We were sad on May 5, 2021. A page was turning: the circle of bicentenaries ended with the death of Napoleon. How were we going to occupy ourselves? Bonapartist nature abhors a vacuum, Ridley Scott, Sony and Apple have decided to offer us a (new) film about the great man. Could this be THE big, long-awaited film? The reviews are more than mixed and Joaquin Phoenix's performance is highly commented on.
Is it easy to interpret Napoleon? Or rather Bonaparte? Or Napoleon and Bonaparte? Total and complex character, strange and penetrating, charming and terrifying, slender then obese, agile then heavy... Playing part or all of the life of Corsican (1769-1821) is a challenge. Many have tried, few have succeeded. A good Napoleon in the cinema is a Napoleon captured at a defined moment in his life - the most accessible being that of his fall and exile. Great biographical frescoes are often missed. The actor must also think of the victorious and ambitious general, the brilliant and angry emperor, the dependent and conquering lover, the fallen and embittered man.
To mark the release of the film, we selected more than 100 actors who donned the cocked hat (we must be missing some), rated them out of 20 and ranked them. A little commentary accompanies our “tops” and our “flops”. All under the complicit and expert gaze of Thierry Lentz, director of the Fondation Napoléon. Abel Gance, Sacha Guitry, Monty Python... From these few lines, a century of cinema gazes upon you.
1. Albert Dieudonné (Napoleon, 1927)
An evidence. By his silhouette, his look and even his behavior, Albert Dieudonné had to finish number 1. Did he not present himself at the casting in imperial costume in front of Abel Gance? The filmmaker told France 3 in 1976 about his first meeting with the actor, then 37 years old. “I said to him: “Now Albert you are going to say what you will say to the army of Italy: soldiers, you are naked etc.” And here he is saying it, in this atmosphere, so imbued with this character, with his real costume, in the real setting, I said: “well, you will play the role!”” Napoleon is him! But, be careful, he is the Napoleon of the legend, exactly what the director wanted him to be. The film is brilliant, as is Dieudonné's performance. And given the staggering (and, let's face it, boring) length of some scenes, he is the longest-running Napoleon in the history of cinema! But Napoleon is a sun: anyone who rubs too closely risks getting burned. Dieudonné's career did not recover from this performance. The cinematic exile lasted until his death in 1976. A death that he staged while being buried in his Napoleon costume. For eternity. We think of Chateaubriand's judgment. “Alive he missed the world, dead he possesses it.”
2. Pierre Mondy (Austerlitz, 1960)
Pierre Mondy, an underrated actor and brilliant director, was 35 years old when he played a Napoleon who was... 36 years old. Perfect alignment of the arteries. The actor is captivating in the role of the emperor preparing and executing his greatest military victory. Without having exactly the physique, Pierre Mondy has the nerve necessary to be Napoleon. He adds this disarming smile noticed by all those who met the real emperor. Mondy’s anger in the scene where the “Boulogne pirouette” is decided is masterful. If the curse will not affect the popular actor (The Pink Telephone, The 7th Company or Les Cordier), he will not find a role worthy of him. Unfortunately.
3. Christian Clavier (Napoléon, 2002)
Evil tongues like to make fun. “Already under Jacquouille, Napoleon saw through.” Crowned with the success of the two Visitors (where he plays at the end of the second opus the faithful public accuser Jacquouillet of a very successful Bonaparte - absent from the credits) and a solid performance in Les Misérables, the boss of the French box office is asked by Jean-Pierre Guérin and Gérard Depardieu to don the bicorn hat. Skepticism is rising and some are daring: “What the hell is this binz.” “I asked my master Pierre Mondy how to play Napoleon. He told me, “put on the hat and think about your taxes: that’s where you look,” confides Christian Clavier. More seriously, if he is in difficulty with Bonaparte, notably on the Pont d'Arcole (still age - he is 50 at the time of the film), the actor from Les Bronzés is imperial as Napoleon. The physical resemblance is there. His pent-up energy, ready to burst out at any moment, is a force for playing the big man. Above all, Clavier thought out, better intellectualized, the role. He understood the carnal relationship of the emperor with France; knew how to interact with his brothers and his subordinates (“He accepted being betrayed, never being disappointed”); perfectly brought to life this tumultuous and heartbreaking love story with Joséphine; and above all, succeeded in sublimating the place of destiny in the life of Napoleon. Twenty years after its broadcast on France 2, this is one of the last remarkable and noted performances. What’s more, it allowed the emperor to remain as popular as ever (nearly eight million viewers). Evil tongues never have the last word.
4. Rod Steiger (Waterloo , 1970)
One of the most Hollywood interpretations in a film by a Russian (Sergueï Bondarchuk). Funny coalition. Steiger perfectly translates the Napoleon of turmoil, that of the battle that escapes him - Waterloo - that of internal turmoil. Tired, more than overwhelmed, desperate, Napoleon is (and has) lost. We believe it: this Napoleon is at home in millimeter-tuned battle scenes that will not be found in any “Napoleonic” film. And we will never see such a battle reconstruction again with all these extras. The last minute of the film is of unparalleled dramatic intensity.
5. Philippe Torreton (Mr. N., 2002)
The Napoleon of Saint Helena: sad and secret, capable of devastating outbursts. A very great film by Antoine de Caunes and an immense composition, when we know the descriptions given by his companions on this lost island. Napoleon is master of himself, plays with his courtiers and his jailer, the terrible Hudson Low who wrote: "After a few days with Napoleon, I was not long in imbuing myself with a truth that time has not revealed. that too confirmed: misfortune had degraded my prisoner, or, to put it better, it had made him descend to the first rungs of his existence. It was Bonaparte with all his human weaknesses, with all the intemperance of his character, with all his Italian prejudices. Insensibly brought back to this point of primitive life, we no longer found in him this moral force which had placed him above humanity. Without philosophy in misfortune, he used curses against fortune, against this fortune which had so largely favored him in the best years of his giant existence. Nothing matched his hatred against those who were witnesses to his great misfortune.” It is this great misfortune that Torreton manages to perfectly translate.
6. Roland Blanche (The Hostage of Europe, 1988)
It’s one of the great surprises of Napoleonic filmography. Roland Blanche is fantastic in this Napoleon who does not know what is happening to him: having climbed so high, having dominated Europe, and therefore the world, holding in his hands the destiny of hundreds of millions of people and descending so low, on a tiny stone, totally passive in the face of its destiny. With her glassy eyes and sallow complexion, Blanche is quite close to the Saint Helena original. His physical degradation is one of the most realistic in history. The final shot is a masterpiece: it is not the face of Roland Blanche that we see, but the death mask of the emperor.
7. Marlon Brando (Desiree, 1954)
The biggest star of the time proves that you can be a huge actor in a bad film. Marlon Brando is a captivating general, a charming first consul, a disturbing emperor and insignificant exile. The performance deserves to be highlighted because we feel, looking at him, like Madame de Staël in December 1797, stunned by her so seductive smile. But as for opponent number 1, it’s afterward that things get bad. Ultimately, in Napoleonic cinema, isn’t it the atmosphere and the understanding of the character that counts?
Also read: Jean Seberg, Marlon Brando, Anouk Aimée... When cinema inspires literature
8. Dennis Hopper (The History of Mankind, 1957)
Seeing this young American, 21 years old, playing Napoleon (and not Bonaparte!), we have the impression of being in front of a sculpture by Canova. Hopper, with his ancient features, his bronze complexion and his triumphant youth, is Napoleon in Mars, disarmed and peacemaking - one of the scenes takes place in front of a bronze of Napoleon. A short appearance, but full of grace.
9. Patrice Chéreau (Adieu Bonaparte, 1985)
In this very successful film about the Egyptian campaign, Youssef Chahine offers Patrice Chéreau the opportunity to play a Bonaparte of rare depth. Far from the myth, he is calculating, consumed with ambition and a liar. The line is undoubtedly too thick - it is a clearly militant film -, but this Bonaparte invader (and not liberator) maintains his credibility through the acting and his dark and vengeful gaze.
10. Aldo Maccione (La Grande Débandade, 1975)
“Adventure is adventure.” Aldo Maccione overturns everything we thought we knew about Napoleon in a crazy film. With “class” on top of that.
11. Daniel Mesguich (Josephine or the Comedy of Ambitions, 1979)
He undoubtedly has the look that most resembles young Bonaparte. And what youth! What enthusiasm! Daniel Mesguich's interpretation is a perfect balance between the slightly adolescent passion, the sense of duty and the brutality of the 18th century man. It is a perfect integration of the actor into the subject of the film. This also matters because, let us never forget, it remains first and foremost cinema. Right Ridley?
12. Vladislav Strzelczyk (Guerre et Paix, 1966)
Apart from the French, what people can know Napoleon so well? The Russians, of course. In the adaptation of Tolstoy's masterpiece, Strzelczyk, over six feet tall, is stunning as an emperor rid of his bad manners, as if he had finally entered the great aristocratic world.
13. David Suchet (Sabotage!, 2000)
One of the most comfortable Englishmen in the role. Skillfully wearing the cocked hat, handling the telescope with efficiency, Suchet, who is the age that Napoleon never was (54 years old), delivers an astonishing and offbeat performance. The film, a real rubbish, is in fact a crazy comedy filled with more or less subtle gags. It’s almost a boulevard film. It’s normal that Suchet feels at home there.
14. Jean-Marc Thibault (Napoleon II, the Eaglet, 1961)
Without doubt the Napoleon who dies the best in cinema.
15. Ian Holm (Bandits, bandits , 1981 et The Emperor's New Clothes , en 2001)
It is to Marie Walewska that we owe the best definition of Ian Holm's performance in this little nugget from Terry Gilliam: “You are two men in conflict with each other. The first is governed by the head, the second by the heart. Twenty years later, the story places Holm as an old Napoleon returning to Paris.
16. Janusz Zakrzeński (Cendres, 1965)
A very good performance from this serious and diligent Polish actor in the role of the emperor.
17. Daniel Gélin (Napoléon, 1955)
Napoleon seen by Guitry? As unexpected as Talleyrand seen by Guitry… But it’s Guitry!
18. Volodymyr Zelensky (Rzhevsky Versus Napoleon, 2012)
The future Ukrainian president who plays the emperor in a Russian burlesque fresco... The summary of this performance seems to go back ages as the life of the actor-head of state-warlord has changed. Wearing the cocked hat rather well, Zelensky is almost the same height as Napoleon and is a decent age (34 years old) when he plays the conqueror who wishes to invade Moscow. The nods to (cinematic) History are always astonishing.
19. Pierre Vernier (Caroline Chérie, 1968)
Accustomed to the films of Jean-Paul Belmondo and made popular by the soap opera Rocambole, Pierre Vernier delivers a fine performance as General Bonaparte in this film which is very pleasant to watch - there is also the always excellent Bernard Blier. The only scene with Gaston de Sallanches is a good moment.
20. Terry Jones et Simon Russell Beale
Seeing Terry Jones, from Monty Python, flying to the sound of La Marseillaise with two small propellers to simulate the disaster of the R101 (an airship which crashed in Beauvais in 1930) proves that if Napoleon had no humor, those who admire him have them. We can also cite the scene from The Black Viper, a hilarious British series where Simon Russell Beale plays a bloated Napoleon who justifies his invasion of England to one of his disciples. Extract :
Napoleon: “We are invading because the British think they are so strong! They think that we, the French, are sissies… They call us femmelettes.”
Duke of Darling: “With all due respect your majesty, we are womenlets. We invented tapestry, soufflé and sweet liqueur. We will be massacred as soon as we climb the hill.”
Napoleon: “Do not despair. I firmly believe that God hates the British. He will intervene miraculously and send us a glorious victory on this field of Waterloo.”
Duke of Darling: “Oh well done! By the way, your uniform looks really beautiful today.”
Napoleon: “Oh thank you, I think it works.” Before jumping when a ball approaches.
Also read: Monty Python, six boys still in style
22. Werner Krauss (Napoleon on Saint Helena, 1929)
A well-made twilight Napoleon.
23. Serge Lama (Napoleon, 1982)
First breach of contract: it is not a film, but a musical. Forget Michel Sardou: the emperor of French variety is him, Serge Lama. In 1970, he wrote Une île, a wonderful song about the exile of the emperor between melancholy, regret and introspection. It's shiny and thin. With his long hair, comparisons with Bonaparte multiply. He came up with the idea of creating a musical comedy about the life of the emperor. It will be operetta style. Often funny (“At forty, I will eat too much, I will become fat, I am sure of it. At forty, little corporal will die of his horse from being overweight”), imaginative (“The appearance of 'a crown or the hope of a palace throw the same man into your arms. The same who fought you'), erotic ("Finally your lips that I kiss. Finally your stomach that I nail. Forgive me my Polish, I'm hungry like a wolf") or kitsch ("Ah if I had a child from her, a child who would have my wings and my beak, but his stomach is dry"), this singing "Napoleon" hit the mark in 1982 Lama is a guignolesque, almost cartoonish Bonaparte; Serge is a more laborious Napoleon, because he is not serious enough. The musical was Lama's Austerlitz: a fantastic commercial success with packed houses. But also his intellectual Waterloo, the triumphant media left having little taste for this imperial praise. “It’s sad like greatness”
Also read: Serge Lama: “The song is going through gloomy times”
24. Fabrizio Rongione (It Was Bonaparte, 2002)
Second breach of contract: this is a theatrical fresco signed Robert Hossein and Alain Decaux. Grandiloquent as always with the director, it glorifies the journey of the young general until the coronation (with a breathtaking Arcole bridge). Fabrizio Rongione is striking in his resemblance: the deep features, the long, supple hair and that Italian complexion reinforce the illusion. We believe in.
25. Charles Vanel (Waterloo , 1927)
He has the look and profile of the declining and slightly lost emperor at Waterloo. A silent film lasting more than two hours, Waterloo celebrates the victory of the coalition and the shots on the emperor are ultimately quite rare. Long before that of fear, the wages of glory.
26. Viggo Larsen (Napoleon on the Island of Elba, 1909)
Jean Tulard's favorite, therefore necessarily one of the best. At least with the Mute, no one can criticize the voice and tone.
27. Marc Schneider (The Emperor of Paris, 2018).
Here, the emperor is Vidocq (Vincent Cassel) but a magnificent scene takes place in the Tuileries cabinet, with Fouché (Fabrice Lucchini) and, in a corner, Ney (the excellent director of the film, Jean-François Richet)... The emperor (the real one) passes by and gives a few piercing glances. Richet has Mark Schneider play the role and it's a bit of a cheat: this American born in 1969 has "been" the Napoleon in historical reconstructions for twenty years (in competition with the Frenchman Franck Samson). Where are we going if we ask the (almost) real Napoleon to make films!
Also read: The Emperor of Paris: Vidocq, order without morality
28. Joaquin Phoenix (Napoleon, 2023)
At the time of playing Napoleon, Joaquin Phoenix was 49 years old. At this age, the emperor is living out his final months on a dingy rock: he is overweight, immobile, and beginning to “chickle.” Phoenix runs and climbs during the siege of Toulon, then flirts with Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby, 14 years his junior while the real one was six years older than Napoleon). Let's move on from this major spatio-temporal fault. The actor is a sort of anti-Napoleon: not very expansive, rigid, constantly out of breath, capricious, brawling, almost vulgar, sensitive (not about the number of deaths, but about his marital difficulties) and toxic. Napoleon cries a lot, speaks little, whispers and orders with gestures. Sometimes when he speaks to Joséphine, Phoenix becomes Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver: “You talkin' to me.” Or looks like Didier Bourdon parodying Sylvester Stallone in “Jesus II, the Return”. In short, a huge disappointment given the actor's career and Ridley Scott's pharaonic project. There remain a few brilliant scenes, notably on the battlefield where Phoenix has the look of the military genius while others are lost in that of the gladiator. Enough to save the performance? "Joker"!
29. Charles Boyer (Marie Waleska, 1937)
Black and frightening look. On bad days, Napoleon must have looked like Charles Boyer.
30. Jean-Louis Barrault (The Fabulous Destiny of Désirée Clary, 1941)
An interesting interpretation of the young Bonaparte far from pictorial representations. The dialogues are just too modern.
31. Raymond Pellegrin (Napoleon, 1955)
He takes over from Daniel Gélin when it comes to playing Napoleon and does just as well. Hat (from Poupard, obviously)!
32. Philippe Adrien (Cadoudal, 1972)
33. Roger Carel (The Traveler of the Centuries, 1971)
34. Émile Chautard (The Eaglet, 1914)
35. Emile Drain (10 films)
36. Trevor Howard (Eagle in a cage , 1965)
37. William Humphrey (4 films)
38. Stefan Jaracz (2 films)
39. Sacha Guitry (The Fabulous Destiny of Désirée Clary, 1942)
40. Hervé Jolly (The Great Conjurations: The Attack on Rue Saint-Nicaise, 1978)
41. Stacy Keach (The Man of Destiny , 1973)
42. Claude Rains (Hearts Divided , 1936)
43. William Sabatier (Waterloo, 1970)
44. Georges Saillard (Bonaparte and Pichegru 1804, 1911)
45. Pierre Santini (Guerilla or the Disasters of War, 1983)
46. Eli Wallach (The Adventures of Brigadier Gérard, 1970)
47. Joe E. Tata (The Time Tunnel , 1966)
48. Jean-François Stévenin (Napoleon and Europe, 1991)
49. Pierre Massimi (France, images of a revolution, 1989)
50. Erich Ponto (The Fire Devil, 1940)
51. Billy Quirk (The Man Worthwhile , 1921)
53. Paul Muni (Seven Faces , 1929)
54. Max Megy (Madame sans gêne, 1941)
55. George Hernandez (Monte-Cristo, 1912)
56. Gustaw Holoubek (Marysia and Napoleon, 1966)
57. Ernst Schröder (Waterloo , 1969)
58. Heinrich Schweiger (2 films)
59. Ferdinand von Alten (Madame Récamier, 1920)
60. Jean-Louis Allibert (Let’s meet the Champs-Élysées, 1920)
61. Yannis Baraban (Joséphine, 2004)
62. Alan Badel (Omnibus, 1953)
63. Ernest Batley (The Battle of Waterloo , 1913)
64. Simon Callow (The man of destiny , 1994)
65. Alain Chabat (Night at the Museum 2, 2009)
66. Scali Delpeyrat (War and Peace, 2007)
67. Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu (Austerlitz, victory while marching, 2006)
68. Frank Finlay (Betzi , 1978)
69. Vladimir Gardine (War and Peace, 1915)
70. Kenneth Griffith (The Man on the Rock , 1938)
71. Thomas Langmann (Toussaint Louverture, 2012)
72. Denis Manuel (2 films)
73. Gérard Oury (The Beautiful Spy, 1953)
74. Saul Rubinek (Mentors, 1999)
75. Séverin Mars (The Agony of the Eagles, 1921)
76. André Reybaz (The trumpet of Bérézina, 1966)
77. Mathieu Kassovitz (War and Peace, 2015)
78. James Tolkan (War and Love, 1975)
79. Bruno Solo (Madame without embarrassment, 2002)
80. Giani Esposito (Thunder over the Indian Ocean, 1966)
81. Theo Frenkel (Checkmated, 1911)
82. Jean Godet (Kiki, 1932)
83. William De Vaulle (Tea : with a kick , 1925)
84. Franck Currier (The Misleading Lady , 1920)
85. Philippe Collin (Civil Wars in France, 1978)
86. Jean Chaduc (Pamela, 1945)
87. Roger Coggio (Marie Waleska, 1969)
88. Grégoire Colin (Napoleon and Mahroussa, 2012)
89. Pierre Blanchar (A Royal divorce , 1938)
90. John Bennett (The Strange World of Gurney Slade , 1960)
91. Julien Bergeau (Madame sans-gêne, 1961)
92. Peter Elviro (Madman and Wanderer , 1946)
93. Herbert Lom (2 films)
94. Jean-Louis Jemma (Cadet-Rousselle, 1954)
95. Robert Manuel (Famous Escapes, 1972)
96. James Mason (Omnibus , 1953)
97. Dennis King (The Philco Television Playhouse , 1949)
98. Henry Gibson (My Beloved Witch, 1968)
99. Robert O. Cornthwaite (The Horseman in the Mask, 1955)
100. Lawrence Dobkin (Napoleon's Return from Elba , 1955)
101. Booth Colman (Schlitz Playhouse of Stars , 1952)
102. Max Barwyn (The Fighting Eagle , 1927)
103. Ron Cook (1 film and 1 series)
104. Doumel (Alexis gentleman chauffeur, 1938)
105. Lloyd Corrigan (Napoleon's Last Offensive, 1933)
106. Verne Troyer (Jack the Masked Avenger, 2000)
Napoleon was short (not for the time, but his meter 69 is difficult to find today). From there to having him played by the smallest actor in the world (81 cm)...
107. Pavel Knorr (1812 , 1912)
The actor takes the broth.
108. Éric Fraticelli (Ulanskaya ballada, 2012)
So: being born on the same island as the great man does not guarantee entry into the imperial costume.
109. Daniel Auteuil (Napoléon et moi, 2006)
But what did one of the greatest French actors do in this mess? Auteuil plays the exile on the Elbe and fails to save this very disappointing film. Napoleon yes, but without us.