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Empires - Napoleon

Paramount // Unrated // October 10, 2006
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Louis Howard | posted November 11, 2006 | E-mail the Author
Born on the rugged island of Corsica, and rising from being his birth in a small farmhouse to the self-appointed Emperor of France, he was a figure loved and hated, idolized and feared during a near 20 year span. A four hour documentary by filmmaker David Grubin, Napoleon is a detailed chronicle of the dictator's life, beginning just before his birth at the end of a Coriscan war with France. This was a confrontation doomed to failure from its outset- sheer numbers alone put the population of Corsica at 120,000 against a nation with 22,000,000. Lasting only a year and leaving thousands dead, France forced it's might and power upon the tiny island, and this is the setting in which Bonaparte was born on August 15, 1769.

A man of minor nobility, he hated the French and longed for a Corsica free of its rule, even having little regard for his own father, Carlo, who rose from student to being employed as an attorney in Louis XVI's court for a number of years. His real love and respect was saved for his mother, Letizia- a firm disciplinarian, it is said she was stern even in showing her affection. Napoleon's moderate background of Italian nobility afforded him the opportunity to study at a French military school, for five years taking no holiday or visiting his home. An outcast among the far more affluent French students, he excelled in his studies nonetheless.

Napoleon served on garrison duty in Valence and Auxonne until after the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789, although he took nearly two years of leave in Corsica and Paris during this period. Learning the art of cannonry as well as commanding men would prove to be of invaluable use to him later in life commanding large armies. Most of the next three years were spent on Corsica where a struggle ensued between three factions, the royalists, revolutionaries and nationalists. He rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel of a regiment of volunteers. After coming into conflict with the increasingly conservative nationalist leader, Pasquale Paoli, Bonaparte and his family were forced to flee to France in June 1793, having been banished from Corsica and sentenced to death.

During these early years one can see Bonaparte as a man bored with inactivity, falling to depressions when not either engaged in confict or perpetually gaining in rank and stature. Through the help of fellow Corsican Saliceti, Napoleon was appointed as artillery commander in the French forces besieging Toulon, which had risen in revolt against the republican goverment and was occupied by British troops. He formulated a sound working plan, ignored by several generals but eventually acted upon, placing guns on the high ground at Point l'Eguillete, threatening the British ships in the harbor, forcing them to evacuate. The city was recaptured and he was promoted to the rank of brigadier-general.

In 1795, Bonaparte was serving in Paris when royalists and counter-revolutionaries organized an armed protest against the National Convention on 3 October. Bonaparte was given command of the improvised forces defending the Convention in the Tuileries Palace. He seized artillery pieces with the aid of a young cavalry officer, Joachim Murat, who was to become his brother-in-law later on. He used the artillery the following day to repel the attackers, using cannon fire against the masses and quelling the revolt. This victory won him fame, wealth and allowed him to move in more elite circles, meeting and wooing leader Barras' former mistress Josephine de Beauharnais. She at first did not return his passion or affection, but knew her looks were starting to fade as well as her opportunities to rise in social stature. They married on March 9, 1796.

Only a few days after his marriage Bonaparte took command of Army of Italy, successfully invading Italy and acquiring the nickname "The Little Corporal", an affectionate term given him because of his closeness to his troops. He drove the Austrians out of Lombardy and defeated the army of the Papal States, later led his army into Austria and forcing the nation to sue for peace. The resulting Treaty of Campo Fromio gave France control of a good deal of Northern Italy; Bonaparte then marched on Venice and forced its surrender, ending over 1,000 years of independence. Later in 1797, Bonaparte organized many of the French dominated territories in Italy into the Cisalpine Republic.

His military triumphs coming one after another, they were the result of the leader's uncanny ability to apply military teaching and tactic to real world wartime scenarios. A master of deception and troop deployment, his greatest victory likely came during the Italian campaign, one which yielded him 160,000 prisoners, 2,000 cannons, and 170 standards in surrender. No man in modern history had ever waged warfare the likes of Bonaparte, and all of Europe seemed in danger of falling to his ever rising might.

A sweeping biography wonderfully filmed by Grubin and narrated by the always fine voice of historian David McCullough, four hours may seem a bit taxing for one viewing, but it is a saga of such proportion it needs the time with which to breathe in order to be give a detailed interpretation as well as give the viewer an idea as to the enormity of Bonaparte's accomplishments. Conquerer,ruler, lover, politician, statesman, and a military genius the likes of which some would argue has no equal, what we are given here is a look at his complex life from a number of angles, as well as an idea as to the chaotic state in which Europe was, affording a driven man the likes of Bonaparte the opportunity to move in so many areas in order to achieve his goals, and yearn for even more. He was a man with an eye toward true world domination with a frightening possibility of attaining it until the Emperor miscalculated, overextended his reach by invading Russia, and brought about about his downfall and exile.

Without the benefit of period photographs or film to employ, Grubin instead makes fine use of several other mediums with which to unfurl this immense story. Dozens of paintings, drawings, portaits are used to bring this rea to vivid life, as well as some battle reenactments and both film and photographs of the areas in which many of the events took place. When aired, this PBS presentation was spread out over four installments, and the viewer might do well to at least split the saga in half in as so much information is thrown at you from beginning to end.

The DVD-

Napoleon is presented on a double sided single disc in a standard sized keepcase.


Aspect ratio appears to be 1.85:1 widescreen; the box states it is presented in "widescreen" format. Colors appear bright and vivid, and sharpness is good. There is an occasional bit of shimmering from time to time but nothing that should deter from enjoying the film.


The only audio track here is English stereo, clear and easy to understand and fine for documentary purposes.


A Behind-The-Scenes Look At The Making Of Napoleon- Not much here, really. This is a 5 minute piece with Grubin and reenactors talking about the the pains taken to film a France of the period necessary.

Final Thoughts-

PBS Home Video has a penchant for producing wonderful historic documentaries and Napoleon doesn't disappoint. Finding much of anything on the DVD market regarding Bonaparte and his incredible rise to power is quite a task, which makes this disc even more worth checking out. For history buffs I highly recommend this offering, and recommend it to anyone with even a casual interest in Napoleon's life.
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