Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Napoleon (PBS)

This three hour documentary in four parts does an excellent job of narrating the life of one of the most fascinating figures of all time. The narration is by well known scholars and historians of France, Britain and the US. Photography being not yet invented, the dramas of his life are magnificently captured through the volumes of paintings that exist (mostly commissioned by himself, since he was a publicist as well as a man jealously obsessed by the opinions of posterity) about every phase of his life. This is further punctuated by cinematic takes of locations like Corsica, Elba and St. Helena which were the stage of his life. The narration is constantly interesting and we learn the story often through Napoleon's own choice of words or of the historians and military men. One is left with a three dimensional image of the man and the events he authored which is well worth the time invested.

His persona is perhaps the composite of the anguished times of his childhood (the French invasion of Corsica), a powerful nurturing mother figure, and the alchemy of genes. Here is a man with a demoniac concentration of purpose, pragmatic intelligence coupled with daring and infinite risk taking capacity. For all his intelligence, he seems to have had no conception of the value of human life--possibly this lack of conscience is precisely the source of strength of demagogues. Notwithstanding the fact that he was responsible for six million deaths (surely that figure strikes a more recent note) he paradoxically remains a testimony for what a single individual can accomplish, for better or for worse. It's hard not to admire him.

The series of battle-field paintings that the movie treats us to is a testimony to the brutish nature of the human animal, and the bloody routine of war that is a major component of human history. It is mind boggling to learn that the Napoleonic forces marching into Russia were 600,000 strong. The battles are scenes of ghastly butchery where human life is not worth a farthing, as colourfully garbed men on whinnying straddling horses exterminate each other with sharp instruments. Fire power has appeared and the killing is remote controlled placing a distance of  a hundred yards between the compression of the trigger and the gushing out of blood. Tanks and aeroplanes are a century away. And now Fat-man and Little-boy too are remote history. The recent invasion of Iraq with it's precise anaesthised airborne killer machines is the state-of-the-art of the ancient science of war.

The movie is perhaps a good appetiser for Sergei Bondarchuk's six hour well known extravaganza War and Peace, which I hope to see in the near future.


Jack L said...

Most interesting review!

Napoleon is a very interesting figure in history and I often feel people misjudge him.
I always enjoy learning more about him so I might check these out.

S M Rana said...

@Jack L
Yes, most interesting, more than Hitler, Caesar, Alexander or Genghis Khan and you look up any collection of his quotes, which apart from being a fountain of Machiavellian wisdom, shows him up as a narcissistic philosopher. Madmen have so much to learn from!