Apollo Magazine

Hollywood’s Waterloo – the art of playing Napoleon

Ridley Scott is pressing ahead with his biopic about Bonaparte – but Rakewell has a modest proposal regarding the leading man

Marlon Brando as Napoleon Bonaparte.

A one-way ticket from Paris to Palookaville? Marlon Brando as Napoleon Bonaparte. Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

Your roving correspondent was glad to be reminded this week that, undaunted by the derision met by The Last Duel, his most recent excursion into the past, Ridley Scott is pressing ahead with his film about Napoleon. The General has, after all, been inspiration for some of the world’s greatest works of art. The latest news is that Jodie Comer won’t be bringing her Killing Eve energy to the role of Josephine after all, but at least her replacement, Vanessa Kirby (formerly of The Crown), is no stranger to playing petulant royals. While the title, Kitbag, is hardly encouraging – let us hope it is sent packing before the film hits the big screen – Joaquin Phoenix as the conquering Corsican may be a more entertaining prospect than it sounds. For all his method intensity, playing on the spectrum between Johnny Cash and the Joker, the actor usually retains something of a glint in his eye.

Perhaps the only depiction of Napoleon that counts as a masterpiece is, fittingly, a French one: Albert Dieudonné’s uncomfortably intense performance in Abel Gance’s epic of 1927 (no wonder the actor wanted to be buried in his costume from the film). Although surely Stanley Kubrick would have provided some real competition if he had managed to get his Napoleon project off the ground? In the absence of more true cinematic greatness, Rakewell admits to having a soft spot for the freewheeling fantasies of le petit corporal as dreamt up by Hollywood – and for great actors spouting wooden dialogue. While Terry Camilleri’s emperor in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), will always hold a special space in our heart, we can’t deny Marlon Brando first place. There is something astounding about the fact that, in the same year in which On the Waterfront was released, Brando starred in the bizarre Technicolor biopic that is Desirée (1954). If you’re not mesmerised by the sideburns and ponytail, there’s the breathy English diction in which Brando seems to be channelling John Gielgud playing a mafia don – as well as the general slinking around; glowering next to garnitures has never looked so good.

Still, perhaps Kitbag could be a contender after all? It is no exaggeration to say that Scott’s House of Gucci recently exceeded all of your roving correspondent’s expectations. We have no idea whether it is good or bad, but are convinced that it is some kind of masterpiece. If there is a forceful actor of Italian descent who really should be playing Bonaparte in a biopic, it is surely Lady Gaga. We cast our prayers upon the winds and hope they will reach Ridley Scott. Truly it could bring his film to the edge of glory.

Got a story for Rakewell? Get in touch at rakewell@apollomag.com or via @Rakewelltweets.

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