From the day Napoleon Bonaparte first assumed command of an army in Italy in 1797 to the day he was packed off to exile on the rock of St. Helena in 1815, the “Corsican Ogre,” as he was sometimes known, time reshaped the cultural, economic and political foundations of Europe.
From a filmmaker’s point of view, the Europe of the early 19th Century is a place of revolutionary drama, grand battles, sumptuous costumes and glittering ballrooms — and the cinema has been blessed with a handful of strikingly accurate depictions of the period.
One of the most historically accurate Napoleonic filmmaking is director Ridley Scott’s 1977 directorial debut, “The Duellists.” The script is based upon a Joseph Conrad story about two real French cavalry officers who engage in a series of duels throughout the Napoleonic Wars. The costumes and hairstyles, complete with their elaborate tassels and mustaches, are gorgeous, as are the details of the settings and the duels themselves. Forget about flashy sword swings, for “The Duellists” evokes the proper, measured use of rapiers, cavalry sabers, heavy bastard swords and pistols. The astonishing thing about “The Duellists” is how the movie was made on a budget of $900,000 ($3.3 million in 2010 dollars) that required many of the sets to be improvised from real places in rural France.
A more modern Napoleonic film is the epic “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” starring Russell Crowe. This film masterfully captures the essence of sailing ship warfare and the lives of the men who served aboard those vessels. A faithful combination of separate Patrick O’Brian novels, “Master and Commander” puts the audience in world where even Crowe’s Captain Jack Aubrey’s privacy is limited, the food is full of weevils, and the common sailor’s pleasure amounts to a tot of rum and a little fellowship. Equally detailed Other facets of Napoleonic life are equally detailed, including the antiquated speech, the primitive science and medicine of y the ship’s doctor, and the far-flung plot which carries the vessel as far as the Galapagos Islands.
The Napoleonic period included social changes as well as war as seen in the 2006 film “Amazing Grace.” Its hero is William Wilberforce, a British politician who campaigned to abolish the slave trade from 1782 to 1807. The film lovingly details the the period and its politics through the lens of a moral crusader. Since politics is about personality, we meet many interesting lesser-known historical figures. For example, Banastre Tarleton, well-known to American cinema goers as the inspiration for the villain Tavington in the Mel Gibson movie “The Patriot,” was the leader of the pro-slave trade bloc in Parliament. Here, we meet the man again, older and still opposing liberty wherever he may find it.
What these historically accurate films based on the Napoleonic period demonstrate is that even a fictional movie can be very faithful to the times it represents, while not sacrificing entertainment value. Historically accurate details enrich a good story, especially for a time like the Napoleonic Era, which has so many good stories to tell.