Thursday, April 2, 2015

Napoleon (2000)

Four part PBS documentary series, part of their Empires series, about the rise and fall of one of the greatest military geniuses of modern times, from his Corsican childhood to final exile in St. Helena. 

I was curious about how Napoleon ended up being emperor of France since he came after the French revolution. I didn't have much knowledge about his story apart from his defeats against Russia and against England in Waterloo. So I ended up watching this documentary series as a learning process. He was actually a person from ordinary background who rose through the military ranks to become the emperor of France. He was born in 1769 and the French revolution lasted from 1789 till 1799. Napoleon was sympathetic towards the revolution's cause and he gained popularity through his military conquests which are explained in the documentary. In 1799, he staged a coup and declared: 'The revolution is over, I am the revolution'. He ruled like a dictator without much regard to liberty but he held the concept of equality close to his heart. The French Revolution was a watershed in Europe as all other monarchs in mainland Europe were threatened by it. Napoleon declared that he will support the cause of revolution if they were to arise in any other parts of Europe. The whole of  monarchy ruled Europe, facing an existential threat, united against him and declared war on France.

French Revolution also marked a big change in how military personnel were recruited. Before that, monarchs used to have a standing army of professionals whose numbers were quite limited because of the cost of maintaining them. French Revolution meant that it was left for the ordinary people to defend themselves against all the monarchs of Europe. This helped Napoleon to recruit in large numbers from ordinary folks, through mass conscription, and they had a higher cause to fight for. By 1803, Napoleon had declared himself to be emperor of France and the period of 1803-1815 was marked by a series of wars pitting Napoleon against an array of European powers formed into various coalitions. He declared and economic blockade against Britain which he tried to implement across whole Europe he conquered most of it. Britain was irritated by the reordering of international system by Napoleon in Europe and fearing being sidelined they declared war against him in 1803. Nothing much happened as French couldn't overcome British navy to conquer England. Meanwhile the Austrians were planning an attack against the Austrians with a pending support from the Russians. Napoleon preempted the attack and achieved a swift victory against Austrians through Italy.  This was followed up with victory against the Prussians and Napoleon entered into a treaty with Russian Czar after marching his army into the border with Russia. Russia agreed to participate in the economic blockade against Britain.

Napoleon's downfall started when he tried to conquer Spain, the only country in Europe who was participating in trade with Britain. He miscalculated that Spanish people will treat him and the French as liberators and as they rose up against him, he couldn't establish order in Spain the five years his army was there. By then Russians were struggling economically due to the blockade they were engaging in and declared war with Napoleon. Napoleon amassed an army of 600,000 men and marched to Russia. The decisive battle took place near Moscow which he won but the retreating Russians burned Moscow as they left. This made Napoleon's position untenable and he decided to go back with his army even as the Russian winter set in. Napoleon found out, as Hitler did later in second world war, that the vast Russian space is a big issue for any invading force. Only about 93,000 of his men survived out of his 600,000 men. By then a big coalition was set up against Napoleon and he abdicated his empire. He was exiled to the island of Elba, which he was allowed to rule. The coalition had appointed another king in France who was very weak and Napoleon managed to land in France in 1815 with a band of his followers and marched to France. The king ordered troops to intercept him and when one of those encountered his band, Napoleon proceeded to them and said: 'Soldiers, I am your emperor.  Know me!  If there is one of you who would kill his Emperor, here I am'. They abandoned their weapons and shouted:  ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ He got support from the army and the French people and ascended to his throne once again as the installed king fled. Again the whole of Europe and Britain united against him and the decisive battled took place in Waterloo, where he was defeated in what is described as a 'Close run thing'. He was exiled to the island of St. Helena where he was a prisoner. He lived there for five years before dying at the age of 51. Before his death he dictated his memoirs to his assistant which helped him in sealing his legendary status in the eyes of History.

The documentary is a good watch but it reminded me of why I don' generally prefer American produced documentaries with their over-enthusiastic narration and cringe-worthy reenactments. It doesn't go into details regarding the economic reasons behind the Napoleonic wars and works more like a Wikipedia page retelling of history. Arguably the greatest director of all time, Stanley Kubrick, had done research and worked on an ultimately futile Napoleon project. Napoleon is really a giant of History with av fascinating story and it is a shame that the project fell through.

Rating: 3/5