A Critique of the Documentary of Napoleon Bonaparte by PBS

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One fine afternoon, I found myself ruminating about our existence and how we have arrived at this horrific pandemic. Consequently, I ended up on the internet going through quotes by famous historical figures and one happened to catch my eye. Napoleon Bonaparte quotes, "I am the successor, not of Louis XVI, but of Charlemagne".

Subsequently, I landed up on Youtube watching a very popular documentary on Napoleon Bonaparte by PBS. You can find the same through the link given here.

In this series divided into four quarters, PBS has given a very detailed account of Bonaparte’s life. Thereby, this article has been written in four different sections attempting a critical analysis with my final comments in a separate section altogether.

1. The First Part 

Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the 15th of August in the year 1769 (just in time to be a Frenchman for France had annexed the island in 1768) to Carlo Maria Di Bonaparte and Maria Letizia Ramolino in the town of Ajaccio, the capital of the island of Corsica.

The movie starts with all the mentioned information and then shifts to the kind of relationship Napoleon shared with his parents. The dominant influence in Napoleon's childhood was his mother, Letizia Ramolino, whose firm discipline restrained a rambunctious child.

Napoleon did not like his father so much so that he held a grudge against him. According to him, his father should not have surrendered to France. The man who would later become the Emperor of France spent much of his early life hating his country, considering it destructive to his homeland.

He may have been correct but together with his family, he moved to France at a young age looking for financial opportunities. Thereafter, Napoleon received quality education and an astounding military training at a French academy. However, he was segregated and discriminated to an extent because of his Corsican accent and provincial background.

Napoleon had risen solely through the French Revolution which enabled him to win early triumphs in France's battles in Italy (the battle at Toulon being the starting point). This displayed both his military expertise and phenomenal allure. This documentary has been able to brilliantly cover his early life and the influence of French Revolution on him.


2. The Second Part 

The second part of the documentary starts with a quote from Napoleon which says, “Great men become great because they have been able to master luck”. This section describes how Napoleon fared in wars, and it also reveals his relationship with his wife.

We get to know that Napoleon proposed an expedition to Egypt, to engage in a battle with the British where the Royal Navy's impact was the weakest. Because of his grave expertise he won this significant triumph at the Battle of the Pyramids.

But, the Royal Navy cut his provisions from home, and Napoleon's campaign ended with terrible disappointment, with Napoleon surrendering his troops and returning to France.

The endeavor was the key disappointment, but a propaganda success that was attributable to the numerous artistic creations Napoleon authorized to improve the battle's picture. He touched the base in France just in time to participate in the coup d'état that positioned him at power, exploiting his image of the war hero to make himself the Emperor of France.

He crowned himself as the Emperor soon, with the Pope going to the function to legitimize his royal celebration. The opening fragment of the narrative, incidentally, starts with this coronation, and comes back to it later when they finally reach at that point in the story.

Fortunately, this program is fantastic at covering the fights; and it might be their best noteworthy quality as far as politics is concerned. The narrative covers enough of the convoluted geopolitics of their time to convey background information, but not enough to get confusing and too long.

Napoleon attempted to uphold a Continental System, or a halting of all exchange with Britain by his conquered domains. Later in his life this results in misfortune.


3. The Third and the Fourth Part

After briefly covering his separation with Josephine and after fizzled endeavors to create a male heir (she had grown old and fruitless), the documentary mention his marriage to a beautiful Austrian princess - a marriage with political significance, as a result of the union between Napoleon's France and her dad's Austria.

The end of Napoleon’s career started when Russia refused to enforce the Continental System, with its embargo on British goods. Napoleon retaliated to this with an invasion of Russia. He was defeated by the harsh Russian winter and lost nearly all his army to cold. This is arguably the most sensational segment of the narrative.

The conquered countries of Europe detected the shortcoming, and all of them proclaimed war on him including the Austria whose princess he had married. Napoleon was removed from power, and permitted to administer the small Mediterranean island of Elba. This did not suit Napoleon’s massive ego and aspirations.

Therefore, he got away from Elba to reclaim his domain; just to be crushed again by the Allies at Waterloo completely. This time, he was sent to the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena. He was a detainee there, and the main campaign left to him was the advertising effort of composing his memoirs.

This program utilizes quotes from his memoirs; which helped to give one a vibe for what he was thinking.


4. Conclusion

The movie covers all those events that took place in Napoleon’s life, and narrates the epic story with the required emotional energy. The narrative isn't always thoughtful, but nor is it continually unflattering, as it has a few snapshots of compassion toward the man.

The narration of this story is very important as it is of incredible significance to world history. The story is told by Ken Burns (he is an American filmmaker, known for his style of using archival footage and photographs in documentary film style), utilizing the numerous artistic creations from the time to tell the story, with added sound in the background, and occasional re-enactments to fill in the visual gaps.

If you're after a good story with some detailed analysis of Napoleon's rise and fall, then this is an excellent documentary for you. It uses all the best paintings from the era to tell the story, and allows you to draw your own conclusions about what Napoleon's legacy was about.


Written by- Kshitij Kumar Ojha

Edited by- Daity Talukdar

A Critique of the Documentary of Napoleon Bonaparte by PBS A Critique of the Documentary of Napoleon Bonaparte by PBS Reviewed by Daity Talukdar on June 30, 2020 Rating: 5

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