Napoleon: the “monster-liberator” of Corsica

Ridley Scott's latest film, Napoleon, proves the enduring appeal of the French emperor.

Statue of Napoleon Bonaparte as First emperor of France, Ajaccio, island of Corsica
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) has long held a “seductive” appeal for artists, says Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. He ranks third behind Jesus and Hitler in the number of books written about him, says Simon Schama in the Financial Times, and outdoes them both in the number of films. 

Just what kind of person sits at the centre of this cult is in the eye of the beholder. In Sergei Bondarchuk’s film Waterloo, he was a “world-weary gang boss”; in King Vidor’s War and Peace, a “dwindling absurdity”. But in Ridley Scott’s “outrageously enjoyable” epic biopic (starring Joaquin Phoenix), he is the “arch satirist and grinning mastermind, the outsider, the brilliant observer and exploiter of other people’s weaknesses, the proto-capitalist entrepreneur”.

Born Napoleone di Buonaparte on Corsica, he graduated from a military academy in Paris, serving in the Corsican resistance to French rule, and rising to power in the aftermath of the French revolution, seizing power in a coup in 1799. As emperor, he transformed French society, ushering in the Napoleonic Code, which still serves as the basis of civil codes around the world today, and conquering vast territories across Europe, reshaping the political landscape. Most of his wealth was acquired through his military campaigns, which brought him the spoils of war, including gold, precious artefacts, and land. His net worth in today’s money has been estimated at around $400m.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

What we learn from Scott’s film, says Janan Ganesh in the FT, is that Napoleon did “a lot of bad sh*t” to acquire that wealth. And the film has provoked a lot of “as bad as Hitler” talk among talking heads. But really, he was more a “necessary autocrat” – the kind of leader who centralises in order to enact broadly liberal reform. If that seems distasteful today, it is because “those who were early to modernity can be hopeless at giving directions to the place”. Scott gives a "more textured portrait” of this “monster-liberator” than the trailers and reviews would have you believe.

This article was first published in MoneyWeek's magazine. Enjoy exclusive early access to news, opinion and analysis from our team of financial experts with a MoneyWeek subscription.

Jane writes profiles for MoneyWeek and is city editor of The Week. A former British Society of Magazine Editors editor of the year, she cut her teeth in journalism editing The Daily Telegraph’s Letters page and writing gossip for the London Evening Standard – while contributing to a kaleidoscopic range of business magazines including Personnel Today, Edge, Microscope, Computing, PC Business World, and Business & Finance.

She has edited corporate publications for accountants BDO, business psychologists YSC Consulting, and the law firm Stephenson Harwood – also enjoying a stint as a researcher for the due diligence department of a global risk advisory firm.

Her sole book to date, Stay or Go? (2016), rehearsed the arguments on both sides of the EU referendum.

She lives in north London, has a degree in modern history from Trinity College, Oxford, and is currently learning to play the drums.