still teaches Austerlitz to the American officers, because it’s such a brilliant operation in which One general, Napoleon, is able to predict and is actually impose predict what the enemy will do and then impose his battle plan on them.

And it is absolute brilliance of Napoleon. None of it is there. There is no there is no need for Napoleon to conceal his weapon, his artillery under the tarps in the wind, middle of the winter on the edge of the forest. No, no need whatsoever. No, nor would the Russians or Austrians be so foolish to simply march on a lake in the middle of Austrian Empire.

You think the Austrians would not have known that they had a lake there? That’s their turf. That’s their territory that they are fighting on. Of course, the actual battle was fought in completely differently. In but the outcome is the destruction of the Russian and Austrian army. And so both of them suffered grievously in this battle.

And indeed right after the battle, two days after the battle, Austrians all sue for armistice and the Russians are retreating back home to, to lick their wounds. Austerlitz is crucial, and I think the movie doesn’t show that, is crucial to the history of Europe because It’s really transforms Napoleon from being dominant figure in France and maybe Western kind of corner of Europe to a figure who has a complete dominance in Central.

This is a battle that shatters thousand years old Holy Roman Empire. It disappears the following year, months after the battle it, it extends French power into, uh, Germany. It turns Napoleon really in, in the dome was dominant figure that. The rest of Europe has to again unite to to confront him.

And they do, the very next year, in 1806, they try to confront him again, which the movie makes no mention of, and Napoleon shatters that coalition too, in an equally brilliant battle with Ian Auerstein. And then that then allows him to really introduce substantive reforms that change the history of Europe.

All of this is missing. Yeah,

[00:58:14] Dan LeFebvre: they don’t, it was interesting to me that was one of the battles that they focused on the most in the movie, but It sounds and then they just completely got it all wrong.

[00:58:26] Alexander Mikaberidze: Every little, yeah, the only thing that was right is that it simply happened, and it happened in the winter, and the bulletin was there.

That’s the only correct thing. I’m always puzzled in this movie Ridley Scott shows armies carrying what looks like a boatload of flags. Every tent has a flag, every soldier has a flag. And these are not regimental flags, interestingly, they’re national flags, and of course that creates maybe a visually interesting scene with all these flags flattering on the wind.

But of course no army carried that many flags in Auschwitz.

[00:59:04] Dan LeFebvre: It does make a much better visual scene, though, for the movie. Something that we see throughout the movie that we haven’t really talked about much yet is Napoleon’s focus on having a son to be an heir. And according to the movie’s timeline, after Auschwitz, that drives his divorce from Josephine.

It’s the reason why he marries the eldest daughter of King Francis, Marie Louise, who then, according to the movie, does bear a son with Napoleon. Was the movie accurate to explain the reasons for Napoleon’s divorce from Josephine to have a

[00:59:34] Alexander Mikaberidze: son? Yes, I think yes, I think overall that was the important consideration that Napoleon had through those years is that, yeah, you can build all this, Because of this imperial entity that stretches by 1808, 1809, stretches from Spain to Poland and from Denmark down to Croatia it is a, it’s the largest empire since the days of Charlemagne.

It’s just incredible what this man is able to do. Accomplishing in the matter of just five years, but all that is for now, unless you can continue, it’s going to establish a dynasty on the firm foundation. And so Napoleon could, he explores various ways he could deal with it. He, for example, considered adopting his nephews, the children of of one of his brother.

At one point he even broaches that maybe he can appoint one of his brother as his successor or maybe one of the generals, but ultimately, and maybe it’s going to see a self centered nature and the egotism of it, or narcissism, whatever you want to call it, is that he believes that he should have a son, he should be able to continue his line, and that his son should inherit all of this.

And he knew by that time that the problem was not his, but that the problem was with Josephine. He knew it not because his mother procured him a mistress, which is an absolutely ridiculous scene in the movie. Napoleon as an emperor, as a freaking emperor of this empire, doesn’t need his mom soliciting.

I thought that was really weird. Especially his mom standing there and waiting for him to go in.

[01:01:08] Dan LeFebvre: Giving him drinks, like I need another drink, yeah. Yeah, that was really

[01:01:11] Alexander Mikaberidze: strange. Yeah, no, he, Napoleon was he was active. So he had mistresses and and one of them indeed in 1806 got pregnant, a young woman who was a lady waiting for one of his sisters, and this is his sister actually, who plays a role in setting them up.

And she got pregnant and gave birth to a boy. And once that happens, Napoleon knows that’s it. That’s it’s not my problem. And so he knows that he has a bastard child, that he doesn’t want to recognize that child, although he will take care of it, that child, and that child has an interesting life later on.

But he needs a legitimate heir, the one that there will be no questions about, and Josephine cannot do that. And because, and the movie alludes to that, that when she was in prison and that stress. Of what she went through during the terror clearly had an impact on her body. She probably went through an early menopause and she was no longer able to conceive two.

And so Napoleon then by 1808, 1809, understands that he needs to have a new wife. So he has a separate issue, which this is a huge political issue. Both in terms of leadership for the empire, but also how do you get a divorce, right? For the new emperor. So he needs to seek papal support, Pope refuses to grant, and so you have a really interesting political shenanigans going on around this issue of divorce.

Ultimately, he does divorce Josephine and marries Marie Louise, the Austrian Archduchess, as you mentioned. But he always maintained close relationship with Josephine. Josephine received a nice estate at Malmaison. That’s actually one of the interesting sad things about the movie is that it, neither Parisian scenes nor the Malmaison scenes were actually shot at the locations.

wHat as a Malmaison is actually some estate probably in the English countryside. It’s not an actual Malmaison, so it would have been nice to have an actual location that you can look at and feel what Josephine would have been doing. But but Malmaison is a wonderful place.

It’s just a short ride from Paris today. And once you get to this estate I took my kids this summer, so we spent a whole day there. It’s, you can see Josephine’s imprint on the place to the present day. She’s a, she’s ubiquitous. She’s everywhere. And Napoleon used to visit her there and she was gonna talk to her.

And he did when the, his child with Mary Louise was born, he did brought, bring the baby to Josephine. And I like that scene when she huddles that baby, looks at him and says, you don’t know what a sacrifice for you. That I think is a nice scene. Except I don’t think the movie explored the relationship between Josephine and Napoleon to the degree that for the viewer to say, yeah, she did sacrifice a lot because we went from her cheating on him, care, not caring for him at all, or for his emotional well being.

to suddenly telling the baby that, I’ve sacrificed a lot for you. There is almost a decade of relationship is missing, the decade in which they’ve grown to each other. At least she has grown to and appreciate and value who Napoleon really was.

[01:04:22] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah, that’s a really great point.

And it brings up something that I was curious about because in that part of the movie, when we see Marie Louise, That’s the only time we see her in the movie, but we also, but we see Josephine throughout the whole thing, even after Napoleon divorces, like you said he visits her. There’s letters being written back and forth.

Is there anything more to Marie Louise’s role in Napoleon’s story that we just don’t see in

[01:04:45] Alexander Mikaberidze: the movie? Yeah, of course. And this is, I think, movies is clearly unfair to Marie Louise. Marie Louise had a fascinating life. You said that she was an child of an Austrian emperor, Francis. She was born in 1791, so by 18 10 when she’s married Napoleon, so she’s only, what, 19 years old.

So there’s a significant age discrepancy, difference between Napoleon and her. And Napoleon emphasized that difference, as he always was treating her differently than to how he treated Josephine. Josephine was older woman more experienced, more mature, more refined woman, and Mother Louise was a young girl.

For as far as Napoleon’s concerned. So her relationship with her, it was inherently different from the relationship he had with Josephine. If you read the letters he’s writing to Marie Louise, he’s, again, a rather doting husband, and he always goes out of his way to make sure that she’s not bored, that she’s entertained that everything works well, because he understands the importance of this marriage, both for political purposes he needs to stay in lines with Austria.

But also because that’s his wife and she needs to bear in more children, right? One, one baby is good, but you never know what will happen to this baby. chIld mortality rates were quite high. So he needs more children. And so he is, so in the movie, as you said, Mario Luiz has a little like 10 seconds, right?

On the screen. And then she’s shuffled to the side. But in actuality, Napoleon. Invest, invested a lot of time and effort in, in cultivating relation, building this marriage up.

[01:06:22] Dan LeFebvre: That was one of the scenes where even not knowing how much the movie shifted on timelines, I knew that they were shifting the timeline because he meets her, he’s want to see As soon as he meets her, you want to see my bedroom?

And then literally a couple of seconds later, you have a son. I was like, okay.

[01:06:37] Alexander Mikaberidze: I heard when I was in the movie theater, there were people rolling. You could feel the wrong eyes. I was like, what the hell just happened?

[01:06:45] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah. Yeah. Which kind of alludes to another, there was another scene where Napoleon talking to Josephine, where she was having trouble having a baby.

And he’s unless you. Bear me a child tonight. I was like, that’s not how it works. She’s not pregnant. So that’s not how.

[01:07:01] Alexander Mikaberidze: Yeah.

[01:07:03] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah. It’s pretty funny. But if we go back to the movie, there’s quite a rollercoaster with Napoleon and Tsar Alexander of Russia that we see. First, Tilsit in July of 1807 forms an alliance between France and Russia.

And then a short while later, Napoleon, in writing a letter to Josephine, says, Oh, he’s sad that Alexander has opened his ports to England and taxed the French. So I guess I have to invade them. And so that leads to the invasion of Russia.

[01:07:30] Alexander Mikaberidze: Yeah, they made me.

[01:07:31] Dan LeFebvre: Yes, they made me do it, so that’s the invasion of Russia.

Napoleon’s leading troops from France, Austria. Italy, Germany, Poland, quite a few nations there. And it’s a major offensive that we see in the movie between Napoleon’s forces and Russian forces, but the movie doesn’t give a lot of details about it. It’s like the Battle of Oslo. It’s like it’s telling you what it is.

All we see in the movie here is that Napoleon seems to win, and then he writes Josephine saying, oh, he’s 200 miles from Moscow, and they’re going to continue their offensive the next day. What is this battle that we’re seeing in the movie before Napoleon reaches Moscow?

[01:08:06] Alexander Mikaberidze: The battle is the battle of Borodino, one of the bloodiest battles of 19th century.

Even though you will not get a sense of it from the movie, and the movie is covered in just a few seconds. And if you notice, if you’re going to pay close attention first of all, Napoleon is leading a charge, which is ridiculous considering that he’s an artillery, right? Trained as an artillery officer, he would not have done this.

But more importantly, as the emperor, why would you endanger your life? And everything you’ve accomplished by leading the charge and getting maybe shot or stabbed, uh, by, by, by by an enemy, of course, Napoleon never led charges aside beyond that early career when he did fight hand to hand at Toulon, later on led a couple of charges in Italy, but one after that, he’s never out there leading the assaults because There’s a lot to be l to be lost.

If he’s is, he’s injured. If he’s is killed and he’s a target,

[01:09:02] Dan LeFebvre: He’d be a target for sure.

[01:09:03] Alexander Mikaberidze: Exactly. Can you imagine? And that’s what, when we get to loo, right? We’ll talk about the sniper thing if that was that easy. Can you imagine if that was the, at aate or already knows somebody shot him, let’s go drink.

[01:09:17] Dan LeFebvre: He’s not, no. That generals have better things to do at their time. Yeah, we’ll get to

[01:09:20] Alexander Mikaberidze: that. That’s. But I think one of the fundamental problems with that kind of state is part of the movie is that. It makes absolutely no reference to Napoleon’s huge mistakes that he made during his period, like invasion of Portugal, like invasion of Spain.

There’s no talk about the calamity that the French are experiencing in the Siberian Peninsula. Wellington, of course, is not mentioned, even though this is a time Wellington is really rising as a as European kind of figure who is able to contain French threat. But, all, so the British contribution to Napoleon’s defeat.

For most of the movie is that they have boats and then at the end that Wellington shows up. But of course, we know that the British Britain did more than that. aNd of course the when we get to connect Napoleon’s relationship with Alexander. I think the choice of the the character or the, or the actor to play the character was actually quite good.

Alexander looks very close enough to who he was and he was this young, charming man who in, in, in what is I think one of the best lines in the movie, Alexander’s finger, when he says that I’m used to being underestimated. I think that’s a really conveys who he was as a historical figure that people did tend to underestimate him.

In, of course. In 1812, it’s a it’s the showdown of two empires over the destiny of Europe, right? It’s not like Napoleon was forced to wage the war. He did a lot of things that contributed to this war. And and the invasion that he began, starts in June of 1812. Is one of the largest invasions in modern history, well over 500, 000 men participated in this first wave that plus reinforcements, ultimately it’s forced the Napoleon mobilized for this invasion is over 680, 000 men.

anD I think the problem I have is that Ridley Scott in that part of the movie actually perpetuates a myth that Napoleon was defeated by nature, that he was defeated by cold, by winter and these kind of weirdos hiding in the forest. But there is no agency given to the Russians themselves, because on the way to Moscow, Russians fought in Poland.

They fought at Smolensk. They fought at Vitebsk. They fought, of course, in Borodino. And all these are bloody engagements. Then in the movie Ridley Scott talks about, I think he says 71, 000 dead at dead at Borodino. The numbers are much higher if you count the wounded. on both sides and killed on both sides.

This is one of the big, Borodino is one of the bloodiest affair in European, in modern military history until World War I. In terms of the rate of losses it is bloodier than Leipzig or Wagram and other battles that Napoleon fought. And that is missing. And then if you look at the battle itself, that sequence, I think, Uh, I think what Ridley Scott and I ended up doing is, that was supposed to be, I think, an earlier battle, because the uniform Napoleon is wearing is an early uniform that he should have worn in 1800.

So I think maybe that was a sequence from Marengo that actual Morberodino sequence, that probably shot for that four hour edition that he will be releasing later. The battle is, the way it is portrayed in the movie, is like Austerlitz. Completely a historical. At least he’s

[01:13:02] Dan LeFebvre: consistent with his inaccuracies.

That’s right.

[01:13:05] Alexander Mikaberidze: That’s right. He’s consistent with with him caring and not to dame about his history. There

[01:13:11] Dan LeFebvre: you go. aFter that victory in the movie, we do see Napoleon reaching Moscow. Unopposed, the city just seems to be abandoned and we see Napoleon himself sitting on the throne for a little while.

I think there’s pigeons overhead,

[01:13:25] Alexander Mikaberidze: I like actually that scene. I think that scene where the pigeons are essentially shitting down on people, I like that scene. Again, it’s a farcical scene, but I actually enjoyed it, yeah. Yeah, but yeah,

[01:13:38] Dan LeFebvre: it fits with the movie. One night when he’s there though, Napoleon wakes up.

to find the city burning. And he doesn’t believe it at first, but his officers insist that the Russians had burned Moscow themselves. And then cold winter is coming. Napoleon leaves Russia, heads home again. It’s alluding to this is the weather that’s defeating him. One of his officers suggests that maybe they need to wait out the winter months in Poland.

Napoleon originally had wanted to go to Petersburg To defeat the Russians there. Then the officer says, How we, it’s, the winter’s coming. We need to maybe go to Poland and wait out the winter months. And I thought the movie was really vague about this happening. Cause after that is when we see Napoleon leaving Russia and Head home, did he go to Poland?

What’s going on? Can you clarify what the movie’s trying to portray here?

[01:14:26] Alexander Mikaberidze: The Battle of Borodino was fought in September, right? And on September 7th. And then seven days later, on September 14th the French army reached the outskirts of Moscow. And there, Napoleon expects that the like it, it happened in, in Vienna or Berlin or, all these other capitals that he entered before that there’ll be a delegation coming out and the delegation will formally surrender the city and there’ll be some kind of negotiations and understanding reached.

But what the Russians do, and of course, the Russian commander in chief here is Mikhail Galinishuk Kutuzov, uh, and the Russian governor of Moscow is Fyodor Rostopchin. So what they agree upon is that instead of surrendering the city, they will simply evacuate the entire city, and it’s a remarkable undertaking.

City is well over 250,000 residents live there. And so they decide to evacuate the entire city and leave the shell of it, essentially the buildings only for the enemies. And to underscore that there will be no negotiations. That is, as I argue, point out in our, and I argue in detail in my last book which is a biography of Cotus that is a stroke of genius on part of Cotus.

So because. Kutuzov famously compares Napoleon to a a tauren, like a landslide that comes on and destroys everything on its way, and that this invasion is like this, and that you cannot simply contain it by defeating Napoleon in battle, because they’ve tried and it didn’t work. And so what Kutuzov wants, as he says in deliberations that he had with his officers, is we need a sponge, something that will soak up this torrent and essentially will solidify it.

And for him, for Kutuzov, that sponge is Moscow because he correctly predicts that Napoleon as a political leader will stop in Moscow and seek a political resolution to a war at a time when Kutuzov knows that political resolution is not forthcoming. This is not the war he will negotiate himself out. Alexander has no interest in negotiating with Napoleon, but Kutuzov deliberately gives him Moscow because he hopes that Napoleon will stop there, and he does.

Now, in the movie, it’s shown as if Russians burned it, and again, I have a separate book that I wrote about just the fire of Moscow. And ultimately, I think I conclude that the city would have burned without there being a deliberate effort to do it. Moscow is a is a city where two thirds of buildings are wooden.

And with the evacuation going on, which is the first time in modern times, the first time a city of that size is completely evacuated. And they remove everything, police, firefighting equipment, fire brigades, everything goes. So in that process, of course, incidents are prone to happen and you only need really a candle that is falling over that can ignite a conflagration that will be impossible to extinguish because city authorities are not there.

Firefighters are not there. Fire equipment is not there. And what makes things even more interesting is that even though Napoleon expects his delegation to come, his soldiers are not. So we know that in the night of September 14, a lot of soldiers snuck into the city because they were hungry and they began looting and plundering.

So I think the city burns not necessarily because Russians deliberately did it or French deliberately, but because there was conditions for it to burn and it burns right the very next day. So it starts, the fires break out. Already during the night of 1450, by 1617, 18, two thirds of the city burns, and it is a calamity that is apocalyptic, really.

And I think the movie does a good sense of conveying what it would have been like to stand there and then watch the city go in flame. I really like the cinematography of that scene, and I like how Hawking Phoenix conveys Napoleon’s emotion in that scene, because he’s bewildered. He couldn’t believe that this city would be simply burned.

He does blame it on Russians and but nevertheless after that, Napoleon makes still the decision to stay in Moscow and seek that political solution. So even after the city burned, he spends over 30 days in midst this ruins seeking the political end. And it is only on October 19. After he receives the news that some of his units were manhandled by Kutuzov’s army, that he decides it’s time to go back home.

And so he leaves on October 19, Moscow and begins the long track back to the borders. He, we know that he wanted to regroup somewhere in Poland, some Poland Lithuania is going to regroup there and they continue to fight the following year, but a combination of the consistent Russian attacks. Popular resistance and indeed weather meant that by the time Napoleon reaches the border, most of his army is gone.

[01:19:38] Dan LeFebvre: That’s fast. Fascinating point. I didn’t think about that. If all the fire brigades and everybody was gone, and especially if the French are maybe not, but there’s more than just the French that were under Napoleon. But if they’re looting, they’re probably not going to be so careful with their looting too.

And so it would be really easy to have that. And the timing. Of it happening the next day, then makes sense. It’s not a coincidence at that point that, they showed up and then this fire happens. It’s not

[01:20:07] Alexander Mikaberidze: that the Russians, for example, Rostov on Don, the governor of Moscow, he spoke extensively about his readiness to destroy the city rather than see it in the right, in the French hands.

So there is both kind of combination of reasons, both the willingness to create conditions that allow the city to burn, but also You know, looting is quite widespread and if you’re a soldier and you’ve been campaigning for the past few months and finally you made the big city, the first thing you really want is a booze and you they go in and try to find taverns and cellars and to get drink and food and things get out of

[01:20:43] Dan LeFebvre: hand.

Oh, you mentioned when Napoleon reaches the border, they had almost nobody left. And in the movie, when he returns home, he’s chastised. They say he left with 600, 000 men and he’s returning with 40, 000. And so for that reason, the movie says a coalition of Austria, Prussia, Russia, and England, along with agreement from the French council has decided.

That they’re going to exile Napoleon to an island called Elba. Is that really why Napoleon was exiled?

[01:21:12] Alexander Mikaberidze: The movie skips over two years of titanic struggle.

[01:21:15] Dan LeFebvre: I’m not surprised at this point.

[01:21:17] Alexander Mikaberidze: Yeah, it’s not that Napoleon simply returned from Russia and was overthrown. I wish it was like that because it would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

But it took two years of combined efforts of European powers on the continental scale to bring him down. Because in the spring of 1813, right after the calamity in Russia, Napoleon comes back with vengeance. He raises a new army of some 300, 000 men, beats the crap out of Russians and Prussians in the spring.

And then he makes a mistake of not seeking a political compromise. wiTh the coalition in the summer of 1813 his intransigence means the Austrians joined the war on the side of the coalition. The war is resumed in the fall and you have these massive battles that culminate in the Battle of the Nations, uh, the largest battle before World War I, a huge clash, over half a million men fighting for three days for the destiny of Europe, none of it is mentioned.

Napoleon is defeated. He’s forced to retreat to France. He still continues to fight. In fact, in 1814, he fights what is probably one of his best campaigns, small force fighting and overwhelming odds and getting away with it. He wins six battles in seven days. It’s just stunning. And only then only then after two years of exhaustion, fight, hundreds of thousands of losses, that in April of 1814, with allies, with Alexander already in Paris chilling, that Napoleon realizes, that’s it, the war is lost and He has this meeting with marshals and marshals famously tell him, you got to go.

He says, no, I’m not going to go. I will rally the army and I’ll fight on. And the marshals tell him the army follows its leaders and you are not it. We are the leaders. So you got to sign. And so he does sign the abdication in favor of his son. That abdication is rejected. So he abdicates completely.

anD he’s given, I would say a cushy deal and that’s largely because of the Russian emperor where Napoleon is not in prison. He’s not kicked out and sent to some godforsaken place, but he’s given the wonderful Mediterranean island to rule Elba. He’s, and that movie does, I think outline the basic structure of the deal quite well.

He will be emperor of Elba. He will be given enough funding, 2 million francs a year, which French government was supposed to be paying him. He could have his own army. He could have his own small fleet and he could have his own symbols of power. And in the movie, once you quickly shift to Elba, you see the flag that is carried behind Napoleon, this wide canvas with.

Red band, and three golden beasts, that’s the flag of Napoleon, the kingdom of Elba.

[01:24:08] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah, I thought it was interesting Another hint that I had while I was watching the movie that they were skipping a lot was that this coalition was Austria, which Marie Louise was Austrian, so there were some shifts there, and then England is involved in it, where throughout the whole movie, England is the enemy, but now they’re teaming up with the French council, and it’s okay, there has to be some stuff going on here that they’re just not showing.

[01:24:33] Alexander Mikaberidze: And this is crucial, and then this is crucial not just for the defeat of Napoleon, but this is crucial for the post Napoleonic reconstruction. Because it is at this moment, while fighting Napoleon in early 1814, that Britain was able to negotiate Treaty of Chameau, that binds the coalition, because all these great powers, Russians and Prussians and Austrians and others, they have one thing that unites them, that is hatred of Napoleon, but there are so many other things that divides them.

anD so what the British do, and this is where a crucial role of Britain is, not just the money, not just the men that they contribute fighting the French in Peninsula, but also the diplomacy that’s able to bind this coalition in Treaty of Chamonix which specifies that this, these coalitions should stay together for 20 years, In order to decide the, serve as an arbiter of the Europe.

And so that’s a crucial step towards a new security arrangement that will emerge out of Napoleonic Wars, this cons of Europe and the the ability of the great powers to police and maintain order on the continental. All of that is taken place in, in all the way this beginning in 1814.

So it’s fascinating to examine. Which again might have been the one of those moments that scriptwriter could have done so much with. thEre is a fascinating Congress at Chateaune in early 1814, where if you had just discussed the events at Chateaune, you could have easily conveyed the complexity of what’s happening, the problems that Pauline is facing, his arrogance, his refusal to compromise, but also the problems that the coalition is facing.

So I think it would have been a solo. so Much more interesting approach than the simply skipping over two years of tight of crucial events.

[01:26:18] Dan LeFebvre: There is a scene of speaking of Elba. When Napoleon’s in Elba, he’s reading newspaper and newspaper headline talks about Josephine receiving Sarah Alexander at her home in Paris.

And he gets angry. He just beats the newspaper on the table. And so he just said, okay, I’m going to leave my exile, go back to France. So he boards a ship, lands in France. kisses the beach when he gets there back on French land and gathers a following as he marches toward Paris. It just seems like he’s, it just seems so easy.

I don’t want to be exiled. I’m just going to go. Is that really what happened? No,

[01:26:51] Alexander Mikaberidze: that’s one of the scenes that I was like, what the heck? To start with, what to start with. Josephine is long dead by then, so, Josephine, so Napoleon leaves France in spring of 1814, in April. Josephine dies a month later, in May of 1814.

So Napoleon knows all of this. While on the island, he grieves, deeply grieves. There’s descriptions of him going into the room and not coming out for days because he’s crying his heart out. This is a woman he really loved. So there is no, no reason why he would have decided to come back. In the spring of 1815, because, ostensibly his wife was cheating on him.

Which is,

[01:27:36] Dan LeFebvre: goes specifically against, when he does come back, he goes, he finds that Josephine has passed, and he says, Nobody told me this, and so it seems very specific that they made the choice to go against

[01:27:48] Alexander Mikaberidze: historical accuracy. Yeah, exactly. Completely against it. And that girl that he’s talking to, of course, is, uh, is Hortense de Beauharnais, the daughter of Josephine from the first marriage.

But she is portrayed as this whiny, kind of small thing that Napoleon can be rated. But in reality, she was a very strong willed, very interesting woman. With a fascinating life of his, of her own. I think the way she was portrayed there is not necessarily fair, but yes, Napoleon knew that Josephine was dead.

And of course he’s returning in the spring of 1815 because the politics of it, because what he knows what’s going on in France, the Bourbons are restored in power and the Bourbons have screwed up tremendously in terms of how they dealt with the Napoleonic legacy. And that there is an enormous discontent with with what they were doing, undoing Napoleon’s reforms or demilitarizing firing all these soldiers and officers who after decades of serving and contributing and sacrifice they’ve made are now finding themselves going to cast aside almost literally in the street and begging for sustenance.

Napoleon knows that people are unhappy and he makes this remarkable decision to come back. That’s the decision that on one hand as a historical, maybe as a person and person who is fascinated with Napoleon’s life I find it fascinating because this is the most dramatic event in modern history.

As Hugo famously says. This is the only time that a man reclaimed his empire by simply showing his head. It’s stunning, right? The guy returns with no army and he brings down the entire state by simply walking for 20 days. No violence, no bloodshed, no shooting. It’s such a dramatic story that is absolutely stunning.

But on my, my, as a historian, right, you look at it and say this is an adventurer who makes this leap of faith that he’s the one to deliver the destiny of entire nation and his decision to return lead to another war, the war of seventh coalition will claim tens of thousands of losses. France in 1815 was inherently a defeated nation that was in a far worse shape than it was in.

In 1814 because the way the coalition treated France in 1814 was very different the way they treated France in 1850 after Napoleon’s misadventure. So I think as dramatic and remarkable as this flight of eagle as his return in 1815 is, he should have stayed on Elba and I think it would have been better for him.

For him, it would have been better for France, but as it is, he made his comeback. And this is where I think the movie really doesn’t work. Is there is this scene in the movie where he encounters this Royal Army, right? At the end, it’s based on actual history. It’s an encounter at the small village of Lafayette, where the a unit of the Royal Army intercepted Napoleon and Napoleon had to make a decision.

Fight through and shed French blood inside the Civil War or turn back and be maybe arrested and exiled somewhere else or do something else. And of course he does that something else. He comes out in front of these troops, unlike the movie, there were, several thousand of them present. And he gives that remarkable speech.

And in connection shifts, the loyalties of the soldiers, but I think in the movie, it doesn’t work because for two hours by that time, the viewers have spent two hours looking at Napoleon as this. Spoiled, petulant, whiny brat. And then he gives a speech, and those soldiers in a split second switch their alliances from the king to him.

What would have made them follow this man? What would have made them make a decision to turn over their entire life for this fretful, insecure, tongue tied man? And I think that’s the biggest kind of disconnect they have, because we know this thing happened. We know that Napoleon was able to sway those men.

And that allowed him to reclaim Paris two weeks later. And yet we don’t get a sense of who he is. Is he a visionary? Is he a tyrant? Is he, as I like to borrow from Lord Clarendon, is he the great bad man? There is some greatness to him. There’s some undeniable qualities that he has that are fascinating too.

But he’s also inherently a complex man, but done a lot of bad things. The movie never explores that.

[01:32:45] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah. Which I think a lot of the things that you’ve mentioned before the complexity of the political side and how he set things up in those four years to set up what, modern, a lot of modern things in France.


[01:32:58] Alexander Mikaberidze: That’s what, when those soldiers were looking at him, that’s what they were thinking, right? Yeah. They were thinking, it’s not just one guy. It’s not just this fretful guy, but rather what he stands for. He stands for all those reforms that we’ve been benefiting from. And we have to make a decision.

Do we want that guy who promised and delivered before, and hopefully we’ll deliver again, or this new government who is actually screwing us? Yeah, and you

[01:33:24] Dan LeFebvre: don’t get it. Yeah, you don’t get that in the movie at all. Speaking of the movie, in the movie’s timeline, it’s March of 1815 now, and we see the Congress of Vienna.

Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, is talking about setting up an alliance to end Napoleon. Meanwhile, Napoleon points out their opponents, 250, 000 men with the traitor, another 25, 000 here is that, like a map with these flags of different countries, 125, 000 more, a hundred thousand from England.

That one is he points it out. He hits it a couple of the flag, a couple of the English flag, a couple of times there. All of that against 125, 000 men behind Napoleon. And he says to win, they need to defeat Wellington and Blucher’s forces separately before they unite. And then he points on the map, the movie shows the location of where they’re going to do it.

Waterloo. Now, we’ll get to the battle in a moment, but do you think the movie did a good job setting up the scenario around the Battle of Waterloo?

[01:34:20] Alexander Mikaberidze: Yeah, bearing the problems going overall, the general problem that this movie is grappling with. Yeah, I think. Can I rush through it? But it gave the viewer the basics that they probably need to know that yes, there is a Congress of Vienna, although it’s not identified as necessarily what exactly it is.

And but it, it tells us that there’s two sides, right? This European coalition on one side and Poland on the other side. And this is a decisive showdown that they will face. I think overall, I think that scene is good enough to work. I think there are bigger problems with the movie.

[01:34:56] Dan LeFebvre: At that point, we’d be nitpicking for something like that. Okay, so we’re at the Battle of Waterloo then. And it happens according to the movie, June 18th, 1815. On one side of the battlefield, Napoleon and the French. The other side is Wellington and the English. You mentioned the sniper there. And even though Napoleon wants to defeat Wellington before Blucher and the Prussians arrive, it’s raining.

So Napoleon insists that they need to wait for the ground to dry before they begin their offensive. And then we see scouts start delivering the news that Blucher’s just hours away. So Napoleon, he doesn’t say it through the dialogue, but the impression I got while I was watching the movie was, he feels very pressured to just start this battle.

And he just starts, starts with artillery, starts dumping infantry, cavalry. He himself leads men into the battle. It doesn’t go his way. There’s brutal fighting. And then at the end, Napoleon ends up running away and he raises his hand from across the battlefield to admit defeat to Wellington. How was the movie’s depiction of the Battle of Waterloo?

[01:35:57] Alexander Mikaberidze: Oh boy. At

[01:36:00] Dan LeFebvre: least there’s not a frozen lake, right?

[01:36:02] Alexander Mikaberidze: No, but by God, that’s where I just threw my hands in the air and said, Why Ridley? Why? Why? Like with Australis, the only thing that is true is that Waterloo happened and that Wellington and Napoleon were there. That’s the only thing true. It is mind blowing, mind blowing how the budget of 200 million dollars for these amazing actors, all these amazing technologies that we have, it produced a mess that will be there, again, I’ll go on a limb and say, will be remembered as probably the worst portrayal of Napoleonic warfare, not to mention battle of Waterloo in film history, it’s everything is wrong about the damn thing.

First of all, why trenches? Who fights in trenches in Napoleonic warfare? They’re not just trenches, they’re trenches with a body sticking out, right? This wooden pole sticking out of it. Let’s, okay, let’s assume that this happened. Let’s say, let’s say that Wellington decided to dig those trenches.

Why then would he order his men to leave those trenches and go onto the open ground and face the French? It’s incongruous, right? Logically, it’s not working. Not to mention that it’s historically, uh, incorrect. And then, of course, the way it’s fought, it’s like they just throw everything into this big jambalaya, remember I’m in Louisiana, into this big jambalaya dish.

Infantry, and cavalry, and artillery, and all of them are just fighting in this one big free fall in the middle of the field. That’s not how battles are fought. There is no control, there is no reasoning, there is no thinking. To it whatsoever. thEre is no mention, no mentions of the Chateau Hougoumont where the British, the King’s German Legion, the 95th Regiment heroically defended that Hougoumont from the French and essentially protected the British right flag.

What makes him even worse, it’s not that they don’t mention it, but Blucher, when he arrived with the Prussian army, he arrived from the wrong side of the battlefield where Huggenheim was supposed to be. It’s just, by that time, clearly, Ridley Scott couldn’t care less about how the battle was portrayed.

And he makes such a mess out of it that it’s, I’m genuinely heartbroken that he was an opportunity. For a master filmmaker to create something meaningful something that will stand the test of time and it. Instead, he screwed up royally,

[01:38:45] Dan LeFebvre: it was interesting to me as I was watching that, I, it just, yeah, he just, he’s, Napoleon’s just throwing his men in there, just, you go and it seems like I’m, like I mentioned, it seems like he’s under this pressure to get it done.

And it seems anything that the movie that was trying to set up or just from even just basic knowledge of Napoleon, knowing that he’s this, masterful strategic military leader. And he’s just throwing everybody in there. It’s it was almost like the movie is trying to say, Oh, just Napoleon’s just throwing out all this out.

Like he’s just forget strategy. We’re just going to try to overwhelm everybody.

[01:39:20] Alexander Mikaberidze: Yeah. Everything is mass in that scene, in that whole battle reenactment from Marshall Ney from who is one of the great heroes of Napoleon saga, a tragic figure, really but a figure who always was easily identifiable because he had this bright red hair.

He’s turning to this black hair, black mustache dude that it makes an appearance and then disappears to Wellington drinking stereotypically drinking a cup of tea. Oh yeah, in the middle of the afternoon, right? It’s a, no matter that it’s a battle, I gotta have a afternoon tea. To Napoleon leading the charge, once again, why would he do that?

To the sniper, of course, the sniper scene where there’s this telescopic thing on it.

[01:40:14] Dan LeFebvre: Which they went back to because after, after the whole scene, like on pain, Wellington says, on pain of death, you’re not going to shoot Napoleon. And then he does, and then he does like he, he misses it, shoots his hat, but then later on it goes back to him and he does.

[01:40:30] Alexander Mikaberidze: I know. It just doesn’t make sense. Of course, the distances involved is just never mentioned that nevermind.

[01:40:36] Dan LeFebvre: It’s a rifle, a sniper rifle. They can shoot however far you need. Yeah, exactly. It’s just

[01:40:42] Alexander Mikaberidze: at that point if he had, if we had seen an armored T Rex appearing on the battlefield, I know what it is.

I wouldn’t prefer my dad, you

[01:40:50] Dan LeFebvre: know, at least then, that it’s just clearly not historically accurate, at least then you have the

[01:40:57] Alexander Mikaberidze: music, right? Oh, I want to see how that works out.

[01:41:01] Dan LeFebvre: This is the alternative history that you didn’t know happened. That’s right. We have the next Jurassic world movie.

[01:41:10] Alexander Mikaberidze: Yeah. Napoleon time travels a break back in school. I would pay for

[01:41:15] Dan LeFebvre: that thing. I would watch that too. I, that, that’s true. According to the movie, after his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon is on board HMS Bell, I love her on, I believe is how it’s pronounced in. Yes. Yes. Plymouth, England in July of 1815.

And then Wellington comes on board the ship to tell Napoleon that he’s being exiled. This time, not to Elbow, he’s being exiled to St. Helena, an island about a thousand miles from Africa. Side note, I did think it was interesting that Throughout the movie Napoleon did this earlier when he’s writing to Josephine saying it’s 200 miles.

I thought it was interesting. Oh, they’re going to use miles. It’s, that’s a United States thing. But then he was saying, okay, it’s not going to be Elba, it’s St. Helena. And some of the situation is going to be different. He’s not the governor. He’s going to be watched by the governor and the governor’s family there.

His letters are going to be monitored. His presence on the island is going to be verified twice a day. Then we see October 15th, 1815, we see Napoleon arriving at Helena, St. Helena. Did the movie do a good depiction of explaining why Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena?

[01:42:20] Alexander Mikaberidze: I think so. So again bearing in mind that Wellington and Napoleon never met, so let’s set that aside.

So that meeting never happened. I would have loved for them to encounter each other, but they never met. Nevermind that, I think my British naval historian colleagues were chuckling that Napoleon was raving about how good the food was on British ship when we know it was notoriously shitty.

So that’s

[01:42:43] Dan LeFebvre: okay. No wonder why the British have such great boats. Look at this practice. It’s amazing. That’s right. That’s all it takes to be a good Navy, right? But I

[01:42:52] Alexander Mikaberidze: think I would have I was, I’m okay with that scene because it’s visually, I think, interesting. It certainly makes you wonder what these two men would have talked to each other if they had met and then the different circumstances can maybe post war.

buT I think the way Ridley kind of explains that, yes often Napoleon’s escape from Elba, European powers realize they can’t simply allow him to be anywhere near. But now that can they really have these are not, do they want to have a martyr at their hands for basically prisoning him and there are no legal grounds to execute him?

What they’re going to, Wellington refers to, Hey we could have shot, could have shot you, but no, they couldn’t because there were no legal grounds for it. And if there was something they were really gonna adamant about, it was the notion of legitimacy and the right way of doing things.

And so they ultimately what the British government decided to do is not allowing Napoleon to settle in England. And we cannot but wonder how Napoleon, the man of his character, Napoleon of his ability, of his mental acuity, could have expected the British to simply allow him to settle in some English countryside.

It’s beyond me. British government tells them, no, you cannot even step a foot on the British soil. You can stay on the ship and ultimately decide to ship him to one of the most remote corners of the world to this to this volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean where Napoleon is virtually a prisoner, but technically he’s not necessarily a prisoner in that sense, like he’s in prison.

He is free to roam the island. He just can’t leave it. I think it’s even today, right? The France owns the territory where Napoleon lived. There is the consul who lives there. sO Napoleon is free to live his life. He just, his freedom of to leave the island is taken away and he is allowed to take with him a group of companions.

I think the movie kind of shortens the timeline because when Napoleon goes to the island, Hudson Lowe is not there. There is a different governor there and actually that governor is very good, kind, outgoing, and Napoleon strucks up a relationship with that governor and his young daughter, Betsy Balcom, who is alluded to in the movie, one of these girls that is shown.

It’s clearly her Hudson Lowe comes later and when he comes Hudson Lowe is one of those neurotic, always suspicious, always looking for bad things kind of guy and he’s nervous that Napoleon will escape from the island. So Hudson Lowe, when he arrives, starts implementing restrictions that are quite egregious and that really piss off Napoleon and then worsens relationship between him and British authorities.

But the movie doesn’t show it and then and that’s understandable. We don’t want that kind of those kind of details I think the ending actually to for me it works because it shows Napoleon as these kind of poignant figure, the tragic figure, because he’s disheveled, his beard is grown, he clearly is writing his reminiscences, which he’s dating, and he is trying to recast himself to reinvent himself.

That scene where he says, hey, who burned Moscow? And the girls say we know Russians did it. He says no, I did, he’s going to attempt to rewrite history because indeed that those six years that Napoleon spent on St. Helena are fundamental to creating the Napoleonic legend, the myth of who Napoleon was, the myth that still lives with us, the myth that is the reason why this movie is made, right?

Because we, all of us are affected by the myth of Napoleon as a romantic hero. a self made man and a man who is recognizable by simply his silhouette or just an article of his clothing. You see the hat, you know it’s Napoleon, right? And all that Napoleon accomplished by reinventing himself during the exile.

To me, that is his most successful battle. And ultimately, most important battle is a battle for history, battle for posterity, battle for how future generations remember him and he wins that hands down. We call this period Napoleonic period. We don’t call it Wellingtonian period or Metternichian period, right?

No, Alexandrian period. No, it’s Napoleonic, even though he’s the loser. He lost everything from empire to his own family. And a lot dies this tragic fee and that the last scene I’ll really love that scene where Napoleon sits there this iconic shape head right looking out at the sea and then keels over because it reminds me of the Godfather scene with the Godfather dies falls over because in many respects Napoleon.

whAt was that kind of figure, right? Yeah,

[01:47:43] Dan LeFebvre: yeah it’s, it’s a very, it was a very poetic ending there. At the very end of the movie, it does have some text that says that his final words were, France, army, Josephine. Was that really his final words? Yeah, as

[01:47:57] Alexander Mikaberidze: far as we know all the evidence points this way, indeed his words, which indicate, by that time he’s in delirium but even there, those three things were dear and near to his heart.

He dies of cancer, just, it’s something not shown in the movie, but he dies of stomach cancer, a disease that claimed his father and his grandfather, so it was something that ran in his family and He was initially buried on St. Helena Island and spent there the 19 years in this unmarked, essentially grave, uh, because a British refused to acknowledge his imperial title and the French refused to simply put Bonaparte as the British insisted.

And so here it was, this unmarked slab of stone. Under which Napoleon arrested for 19 years, until 1840 when the French government requested the repatriation of his body, and you have this triumphant return of the Emperor.

[01:48:59] Dan LeFebvre: His legend is born in history, right? Yeah,

[01:49:01] Alexander Mikaberidze: exactly. That’s right. Yeah, that’s right. Is anything that he’s returned only reinforces that legend because When they sent the delegation to remove his body and they opened this tomb and they opened the six caskets that he was buried in, they found that his body was intact.

And so that only gonna reinforce the vision of this eternal emperor, the one who triumphs over death too. That even death can’t can’t defeat him. And of course, the fact that the empire will strike back, for the listeners, right? Allusion to Star Wars, but Napoleon’s family members will come back, right?

His nephew will restore the empire in 1851, and that empire will be designed in many respects to turning Napoleon into a bigger figure than he was in the legend. And we’re dealing with the after effects of all of that to the present day.

[01:49:55] Dan LeFebvre: We talked a lot about the events in the movies themselves, but overall, do you think Joaquin Phoenix did a good job portraying Napoleon on screen?

[01:50:06] Alexander Mikaberidze: I’m divided about this. So I think if you look at the stills and photos, I think Joaquin looks like him. And certainly he does look like him and conveys the aura and the appearance of him in the later years. What I think doesn’t work in the movie is that the fact that Joaquin has to play 24 year old and the 51 year old and that in that we don’t see a character evolution.

We don’t see Napoleon changing, maturing, learning, making mistakes or he’s to me the way the movie is shown is the same guy in 1793 that he’s in 1815. That’s one problem. And then I think the way Joaquin conveys the insecurities of Napoleon. They are important to show him as a human, but I think he overplays the weaker part of him because Napoleon, he’s supremely confident guy.

He’s a capable guy and he knows that he’s capable and and that part is missing. And as I was pointing out in earlier is that what we are left with is It’s the vision of a man who is constantly fretful and anxious and uncertain of himself, especially with regards to his relationship at home.

But that’s not necessarily true. We see a little glimpse of him at Austerlitz where he’s going to does the hand thing and it looks confident that he will win the battle. But it’s not the same as exploring the character evolution and showing how Napoleon was able to become what he. What he was this markable figure in European history.

[01:51:46] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah. Yeah. I thought it was, I thought it was fascinating that they they, it seems like they tried to do some character development with him throughout, but didn’t they, because they were moving so quickly. When I went to see it the first time I went to go see it with family and I think it was my cousin came out of it and mentioned like that just seemed like a bunch of historical events thrown together without much character development at all.

And I think you hit it there where he’s trying to be a 20 year old and a 50 year old and the only time that we really see any sort of change is at the very end when he’s on St. Helena, like he has that little bit of beard coming in and that seems to be the only time that he Has changed throughout the entire movie.

[01:52:28] Alexander Mikaberidze: Yeah, I agree with you. Essentially the movie is a series of pithy vignettes. Many of them kind of reenactments of famous paintings that rush us through Napoleon’s career, but not necessarily allow us to sit down and wonder why would an entire generation of French people follow this man. Why would this man be able to exert such dominance over, over Europe for so long?

This is a period of remarkable transformation and Napoleon at the very heart of it all. anD I think that supreme combination of intellect and energy, that attention to detail, that ability to multitask, to analyze, really that magnetic character that Napoleon had for better or for worse, this is important to bear in mind, right?

We don’t want The geography of Napoleon, but for better or for worse, that is all not shown in the movie. This is more of a flat character. Yeah.

[01:53:28] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah. Thank you so much for coming on to chat about Napoleon. I know you’ve written extensively about Napoleon. So for someone who, let’s say somebody just watched the movie and they want to learn more about the history and we’ve talked a lot about it, it’s left out, but there’s so much more.

Where would you recommend that they start?

[01:53:44] Alexander Mikaberidze: My, my last two books explore Napoleon’s history in, in, in quite detail. And my, my book, Napoleonic Wars, a global history is designed to show Napoleon’s impact not only on Europe, but on, on the world. And this is where I think that the reader who is interested in, in learning more can really understand that this is a period of profound consequence for the world’s history.

And Napoleon plays a crucial role because he’s both capable of men and then successful men. It’s early at the beginning of his career. And my anyone who is interested in Austerlitz and anyone who is just interested that actually what happened in Russia can look at. My biography of Kutuzov, who was Napoleon’s great rival, and ultimately outsmarts and defeats him.

[01:54:31] Dan LeFebvre: Definitely do not take the movie’s interpretation of Austerlitz there. Go read the book. That’s right. Thank you again so much for your time.

[01:54:39] Alexander Mikaberidze: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.



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