The 10 best performances as Napoleon Bonaparte in cinema history

The 10 best performances as Napoleon Bonaparte in cinema history

Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is about to invade the global box office and install itself as supreme leader for the next few weeks. Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby are already picking up awards season buzz for their portrayals of Napoleon and his wife Joséphine and there’s a chance Scott could finally score the Academy Award for Best Director he’s been cruelly denied for so long.

But Napoleon Bonaparte has been a fixture of cinema for almost as long as there have been moving pictures, so let’s look back at these depictions and pick the ten best. And yes, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure makes the cut.

Joaquin Phoenix – Napoleon (2023)

Let’s get the latest hotness out of the way early on. Joaquin Phoenix has been absolutely nailing it to the wall with his recent performances and his Napoleon is no exception. While many reviews have issues with Scott’s historical accuracy, few are finding any fault with Phoenix. Perhaps the best summary comes from The Guardian‘s five-star review, which concludes by saying Phoenix is the key to the movie: “a performance as robust as the glass of burgundy he knocks back: preening, brooding, seething and triumphing.”

Albert Dieudonné – Napoléon (1927)

Let’s zip back almost a century to Abel Gance’s incredible silent epic starring Albert Dieudonné. Gance’s movie demolishes the notion that silent films are stuffy and dull and is crammed with incredible camera work, nifty effects, groundbreaking use of montage, and a cast of hundreds.

But Dieudonné is at the heart of the movie, delivering a truly committed Napoleon throughout many years of his life. Dieudonné was so happy with his performance that, in accordance with his last wishes, when he died in 1976 he was buried in his Napoleon costume. Now that’s commitment!

Dennis Hopper – The Story of Mankind (1957)

The Story of Mankind covers many key moments in world history, though one true highlight is a very early performance from Dennis Hopper as Napoleon at the beginning of his career. Hopper would go on to cement himself for his eccentric and intense performances in later years, and the glimmering of his future success can be seen in his ambitious Napoleon brooding over conquering Europe and outlining his plans to become an Emperor. We only wish we’d gotten a full movie of this!

Ian Holm – Time Bandits (1981)

Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits is about thieves stealing treasure from important events in the past, so doesn’t particularly try for historical accuracy. Even so, we’ve always loved The Lord of the Rings and Alien icon Ian Holm’s all-too-brief scenes as Napoleon, all delivered in an accent that somehow straddles realism and parody.

Holm would later return to Napoleon in 2001’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, but we prefer this weirder take.

Marlon Brando – Désirée (1954)

Acting legend Marlon Brando stepping into the boots of Napoleon Bonaparte? How can you go wrong? Well, while Brando predictably nails it as Bonaparte (and is playing opposite Jean Simmons as Josephine), there’s a reason Désirée isn’t generally counted among the great Napoleon movies. The first is that this is a romance movie more than a war film, and the second is that any Brando retrospective will inevitably focus on his other release that year, On the Waterfront. But hey, Brando as Bonaparte? Can’t turn down that!

James Tolkan – Love and Death (1975)

The jury may still be out on whether it’s okay to enjoy a Woody Allen movie, though I’ve always liked 1975’s Love and Death, which pokes fun at pompous adaptations of Russian literature. James Tolkan plays Napoleon, with Woody Allen’s character conceiving of a plan to assassinate him in order to spend time with his wife. Tolkan’s Napoleon is very broad, but still draws some very goofy chuckles.

Rod Steiger – Waterloo (1970)

Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo didn’t skimp when it came time to recreate the titular battle. 15,000 extras were hired for its Battle of Waterloo scene, all in authentic period costume, and all recreating the battle as it was fought. This remains the record for the highest number of costumed extras on screen and, as battles like this would now be almost entirely CGI, is likely to take that crown.

But even against that spectacle Rod Steiger’s Napoleon stands out a mile. Some scenery is chewed, but when you’re playing a man who wants to conquer Europe that’s understandable.

Phillipe Torreton – Monsieur N (2003)

Everyone knows that Napoleon died on Saint Helena. What this film presupposes is… maybe he didn’t? Monsieur N is a very fun alt-history exploring how Napoleon might have evaded his captors and retired to a quiet life in Louisiana, going so far as to imagine him attending his own burial in Paris.

It’s a goofy story and Phillipe Torreton makes for a fun Napoleon – and it’s relatively rare to see his later days in confinement on film. Torreton is aided by his English nemesis being played by Richard E. Grant, who’s always good value for money.

Mel Blanc – Napoleon Bunny-Part (1956)

While not a movie per se, Napoleon Bunny-Part was indeed screened in theaters. And hey, it’s Bugs Bunny vs Napoleon, what more do you want? As you would expect this is a very goofy caper in which Napoleon plays the unwilling straight man to Bugs as he wreaks havoc with his plans.

There is – perhaps inevitably – a scene in which Bugs cross-dresses and pretends to be Josephine, with Napoleon deeply dippy over his suspiciously bunnylike lover. Voice acting titan Mel Blanc provides the voice for both Bugs and Napoleon and, well, it’s great.

Terry Camilleri – Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

While a movie in which a time-travelling Napoleon discovers the joys of bowling and water slides isn’t particularly educational, this was my first exposure to Napoleon Bonaparte and between the silly gags I learned a lot about him. Napoleon remains Camilleri’s most recognizable role, though he’s popped up in a number of TV shows, most recently on Preacher. Even among the above cinematic titans we’ll always have a soft spot for Bill & Ted Napoleon – aka “The short dead dude from our history review!”

Napoleon arrives in theaters on Nov. 22.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *