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Napoleon - Collector's Edition

A&E Video // Unrated // April 29, 2003
List Price: $49.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Don Houston | posted April 11, 2003 | E-mail the Author
Movie: What a fitting time to be discussing the life and times of Napoleon, one of the last French leaders with a military mindset. A few hundred years ago, a short man with a keen military mind, rose up through the ranks of the French military to become one of the greatest generals known to man. Long before the age of mechanized warfare, smart bombs, and all the trappings of modern style military tactics, a man by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte showed the world that intelligence and determination, along with a suitable helping of willpower, could change the destiny of a nation in a very short time.

Prior to his string of military successes, Napoleon was considered a lesser man by his peers. Born to the lower levels of aristocracy, his future had been predetermined by the powers that be to lead a fairly minor role in the military since tradition was that the richer you were, and the greater your political strength, the more likely you'd be to succeed on the battlefield. As such, the most important positions of power were filled according to a caste system of sorts. More than anyone else in Europe, Napoleon changed that system and became the founder of a great many movements that lived long after he was buried in relative obscurity on a tiny island while in exile.

The two part mini-series shown on A&E this week never set out to chronicle the great general in full detail as that would be an almost impossible task even if the mini-series were to last a month. Much of the power in Napoleon's story lies in the conditions of his times and I don't think anyone could capture that aspect alone in the 4 hours (under 3 without commercials) allotted the show. The DVD version is advertised as being 8 hours long but it was only 6 hours (less if you exclude the beginning and ending credits for each of the four episodes). Instead, it focused on bits and pieces of his life which was frustrating more often than not, as there'd be just a taste of Napoleon's various exploits before the show had to move on to another tidbit. The glossy overview had lots of battle scenes (in an effort to gain a larger audience no doubt) and lavish sets, along with some normally excellent actors, but the scope of the project itself, much like Napoleon's vaunted ego in his latter years, was it's own undoing.

The movie was based on a book by author Max Gallo who detailed a number of facets of Napoleon's life (with some controversy as to it's historical accuracy). Since it had to truncate much of the book, there was no real room for director Yves Simoneau or screen writer Didier Decoin to show how Napoleon grew after various events in his life, nor was there room to show the internal political struggles he had with some of his most trusted advisors other than in the most superficial of ways. A number of these rate a mini-series all their own as would many of the battles, the love he had for Josephine, and even the writing of his memoirs. On a more positive note, perhaps the show will stimulate interest in the many intricacies of Napoleon-including his push for advances in law, science, and the more obvious military applications which are still used today (modified for various advances in technology). The extras did a lot to fill in many blanks the feature left but even then there was a lot of duplication of information.

Picture: The picture was presented in it's original full screen format and had few artifacts or other visual defects. The extras had some minor problems but in each case, the dvd's looked a lot better than they did on my cable television.

Sound: The sound was in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and sounded equally solid compared to the cable release earlier this week. I watched it on cable before watching the dvd to provide me some means by which to compare the two.

Extras: The extras comprised an entire disc of the three disc set. The extras that were unique to this boxed set were the minimal cast biographies of Christian Clavier, John Malkovich, Gerard Depardieu, & Isabella Rossellini and a 20 minute long Behind the Scenes feature witch detailed a number of the difficulties the cast and crew had in making the feature. Another extra was the A&E Biography series special Napoleon Bonaparte: The Glory of France which was a 44+ minute long episode of the long running series on A&E. It handled the overview of Napoleon in a pretty brief but informative manner. The last extra was the Napoleon and Wellington special from A&E. It discussed the two leaders in far greater depth than the mini-series itself was able to. My biggest complaint about it was that it used a lot of the same footage and historical experts as the Biography show.

Final Thoughts: As a minor history buff, I actually preferred the extras more than the feature itself. It wasn't just that the time constraints trapped the characters into limited roles or that so many hugely important aspects of Napoleon's life were left out (or, even worse, glossed over or reduced in scope to almost make them look insignificant), but the piecemeal way the feature bounced around from one scene to the next often left me wondering what happened afterwards. I'd recommend it as a rental for other history buffs or perhaps as a purchase for those wanting to obtain A&E's specials on the extras disc but I find it hard to believe that more extra footage couldn't be found to flesh out some of the scenes, that anamorphic widescreen wasn't used, an original French soundtrack wasn't available, or even a 5.1 soundtrack since battle scenes are a great way to show off that home theatre. If you're looking for a fleeting glimpse of a great man, who succumbed to his own ego, this wouldn't be a bad choice some weekend.

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