My, my! How Napoleon Bonaparte is still influencing pop culture 200 years after his death

·10-min read
Grumpy and childish: Marlon Brando as Napoleon in Désirée (20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock)
Grumpy and childish: Marlon Brando as Napoleon in Désirée (20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock)

Jack Nicholson, who paid £250,000 in 1984 for the rights to a film about Napoleon, mused back then about the English obsession with France’s famous emperor. “Napoleon was a man who conquered the world twice and then became a symbol of the devil – that’s the way they described him in England,” said the three-time Oscar-winner.

Nicholson never fulfilled his dream of impersonating the victorious general of Revolutionary France, a role played by hundreds of actors, including Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Danny DeVito, Groucho Marx and Rowan Atkinson.

Napoleon has been portrayed in films, musicals, plays, television shows and adverts; in artwork, fiction, historical biography and video games.

He has even been the subject of psychological theories and syndromes. Napoleon remains a global cultural icon more than 250 years after his birth in Ajaccio, Corsica, on 15 August 1769.

Bonaparte died on the island of Saint Helena on 5 May 1821. To mark the 200th anniversary of his death, here is a guide to 10 ways Napoleon has influenced popular culture.

Napoleon started ‘Little Man Syndrome’

With Napoleon, it’s hard not to start with the small stuff. When actor Ian Holm (who in reality was a towering 5’4”) played Napoleon in Time Bandits, the character boasted about his prowess as a war hero: “Five foot one and conqueror of Italy, not bad huh?”

The real Napoleon had more than 20 nicknames and many – “The Little Corporal”, “The Tiny Tyrant”, “Little Boney” – were inspired by his lack of height. This may be 19th-century fake news, though. His autopsy, carried out by Doctor Francesco Antommarchi, detailed Napoleon’s height as 5’2”, but the physician was using the French ‘pouce’ measurement unit. Its English equivalent would have been around 5’7” – taller than Horatio Nelson. It didn’t help that Napoleon was often depicted in paintings surrounded by lofty members of the Imperial Guard.

The British press enthusiastically perpetrated the idea that Napoleon was a little man. His shortness became a defining characteristic – more easy to satirise than his love of snuff, liquorice and pinching people. In Night at the Museum 2, Ben Stiller’s character tells Napoleon (Alain Chabat), “There’s a complex named after you… you’re famous for being little.”

The complex that Stiller was referencing is the theory of “short man syndrome”, first proposed by psychologist Alfred Adler in 1908, which claims that diminutive men compensate for their lack of height by behaving aggressively and bossily. Modern social scientists can’t agree on whether the complex is a tall tale or not. A 2007 study by the University of Lancashire dismissed the myth of “the Napoleon complex”.

However, evolutionary psychologists at Amsterdam University in 2018 said that “men of short stature” who were “physically outcompeted” by taller counterparts, reacted with “indirect aggression” and then “the Napoleon complex psychology kicks in”.

He was a big hat fashion setter...

Napoleon liked his big hats. The great British cartoonists of Napoleon’s day, James Gillray, George Cruikshank and their ilk, presented the French leader as a joke figure. They satirised paintings by Jacques-Louis David, creating caricature versions of Napoleon in a comically oversized bicorne hat.

... just don't paint Tony Soprano in one

Napoleon’s celebrated headgear appeared in a memorable scene in The Sopranos, in which mobster boss Tony Soprano turned up at the house of Paulie ‘Walnuts’ Gualtieri. Tony had ordered that an oil painting of himself, standing next to his horse Pie O My, had to be burnt. Paulie had rescued the portrait from the fire and had it re-painted to show his boss wearing a “Napoleon-like” uniform. When Tony Soprano looked at the painting, which is on display above the fireplace, he goes mad at the sight of the Napoleon outfit and bicorne.

“What the f***?” screams Tony. “What’s with the hat and s**t?”

“That’s no joke,” says Paulie. “I thought it captures what you are about.”

Rollins-Joffee/United Artists/Kobal/Shutterstock
Rollins-Joffee/United Artists/Kobal/Shutterstock

Captain Mainwaring didn't like being compared with Napoleon, either

Captain Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe), the commanding officer of the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard in the BBC hit Dad’s Army, was a pompous man. His rival and nemesis, ARP Warden William Hodges, had an easy way of winding him up, by greeting him with the jibe “Oi, Napoleon”. In a 1972 episode, “A Soldier’s Farewell”, Mainwaring eats a big plate of cheddar cheese before going to sleep. In a restless night, he dreams he is Napoleon, losing the Battle of Waterloo. After winning the decisive combat, The Duke of Wellington (John Le Mesurier) describes Napoleon as “a little upstart”.

Doctor Who met Napoleon

As well as being lampooned in Dad’s Army, Napoleon has been summoned by a spell in the American TV show Bewitched and portrayed in Blackadder (by Simon Russell Beale) as a short, fat and feminine Frenchman who jumps out of his skin when a musket is fired.

In 1964, the first Doctor Who (William Hartnell) time-travelled to Paris in 1794 and witnessed the coup against Maximilien Robespierre, supposedly organised by young General Napoleon Bonaparte. The episode, called The Reign of Terror, prompted an angry letter from M.M.G. Oborski, honorary secretary of the Napoleon I Society, who wrote to the BBC complaining about historical inaccuracies. “The BBC has a duty not to misinform children,” wrote Oborski.

Among numerous serious television depictions of the Emperor was the 2002 French-Canadian miniseries Napoleon – starring Christian Clavier in the lead role – which at the time became the most expensive television mini-series in Europe, costing more than £38 million to produce. Steven Spielberg is reportedly considering turning Jack Nicholson’s original Napoleon project – which got to the stage of having Stanley Kubrick write a screenplay – into a new television mini-series.

Napoleon drove Rod Steiger to drink

Napoleon was first put on the cinema screens by the Lumière Brothers in 1897. The next major appearance of the general on screen was when he was played by silent film star Albert Dieudonné in Abel Gance’s six-hour epic biopic Napoléon in 1927. Since then, Napoleon has been the subject of memorable portrayals by Marlon Brando – in the 1954 historical movie Désirée – and by a 20-year-old Dennis Hopper, in 1957’s The Story of Mankind. Despite expressing his “admiration” of Napoleon, Hopper depicted him as grumpy and childish, in a star-studded movie that also featured Ronald Coleman, Vincent Price and Hedy Lamarr.

Oscar winner Rod Steiger had a miserable time playing Napoleon in the 1970 film Waterloo. Steiger was depressed following the collapse of his marriage to Claire Bloom and spent as much time as he could in his room, gulping down Johnnie Walker Red Label whisky. He was uneasy about riding a cavalry horse and when an aerial bomb exploded in the wrong place, the actor was nearly thrown off his steed. “This is not my idea of a good time,“ Steiger observed. They re-shot the scene using a wooden sawhorse.

As well as being presented as a ludicrous figure in Woody Allen’s Love and Death (played by James Tolkan), Napoleon was mocked in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. In this 1989 comedy, which starred Terry Camilleri as Napoleon Bonaparte, time-travellers Ted Logan (Keanu Reeves) and Bill Preston (Alex Winter) take Napoleon from commanding the French army in 1805 to a small Californian town 183 years later. They leave Napoleon with Ted’s younger brother Deacon but the Frenchman goes missing.

“You ditched Napoleon! Do you realise you have stranded one of Europe’s greatest leaders in San Damis?” Ted shouts at his brother.

“He was a dick,” replies Deacon.

The fictional Napoleon

Napoleon, who wrote a 1795 novella called Clisson et Eugénie about a doomed romance between a soldier and his lover (based on his affair with Eugénie Désirée), was a voracious reader. He always took a substantial camp library with him on his battle campaigns.

Napoleon’s life was epic: his rise to power, his fall from glory, his catastrophic decision to attempt to invade Russia in 1812, his crushing defeat at Waterloo, his banishment. It is no surprise that there are thousands of history books and essays about Napoleon as well as a vast number of novels set in the Napoleonic era.

Among the notable fictional appearances of Napoleon are in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Napoleon was even the name of the tyrant pig in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Anthony Burgess said he had “elephantine fun” writing about the famous soldier – who is depicted as a cuckold suffering from heartburn and halitosis in Burgess’s 1974 book Napoleon Symphony: A Novel in Four Movements.

Napoleon also provides inspiration for 21st-century authors. J.W. Clennett’s graphic novel The Diemenois presents an alternate history, in which Napoleon Bonaparte did not die of stomach cancer. In Clennett’s book, he escapes from the British-held island of Saint Helena, in the South Atlantic Ocean, and flees to a French Tasmanian colony. The book won the Silver Ledger Award for Graphic Novels.

At Waterloo, as ABBA reminded us, 'Napoleon did surrender'

Napoleon was a confirmed music lover – he went to 163 different operas – although he reportedly had no talent at playing an instrument or singing. The Duchesse d’Abrantès, an object of Napoleon’s affection, even gossiped about his “raucous and out-of-tune” voice. In 1955, comedian Spike Milligan wrote a script for the Goons called Napoleon’s Piano, in which the Goons have to steal his musical instrument. “It’s the one Napoleon played at Waterloo,” says Neddie Seagoon.

ABBA’s 1974 Eurovision hit “Waterloo” is perhaps the most famous song to reference Napoleon, but there are hundreds of examples, including songs by Coldplay, Ani DiFranco, Al Stewart, the Kinks, the Bee Gees and Mark Knopfler. Tori Amos wrote “Joséphine”, which was about Napoleon’s feelings about his Empress during his unsuccessful invasion of Russia.

Groucho Marx played a cuckolded Napoleon

In 1924, Groucho Marx and his brothers starred in a hit Vaudeville show called I’ll Say She Is. Groucho wore a bicorne hat as he played Napoleon, the devoted lover of Joséphine. “Jo, your eyes are shining like the seat of a blue serge suit,” jokes Groucho, who then keeps finding his wife in bed with his brothers. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley Kowalski invokes the Napoleonic Code, which originated in 1804, during a row with Blanche DuBois over their pregnant friend Stella.

Napoleon, who had been the hero of Austrian, French, Italian and even Broadway musicals, was the subject of an English musical in 2000, when Not Tonight, Napoleon opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London.

Napoloen Delusion

Lord Byron said it was “impossible not to be dazzled and overwhelmed by Napoleon’s character”, and the emperor has continued to have an overwhelming effect on the minds of men in the 198 years since he died on 5 May 1821 at the age of 51, following his banishment to Saint Helena. Psychologist Daniel Freeman has written about the history of delusions and says the emperor effect started quickly: 14 Napoleon impersonators presented at Bicêtre Asylum in Paris in 1840.

The delusion became part of pop culture. In 1922, Stan Laurel – before he teamed up to become Laurel and Hardy – played a book salesman in the short film Mixed Nuts. After Laurel’s character received a blow on the head he started believing he was Napoleon and has to be admitted to a mental health institution. Thirty-four years later, the so-called “Napoleon Delusion” inspired the Bugs Bunny cartoon film Napoleon Bunny-Part. The “joke” is still going strong in the 21st century. In a Futurama episode called Insane in the Mainframe in 2001, Bender pretended to be a banjo-playing Napoleon so he could stay in a robot asylum.

Comedians would make light of the suffering with a common joke about a psychiatrist congratulating his patient on being cured. “Some cure,” the patient complains. “When I came here I was Napoleon. Now I’m a nobody.”

Napoleon was always a somebody. He remains a relevant historical figure, not least because of his prescient comment that “in politics, stupidity is not a handicap”.

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