Napoleon Trailer Reminds You How Great It Is Ridley Scott Still Makes Historical Epics

The first trailer for Napoleon suggests Ridley Scott may be the last director still making historical epics set in the distant past.

Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte
Photo: Apple

Joaquin Phoenix is Napoleon Bonaparte. We admit it’s a bit of a strange idea given the absolute lack of je ne sais quoi energy (or French accent) that comes to mind when you think of the American actor. Nevertheless, in the first trailer for Ridley Scott’s Napoleon biopic, there is something undeniably intriguing about the performance, not least of which because this is a chance to see Phoenix work with Scott again in a sprawling historical context.

Indeed, the first and last time the pair collaborated was Gladiator, the film that won Scott a Best Picture Oscar and garnered Phoenix a supporting actor nomination. In that film, Phoenix played another tyrant, too, albeit a less ambiguous one (there are no grand monuments to Commodus in Rome like there is for Napoleon in Paris!). Yet the more interesting point of contrast might be how much the film industry has changed in the 23 years between Gladiator and Napoleon.

Back then, Gladiator was certainly a game-changing film which revitalized the so-called swords and sandals epic, but it was also in a long Hollywood tradition of grandiose and bombastic films that created at least the illusion of traveling to distant historical moments. A few years before Gladiator, there was the wildly ahistorical Braveheart, and a few years after Scott’s Roman epic, there was a deluge of ancient war films that saw everyone from Peter Weir (with the Napoleonic Wars-set Master & Commander) to Oliver Stone (Alexander) get in on the action. Through it all, there was Scott. Some of his follow-ups to Gladiator worked (the director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven) and others did not (the theatrical cut of Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood, as well), but in his later years, Scott revealed a passion for drawing ancient landscapes that rivals even his love for sci-fi world-building.

More than two decades later, it’s a factor into why Napoleon seems so appealing in its first trailer. The Emperor of France led such a monumental life that it is difficult to imagine containing it in a single movie. As the trailer hints, his campaigns of conquest and alleged liberation carried him from the deserts of Egypt to, infamously, the snowy wastelands of Russia. While they weren’t called world wars back then, Napoleon fought almost all the other powers of Europe and for a brief moment appeared destined to rule the continent through sheer strength of tactical brilliance.

Ad – content continues below

That is glimpsed in the new trailer, as is the French general’s tempestuous love affair with the woman who would become his wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais (Vanessa Kirby). And in the modern landscape of Hollywood moviemaking, such ambition by Scott feels itself like a throwback; a revenant from a different era of moviemaking where audiences showed up for epics that did not involve capes and cowls. Because when you look around, Scott increasingly appears like he’ll be the last filmmaker standing in this genre.

In fact, it was one of Scott’s best entries in the genre that also seemed to put a nail in its coffin a few years ago. Released by 20th Century Studios, The Last Duel (2021) was a superb and surprisingly accurate depiction of a legally sanctioned duel fought between two French knights at the end of the 14th century. A drama made seemingly for our post-#MeToo times, with the duel occurring after one nobleman raped the wife of the other, the picture featured an all-star cast which included Adam Driver, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and what should’ve been a movie star-making turn by Jodie Comer. Comer gave an awards-worthy performance, and Affleck and Damon reunited on the big screen for the first time since Dogma in 1999… and audiences didn’t care.

The film grossed only $30.6 million worldwide and led Affleck, who also co-wrote the film with Damon and Nicole Holofcener, to tell the press he suspected that might be his last theatrically released movie because the types of films he wants to make, including historical epics, aren’t doing well in theaters anymore. Hence taking his next directorial effort to Amazon: Air. Ironically, the streamer then elected to put that into theaters based on how well it tested with an audience.

It would seem something similar might be happening with Napoleon. Produced by Apple Studios for its AppleTV+ streaming service, Napoleon appeared to be Scott pivoting to the realities of the industry where adult-leaning historical epics are supposed on streaming, and not in theaters. And yet, Apple announced earlier this year it was partnering with Sony’s Columbia Pictures to release Napoleon into cinemas, after all. It would seem like the French general, Scott is refusing to let one of his favorite genres retire from field, and be forced to live in exile on the veritable island of Elba. He went to streaming, but it seems the filmmaker has regrouped and is bringing the genre back for another campaign into theaters.

After all these years, it really is nice to see. And whether Napoleon succeeds or not, Scott already has the next one lined up for next year: Gladiator 2. Victory really does belong to the most persevering.

Napoleon opens on Nov. 22 in the U.S. and UK.

Ad – content continues below