Wednesday 15 November 2023


Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” Complex

Does the director of “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” and “Gladiator” see himself in the hero of his epic new film?

By Michael Schulman


Scotts meticulous handdrawn storyboards called Ridleygrams for the Battle of Waterloo scene.

November 6, 2023

Ridley Scott photographed by Christopher Anderson.

 On the morning of the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte was full of catastrophic confidence. His seventy-three thousand troops were camped on a ridge near a tavern called La Belle Alliance. His nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, occupied a slope across the fields, with a mere sixty-seven thousand troops. Over breakfast, Napoleon predicted, “If my orders are well executed, we will sleep in Brussels this evening.” When his chief of staff offered a word of caution, Napoleon snapped, “Wellington is a bad general and the English are bad troops. The whole affair will not be more serious than swallowing one’s breakfast.”


He was already making mistakes. Underestimating his enemies’ capabilities and overestimating his own, he assumed that the woods behind the British would block their retreat, but Wellington had strategically used the forest to hide more soldiers. An overnight downpour had left the fields soggy, and Napoleon, instead of striking at nine, as he had planned, held off until midday, giving the Prussians crucial time to reach Wellington as backup. Napoleon was tired. He was ill. He was strangely apathetic, declining to survey parts of the battlefield himself. Michael Broers, a Napoleon scholar at Oxford, told me, “The real question isn’t so much Why did he lose? but How on earth did he ever think he could win?”


In 2020, Broers was grading a student’s essay when he got a call from an assistant in Ridley Scott’s office, explaining that the director was planning an epic film about Napoleon, starring Joaquin Phoenix. Summoned to Scott’s headquarters, in London—crammed with movie props, it reminded Broers of Aladdin’s cave—the professor advised Scott on everything from the motivations of Empress Josephine to whether Napoleon was left-handed. (He wasn’t.) Scott was particularly interested in battles, from both a practical and a psychological perspective. “He saw at eye level,” Broers recalled. “His Waterloo was like a diorama.” At one point, Broers drew him a map, and the director studied it like a hardened general preparing for battle—which, in a way, he was. “He’s not un-Napoleonic himself,” Broers said. “When he’s there, he’s in charge, and you have complete confidence in him. He dishes it out, and he can take it.”


Scott, who has filmed and fought more than his share of battles, will turn eighty-six this month, a week after the release of “Napoleon,” his twenty-eighth film. His movies have tackled other Great Men of History (Moses, Columbus), as well as aliens, androids, con men, gangsters, goblins, soldiers, serial killers, and the Gucci family. He creates visceral worlds, whether the rain-streaked, mechanized dystopia of “Blade Runner” or the dusty Roman arenas of “Gladiator,” and several of his screen images—a slime-covered creature bursting out of an astronaut’s chest in “Alien,” Thelma and Louise zooming off a cliff—are lodged firmly in the popular imagination. But he’s tough to pin down. “Is Ridley a fine artist? Is he an art-cinema director? Is he a commercial hack? Is he all of the above?,” Paul Sammon, a writer who has published three books about Scott, said. “That’s what I really enjoy about Ridley—he is unclassifiable.”


The director feels the same way. “My choices tend to be random,” he told me in September. He was in the West Hollywood offices of the Ridley Scott Creative Group, a sprawling enterprise that produces features, music videos, and commercials, with outposts in Amsterdam and Hong Kong. We sat in an airy conference room, the walls of which were covered with photographs of Scott on his various sets. Like Logan Roy, the patriarch in “Succession,” he wears his authority like an old sweater, his northern English burr unsoftened by Hollywood. He’s a growler, a grumbler, a barker, a chortler. His narrow eyes peer over a long, stern nose, and his resting scowl is framed by an untidy white beard, which he occasionally strokes, more in irritation than in contemplation.


Scott regards his œuvre with pugnacious pride, especially his less loved films, such as the 2013 crime thriller “The Counselor,” which he maintains was the victim of bad marketing. (“They fucked it up.”) When a movie fails, I asked, does he question his instincts? “No,” he grunted. “I blast the shit out of a tennis ball.” Beside him was Pauline Kael’s four-page evisceration of “Blade Runner,” which ran in this magazine in 1982 and contains, among other gibes, the line “Scott seems to be trapped in his own alleyways, without a map.” Scott had the review framed for his office wall years ago and had asked an assistant to lay it on the table for me; I got the sense that he had agreed to a New Yorker Profile in order to have the last laugh.


Scott was on an enforced hiatus. In July, he’d been more than halfway through shooting “Gladiator 2,” on the island of Malta, when the actors’ strike halted production. But, unlike Napoleon during his exile on Elba, he wasn’t taking salt baths and stewing. He was busy preparing an extended cut of “Napoleon” for Apple, which produced and will stream the film. He’d been editing what he had of “Gladiator 2,” slated for next fall, and “reccing”—reconnoitering—locations for a Western. As he approaches ninety, Scott is not slowing down but speeding up. Tom Rothman, the head of Sony’s film division, which will distribute “Napoleon” theatrically, told me, “Ridley Scott is the single best argument for a second term for Joe Biden.” Paul Biddiss, a burly British ex-paratrooper who was Scott’s military adviser for “Napoleon,” recalled shooting the siege of Toulon, in Malta: “He goes, ‘Can you touch your toes? Come on!’ We’re in the middle of Fort Ricasoli, we’re both touching toes to see who’s flexible, and he was, like, ‘You’ve got to take up yoga.’ ”


While many directors are embracing a gentler, more collaborative mode of authority, Scott characterizes his style as a benevolent dictatorship. “Working with Ridley, it’s very much military in some ways,” Arthur Max, his longtime production designer, told me. David Scarpa, the screenwriter of “Napoleon,” said, “The striking thing about Ridley, more than anything else, is this enormous will. You send him pages while he’s shooting, he shoots twelve hours a day, he then goes out to dinner with the actors, then he works on editing what he’s shot that day. After that, he reads your pages, and the next day you get the e-mail from Europe, and he’s storyboarded them. That would kill ninety per cent of the directors in Hollywood.”


One of Scott’s meticulous, hand-drawn storyboards, called Ridleygrams, for the Battle of Waterloo scene.Art work courtesy Ridley Scott

Researching the script, Scarpa began noticing similarities between director and subject. “Seeing Napoleon and Ridley side by side, I think that there are people who simply don’t have that internal sense of limitation that normal people have,” he said. “I remember reading about how one time Napoleon was finishing up a battle, and he was simultaneously designing the currency.”


Joaquin Phoenix, like other actors who have worked with Scott, was unable to talk to me for this story because of the actors’ strike. But, earlier this year, he told Empire magazine, “If you want to really understand Napoleon, then you should probably do your own studying and reading. Because if you see this film, it’s this experience told through Ridley’s eyes.” Ten days before filming, Phoenix went to Scott and said, “I’m agonizing over this. I don’t know how to do it.” The two spent several twelve-hour days psychoanalyzing the Emperor, scene by scene. “We found that he’s a split personality,” Scott said. “He is deeply vulnerable, and while doing his job he’s able to hide that under a marvellous front. His forceful personality was part of his theatre.”


Napoleon has enticed filmmakers practically since movies were invented. The French director Abel Gance débuted his five-and-a-half-hour silent epic, “Napoléon,” in 1927; with its use of cameras attached to guillotines and sleds, it was a breakthrough in special effects. (“I couldn’t get through it, honestly,” Scott said.) In 1970, Sergei Bondarchuk released “Waterloo,” starring Rod Steiger as a sweaty, screaming Napoleon. It was filmed on Ukrainian farmland, with seventeen thousand extras borrowed from the Soviet Army. At the time, Stanley Kubrick, hot off “2001: A Space Odyssey,” was laboring over his own Napoleon project, for M-G-M, envisioning Jack Nicholson in the title role. “He fascinates me,” Kubrick said, of the Emperor. He devoured biographies, obsessing over minutiae. One designer quit after an argument over whether rhododendrons had been brought from India by Napoleon’s time. When Kubrick’s plans fell apart, he funnelled his period research into “Barry Lyndon,” which in turn inspired Scott’s first film, “The Duellists,” in 1977, about a pair of rival officers during the Napoleonic Wars. Years after Kubrick’s death, Scott was sent his unused Napoleon script. Scott found it underwhelming, in part because it spanned “birth to death,” he said. (Steven Spielberg is currently developing the Kubrick project as an HBO series.)



Scott became interested in Napoleon about fifteen years ago, when he happened upon a book by Sten Forshufvud, a Swedish dental surgeon, who, in 1961, tested Napoleon’s hair for arsenic and theorized that he had been poisoned. (Broers, the Oxford historian, is doubtful. “Forshufvud forgot something—everyone was a bit ‘arsenic poisoned’ in those days,” he said. “Wallpaper and many other things were made with levels of it that would be banned today.”) Scott started thinking about Napoleon’s final exile, on St. Helena. He was intrigued by his friendship with a young girl who liked to play with the Emperor’s sword and hat. “He would sit there and watch her hacking away at a tree,” Scott said. “She had no idea who he was, other than a prisoner of war.”


Unlike Kubrick, Scott wasn’t big on biographies. He gave up after two or three books and ordered Scarpa, his screenwriter, to bone up. “One of the questions I found myself asking is Where am I supposed to come down on this guy?” Scarpa said. “In history, we tend to sort characters into heroes or villains. You’re either Martin Luther King or you’re Adolf Hitler.” He was curious about Napoleon’s marriage to Josephine, who carried on a flagrant affair with a Hussar in her husband’s Army. “What stuck was Napoleon’s seeming ineptitude with women,” Scarpa explained. “His attachment to Josephine over the course of his entire life, but also the bizarre disconnect in a guy who is able to kill eighty thousand people on a battlefield in Eastern Europe, almost as a sporting event, and yet, to him, it simply wouldn’t be sporting to deal with his rival for his wife’s affections.”


The angle appealed to Scott. “Who was this person, and why was he vulnerable?” he asked. “And it was this woman called Josephine.” He cast Jodie Comer, who had starred in his 2021 film “The Last Duel,” but two months before filming she had to drop out and was replaced by Vanessa Kirby.


Scott has described the “environment” as a character in all his films, and critics have accused him of prioritizing spectacle over substance. “I tend to be visual above all things, before the written word,” he said. He is fond of the adage “A picture is worth a thousand words,” which he attributes to Hitchcock. (In fact, it dates back at least to a speech in 1911 by the newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane.) His hand-drawn storyboards, known as Ridleygrams, are his method of thinking and communicating. His older son, Jake, recalled going on a family vacation in France when he and his brother were children: “He had us illustrate the holiday, and he wrote the text. That was a form of storyboarding.”


Luke, Scott’s younger son, has worked as a second-unit director on several of his father’s films, beginning with “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” from 2014, starring Christian Bale as an unlikely Moses. For a sequence with the ten plagues, Luke was tasked with filming vultures landing on a statue. When it was done, he recalled, “I think, All good, pretty good shots of vultures. And then I get a phone call: ‘What the fuck was that?’ He says, ‘The top of the statue has to be covered in bones, detritus, all of that!’ ” Luke called the vultures back and reshot the scene with the jetsam of pestilence. “I was misreading the storyboard,” he said.


Scott’s closest collaborators are trained to anticipate his aesthetic preferences. Arthur Max, the production designer, named a few: “Smoke. Thick, crusty, shiny, black, thick paint. Heavy aging. Filth. Dirt. Textures of all kinds. Shiny glass mirrors. Chrome. Metallic, silky fabrics. Corrosion. Small, fine, delicate mechanisms.” Janty Yates, his costume designer, avoids fluorescent fabrics for his films. “He prefers rich jewel colors,” she told me. “He loves gold trim, but old gold. He loves shadow. He really doesn’t like green—and then suddenly he’ll like green. He’s quite a hummingbird.” On “The Martian,” he surprised her by requesting a “pop of orange.”


In his L.A. office, Scott had an assistant bring in a bound copy of his “Napoleon” storyboards, which looked like a comic-strip biography. He flipped through: the Battle of Austerlitz, in which Napoleon lures the Russians onto a frozen pond; a cut scene of Napoleon and Josephine discussing politics in a bathtub; the Fire of Moscow, in 1812. (“It burned like a son of a bitch.”) “This is now the day of Waterloo,” Scott said, pointing at a page. Originally, he had planned to show Napoleon on the toilet, noticing blood; he’d read that the Emperor suffered from hemorrhoids, which were common to equestrians. (It’s possible that he actually had stomach cancer.) “As I got close to the release, I thought, I haven’t got the courage,” he said, and he cut the toilet scene. He turned to a drawing of Wellington in gray, asking a scout when the Prussians would arrive. A scribbled note read, “Does NB have similar intel?”


To play the role of Waterloo, Scott’s team scouted dozens of fields in England—“tromping around in Wellington boots in muddy fields, avoiding cowpats,” Max recalled—before settling on a farm in Berkshire. The production set up a “war room” in Brentford, a London suburb, with three-dimensional models of the terrain. Biddiss, the ex-paratrooper, ran five hundred extras through “boot camp” at the Cavalry Barracks in Hounslow, which were built in Napoleon’s era. He assessed the extras to make sure they were “physically and mentally robust” and put the best three hundred up front. (C.G.I. multiplied them into the thousands.) Biddiss had studied old military manuals and showed the extras how the French and the English loaded their muskets in different ways. Scott is less of a stickler. When the trailer came out, the TV historian Dan Snow posted a TikTok breakdown of its inaccuracies. (At the Battle of the Pyramids, “Napoleon didn’t shoot at the pyramids”; Marie-Antoinette “famously had very cropped hair for the execution, and, hey, Napoleon wasn’t there.”) Scott’s response: “Get a life.”


Waterloo was shot in the course of five days, with eleven cameras rolling. “It was quite blustery,” Max recalled. “I knew Ridley would like it, because he is very visceral about the elements. If he got an earthquake, he’d find a way to use it.” Biddiss told me, “Uniformity is very important with Ridley—right down to the guys, making sure their hats are straight. There wasn’t a bayonet that was out of synch.” The most complicated maneuver was forming human squares, with bayonets pointed outward—an infantry formation that the British used to scare off the Frenchmen’s horses. “I had some sleepless nights, because I wanted to make sure that those guys did this square perfectly,” Biddiss said. On the day, “they pulled it off brilliantly. I could hear Ridley on the radio—‘Buy those boys a pint!’ ”


Scott calls himself a war baby, though he was born in 1937, two years before England entered the Second World War. The Scotts lived in South Shields, on the northeast coast. “When the air-raid warnings sounded off, my father was in London already as an officer,” Scott recalled. “My mother would hustle us under the stairs, and we’d sit drinking cocoa, singing ‘Old MacDonald Had a Farm’ while bombs came down around us.”


His father, Francis Percy Scott, had been a clerk in a shipping office, but the war was good to him. Despite his Geordie accent, he rose up the ranks to brigadier general overseeing civil engineering; according to Ridley, he received letters from Winston Churchill, thanking him for his input on D Day. After the war, Francis was asked to help rebuild Germany’s infrastructure. He moved his wife and sons—Ridley, his older brother, Frank, and his younger brother, Tony—to a sumptuous house in Hamburg. In 1952, Francis was offered a prestigious role leading the Port Authority for the Elbe and the Rhine. (Scott said, “That’s like being offered the St. Lawrence and the Hudson!”) But Ridley’s mother, Elizabeth, wanted to be near her relatives in England. Ridley remembers speaking up, saying, “Take the job!” and getting a thwack. They returned to England and lived in modest state housing. He said, “Already I was learning how life changes so quickly, you know?”


Despite Scott’s machismo, he is known for populating his films with strong women: Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, in “Alien,” one of Hollywood’s first female action heroes; Thelma and Louise; G.I. Jane; Lady Gaga’s vengeful Patrizia Reggiani, in “House of Gucci”; even the sledgehammer-wielding rebel in his “1984” commercial for Apple. Sigourney Weaver credits Scott with the longevity of Ripley and “Alien.” Earlier this year, she told Total Film, “They made Ripley a woman, without making her this helpless creature.” In AnOther magazine, she recalled, “I’d been put in a baby-blue space costume, and Ridley took one look at me and said, ‘You look like fucking Jackie O. in space!’ ” He put her in an old nasa flight suit instead. “Ripley is not a sexy space babe,” Weaver said. “I never worried how I looked, I worried about getting down the corridors fast enough to escape the explosions!”


Scott is not one to expound on gender roles. When asked about his predilection, he responds vaguely, as he did in 1998, speaking to Sammon: “I’m drawn to strong, intelligent women in real life. Why shouldn’t the films reflect that?” When I raised the subject with his son Jake, he replied, “I can tell you where that comes from—my grandmother.”


“I shouldn’t say this,” Scott told me, “but my mother was the man of the house. My mother insisted she was five feet—she was four foot eleven. And she was ferocious. My dad was a real gentleman. He was a sweetheart, a nice man, who took more than he should have from my mum.” Elizabeth, he recalled, “would take a belt or a stick to us.” She never worked outside the home, although, in the seventies, she offered to be a receptionist at Scott’s commercial-production company. (“I didn’t want to say it, but she’d scare away more clients than she’d bring in.”) Elizabeth lost her brother and four sisters to cancer, then lived until ninety-six. “She was formidable,” Scott said. “Her famous words to me before she died were ‘This is ridiculous.’ ”


I asked Jake which of his father’s characters most resembled Elizabeth. He laughed and said, “Mother, in ‘Alien.’ ” Mother, or mu/th/ur 6000, is the spaceship’s computer system, Scott’s answer to Kubrick’s hal 9000, from “2001.” At the end of “Alien,” she counts down to self-destruction in a firm, matronly voice. (The voice actress, Helen Horton, was in her fifties.) Jake said, “Even ‘Napoleon’ begins with a defiant Marie-Antoinette at the guillotine, which is a sort of punk image.” Then he thought of another film, “A Good Year,” which features the actress Archie Panjabi as a hard-charging executive assistant. “That’s another Grandma,” he said. “Do you know what? There’s Grandmas in his films. They’re here, there, and everywhere.”


Does Scott see his mother in his heroines? “No, no,” he told me. “But I learned to give as good as I take. She’d say, ‘Don’t you talk to me like that.’ And I’d say, ‘Don’t you talk to me like that.’ ” In “Napoleon,” Josephine is the only person who seems unimpressed by her husband’s conquests. In a particularly strong scene, he confronts her about her philandering, demanding that she say, “Without you, I am nothing.” Later, as they sit by a fire, she makes him say the same to her, reducing the Emperor of France to a whimperer. “By forgiving her, it in a way is both generous and a weakness,” Scott said. Later, his son Luke talked about how Elizabeth ruled over Ridley and his brother Tony. “The only person in the world who could tell them to shut up and get in line was her,” he said.


Scott was a terrible student, but by the age of nine he’d discovered two passions: smoking and painting. At seventeen, having flunked all his exams except art, he decided to enlist in the National Service; his older brother, Frank, had joined the British Merchant Navy. “You’ve got nothing to learn from the Army,” Ridley’s father advised him. “You should go to art school.” He enrolled in a local program, in West Hartlepool, an industrial seaside town. He’d walk the beaches by the steelworks, watching “towers belching filth and junk,” he said. “It’s a wonder I’ve still got a pair of lungs.” Years later, he drew on those polluted skies while envisioning the dystopian Los Angeles of “Blade Runner.”


He went on to the Royal College of Art, in London. His classmates included David Hockney, whom he remembers getting bored in a life-drawing class and sketching a skeleton in the corner instead. The school had no filmmaking program, so Scott joined the theatre-design department, where, in 1962, someone lent him a Bolex 16-mm. camera. He returned to West Hartlepool to make a short film, “Boy and Bicycle,” starring his teen-age brother, Tony, who would follow him into art school. Scott was fascinated by Joyce’s “Ulysses,” with its “organically visual descriptions” of, say, a butcher laying a “moist tender gland” onto “rubber prickles.” In “Boy and Bicycle,” a freckled lad skips school and bikes through town, as we hear his inner monologue on time, the stench of the smokestacks, and death. Scott said, “The idea was, boy plays hooky for the day, thinks it’s freedom. It’s not—it’s actually prison.”


His final student show got him an offer of a design job at the BBC, which he deferred to travel the United States on Greyhound buses. In New York, he met fashion designers and worked for the documentarians Richard Leacock and D. A. Pennebaker. He was full of drive but unclear which direction it should take. Back in London, he designed sets for such BBC series as “The Dick Emery Show.” He recalled, “From designing, I’d been groomed to be a senior department head, and I surprised them by saying, ‘I don’t want that.’ Then they surprised me by saying, ‘Would you want to do a director’s course at the BBC?’ ” For the class, he made a “potted version” of Kubrick’s war drama “Paths of Glory.” The next Monday, he was offered his first directing job, on a police procedural called “Z-Cars.”


One day in the mid-sixties, a colleague asked him to cover for her at a test shoot for a Benson & Hedges cigarette ad in Chelsea. Freelance commercial directing was better paying and less bureaucratic than the BBC, and Scott was soon shuttling in his white Mini between the BBC’s White City Place and a studio in Chelsea. Within a year, he’d shot hundreds of commercials, starting with a Gerber baby-food ad, during which “the baby spattered porridge all over me,” as he recalled with a grimace. Britain’s ad business was experiencing a creative revolution, with dull, market-research-driven spots giving way to mini movies that captured the buzz of Swinging London. “British advertising had been waiting for a figure like Scott for some time,” Sam Delaney writes in “Get Smashed,” his chronicle of the era. “A generation of writers and art directors had elevated the standard of creative ideas but were unable to find directors who could properly execute their scripts.”


Commercials trained Scott in economical storytelling, conjuring atmosphere, delivering on time and on budget, and making lots of money doing so. He was known for infusing banal scripts with a sheen of artistry; he shot a soap-powder ad in the style of “Citizen Kane” and a toothpaste spot inspired by “Doctor Zhivago.” As competitors moved in on his turf, he realized that he could profit off his rivals and, in 1968, he founded Ridley Scott Associates, which signed up-and-coming commercial directors. When his brother Tony got out of school, dreaming of making documentaries, Ridley urged Tony’s wife to dissuade him: “I said, ‘Dear, if he does documentaries, he’s going to be riding the bicycle in forty years’ time. Come with me, because I know he really wants a Ferrari.’ So Tony came with me, and, sure enough, he got a Ferrari.” With the company flourishing, the brothers earned a reputation for avarice. One industry in-joke went, “What do you get if you drop a penny between the Scott brothers? A metre of copper wire!”


In 1973, Ridley made a commercial for Hovis Bread, featuring a boy pushing a bicycle, its basket stuffed with loaves of fresh bread, through the cobblestoned streets of an English village, set to Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony. It was “Boy and Bicycle,” with existential dread swapped out for nostalgic warmth. (Tagline: “As good for you today as it’s always been.”) In 2006, it was voted Britain’s favorite advert of all time. Both brothers were part of a wave of rock-star British ad directors, many of whom would become feature filmmakers, including Alan Parker (“Midnight Express”) and Adrian Lyne (“Fatal Attraction”). But Ridley, approaching forty, was impatient to get his movie career going. He developed a project with the Bee Gees, but they didn’t want to sing on film, and the project collapsed. When Parker landed his first movie, “Bugsy Malone,” produced by the former adman David Puttnam, Scott was so envious that he couldn’t sleep.


After “Bugsy Malone” played at Cannes, in 1976, Paramount asked Puttnam if he knew anyone else like Parker. He did—Ridley Scott, who had two potential screenplays. The first, about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, would cost $2.2 million. The second, “The Duellists,” a dark comedy based on a Joseph Conrad story about the madness of competition, would cost $1.4 million. “I’ll take that one,” the Paramount executive said. After making his first film, Scott recalled, “I thought, Blimey, that was easy.” At Cannes in 1977, “The Duellists” was nominated for the Palme d’Or and won the prize for the best début film.


By then, Scott had divorced his first wife, Felicity Heywood, a painter he’d met in art school and the mother of his sons. In 1979, he married the advertising executive Sandy Watson, with whom he had a daughter, Jordan. (He’s now married to the actress Giannina Facio, who played the wife of Russell Crowe’s character, Maximus, in “Gladiator.”) All three children have become filmmakers, and all are partners in the family business. I mentioned the “Succession” vibes at the company to Jake. He laughed and replied, “It’s been said.” A few years ago, he was at a restaurant in London when Brian Cox, who played Logan Roy, walked in. “My friend was, like, ‘Oh, your dad’s here!’ ”


The three children were raised by Watson, and when they were young Scott was subsumed with work, spending evenings laboring over his Ridleygrams. In the seventies, the family lived in a mock-Tudor town house on Wimbledon Common, which Ridley designed with the exactitude he devoted to his sets. Jake recalled a conservatory with a checkered floor and a kitchen with no right angles. Both boys appeared in their father’s and uncle’s commercials; Luke remembered stuffing his mouth with Cadbury chocolate. In “The Duellists,” they play aristocratic boys in breeches and pageboy haircuts, and Jake asks a character played by Keith Carradine if he’s ever talked to Napoleon.


The boys saw less of their father as he made trips to Hollywood to drum up films. He developed an idea about Tristan and Isolde, but that fizzled in May, 1977, when Puttnam brought him to see “Star Wars” at Mann’s Chinese Theatre. “It was beyond a crazy football crowd,” Scott recalled. He hadn’t been much interested in science fiction but was seized with a need to top George Lucas. “I couldn’t sleep for a week. I said to David, ‘Listen, I don’t know why I’m doing Tristan and Isolde.’ He said, ‘Think of something else.’ ”


So he did “Alien.” Scott was engrossed with how it would look. He wanted the spaceship to feel claustrophobic, arguing a producer into lowering the ceilings. He was frustrated that the audience wouldn’t be able to smell the creature, which he imagined had a horrible stench. For the chest-bursting scene, he said at the time, “We wanted to do something so outrageous that no one would know it was coming.” Kubrick, whom he idolized but had never met, later called him to ask how the hell he had pulled it off. At a preview screening in Dallas, women ran to the bathroom to vomit, and an usher fainted in the aisle. Scott was thrilled.


“Alien” turned Scott into a bankable studio director, but he was entering perhaps his darkest phase. In 1980, his brother Frank died, at forty-five, of melanoma. “I was going through a nervous breakdown and didn’t know,” Scott told me. “I’ve always been very rational, and death is irrational. It became a nightmare to go to bed, because I’d walk the floor for nine hours.” He was attached to direct “Dune,” but shooting was at least two years off, and he was restless. Instead, he returned to an idea he’d rejected, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” As he sketched out the world that became “Blade Runner,” what emerged was doom: a future of endless rain, perpetual night, environmental ruin, and technology that blurred the line between human and machine to a vanishing point.


The “Blade Runner” shoot was notoriously fraught. The first day, for a scene set in a corporate ziggurat, Scott looked through the lens and saw that the building’s columns had been installed upside down. Paul Sammon, who was embedded on set and chronicled the film’s making in his book “Future Noir,” recalled, “Within the first few weeks, I felt this radical shift in his personality. I saw him go from being fairly personable to being a screamer.” Scott was unaccustomed to American union rules, which prevented him from operating his own camera. He sat in a video-playback booth, which isolated him from his unhappy star, Harrison Ford; the two men could never agree whether Ford’s character, Deckard, was a man or a “replicant.”


Midway through, the Guardian ran an interview in which Scott said that he preferred British crews, because he could give them orders and they’d say, “Yes, guv’nor!” The crew printed up T-shirts that read “yes guv’nor my ass!” Scott and his British compatriots tried to quell the insurrection by wearing T-shirts reading “xenophobia sucks.” The budget ran two million dollars over. The final days were a frenzy, with the last scene—Rutger Hauer’s moody android death—shot against the last sunrise to dawn before Scott’s cameras would be taken from him. In postproduction, Scott was fired—twice—but worked his way back. When preview audiences expressed confusion, Scott, against his better judgment, added a voice-over and a happy ending in which Deckard and his android paramour flee Los Angeles; Kubrick gave him helicopter footage left over from “The Shining.”


“Blade Runner” came out in June, 1982, two weeks after “E.T.,” which synched better with the sunny Reagan era than Scott’s bleak dystopia did. Kael wasn’t its only detractor; another critic wrote, “I suspect my blender and toaster oven would just love it.” After making six million dollars on its opening weekend, the film all but disappeared. Although it grew into a cult classic and became a touchstone for such filmmakers as Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve (who directed the 2017 sequel), Scott still speaks of “Blade Runner” with an ache. Asked what it taught him, he sounded like a defiant general routed by an undeserving enemy: “I learned that the only opinion that matters, when all is said and done—even with failure in your face, and you’re lying on the mat, crushed—is, What did you think of it?”


Just as Napoleon had Versailles, Scott maintains his own seat of power in the French countryside: Mas des Infermières, a winery in Provence, situated in a hilly patch of the Luberon region dotted with cypress and olive trees. Scott bought the property, with eleven hectares of vines, in 1992, after he made “Thelma & Louise.” He was eager to tell me that it once belonged to General Baron Robert, a health officer in Napoleon’s Army.


The day before I met him there, on a cloudless morning in October, his son Luke told me about the house: “It’s the sacred space, the mental palace. Everything within is the construct of this person who thinks visually. You’ll go, ‘Holy shit, this place is beautiful!’ But it’s not accidental that it’s that beautiful, because it’s him pitting himself against nature itself. He is Canute sitting on the shores of England, shouting at the ocean, ‘I command you to get back!’ It’s like all of his movies virtually encapsulated, with the waft of the curtains and the drift of the pollen and the mist.”


I found Scott not in the house but in a building that he constructed on the property in 2019, with a wine cellar, a tasting kitchen, and a gift shop. The outside is faux-rustic, capped with terra-cotta roof tiles. The inside is sleekly modern, with concrete floors, a steel staircase spiralling down to the cellar, and movie memorabilia everywhere. Next to a table with wineglasses and spittoons were four spacesuits, from “The Martian,” “Prometheus,” and “Alien: Covenant.” The mise-en-scène: Cézanne meets Planet Hollywood.


Scott sipped an espresso at a café table, beside the bicycle that Adam Driver rode in “House of Gucci.” He wore a dark T-shirt, trousers, and a plastic watch the color of a traffic cone (a pop of orange). “If I come here, I find that I can sit and think and draw,” he said. He showed me a print of one of his oil paintings, of a mesa in Spain that he had spotted shooting “Exodus.” He put on a tan fedora and led me through the back door, to an expanse of fields. “This place is bloody heaven!” he said. “My vineyard goes way across. See those cypress trees? I go beyond that.” He hadn’t paid much attention to his vintner’s work until his reds began winning prizes in Paris. “So far, I’m just losing money like crazy, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a pleasure.”


In 2006, Scott made the Euro-kitsch screwball comedy “A Good Year,” in which Russell Crowe plays a London financier who inherits his uncle’s vineyard in Provence and learns to appreciate the good things in life. It was filmed eight minutes away. “Russell was damaged goods—he’d thrown the phone in the Mercer Hotel,” Scott recalled, referring to a tabloid incident from Crowe’s post-“Gladiator” bad-boy period. “In the morning, I see him in handcuffs. I went, Fuck! ‘The phone stopped ringing,’ he said. ‘No one’s calling!’ And I said, ‘O.K., I got a film.’ That’s how it began. I got him back on his feet. He’ll never admit that.” (Indeed, a representative for Crowe disputed this account.)


Back inside, past the spacesuits, Scott showed me a hall full of huge stainless-steel wine tanks, each with a blackboard indicating the variety. A circular window above a pair of barn doors was inspired by a monastery in Narbonne where he’d filmed part of “The Last Duel.” “It’s a church,” Scott whispered, taking in the quiet and the pleasant, vinous aroma. “The standards in France are rigid. You can’t force aging. You can’t add sugar. I find Californian wine way too sweet—you get drunk off one glass.” Scott illustrates all of his wines’ labels. In the gift shop, he tapped on a bottle of red, showing two dogs howling at the moon. “I thought all the wine should be about health, fun, sex, dogs,” he said.


A tasting group was coming in, so he led me down the staircase, warning, “I’ve got dodgy knees—too much tennis.” (Arthur Max told me that Scott had injured his knee operating a camera on “G.I. Jane” but “blames it on tennis, which is more glamorous.”) In the cellar were rows of barrels aging the best of the reds, plus more movie artifacts: a sword from “Kingdom of Heaven,” his 2005 Crusades epic; a miniature of the Colosseum, from “Gladiator”; a chain-mail suit worn by Oscar Isaac in “Robin Hood”; a plaster alien head. “This shit is museum quality,” Scott said, stopping in front of two Napoleon uniforms. He picked up a gilded scimitar, with the inscription “recte faciendo neminem timeas.” “I was never good at Latin,” Scott said. (It means “In acting justly fear no one.”)


He asked an assistant for another espresso. He’d been busy. After finishing the extended cut of “Napoleon,” he started storyboarding the Western; he showed me pages of Ridleygrams, featuring a snowy fight scene. With sag-aftra and the studios back in negotiations, he was preparing to pick up “Gladiator 2,” which stars Paul Mescal, the moment the strike was resolved. “I could shoot on Monday,” he said. (The talks fell apart a week later.) In the meantime, he’d been polishing the ninety minutes he had, including a scene in which the hero fights a pack of baboons; he’d been haunted, he said, by a video of baboons attacking tourists in Johannesburg: “Baboons are carnivores. Can you hang from that roof for two hours by your left leg? No! A baboon can.”


I asked why he wanted to make a “Gladiator” sequel, and he gave a practical answer: the first one made a lot of money. But, as he described the new film, his thoughts turned toward immortality. In the first “Gladiator,” there’s a recurring shot of Maximus’ hand grazing the tops of wheat stalks in a field, which we come to realize is the afterlife. Scott had captured the image spontaneously, when he saw Crowe’s body double walking through a wheat field in Umbria, smoking a cigarette. “Do I believe in immortality?” Scott asked, unprompted. “I’m not sure.”


I thought back to something that Luke had told me the day before. “In each movie, there is always a character who I think is Ridley,” he’d said. “They tend to be quite peripheral, almost observers. It’s the one with a darker humor, the one who is, perhaps, more divisive. The one who has the agenda.” He thought of Guy Pearce’s character in “Prometheus,” an eccentric billionaire who longs for immortality, or of Tyrell, the corporate wizard from “Blade Runner.” In “Gladiator,” it’s the trainer played by Oliver Reed who advises Maximus, “Win the crowd and you’ll win your freedom.” “In ‘Napoleon,’ ” Luke said, “it’s Napoleon.”


I asked Scott if he was all these people, and he chortled. “No!” he said. “Oh, dear.” But he does see “winning the crowd” as his job description. “I have to,” he said. “There’s nothing worse than doing something where you’re thinking, I really got that right—and it fails.”


After “Blade Runner,” Scott’s ability to win the crowd was in doubt. He had kept up his commercial business, directing a series of chic Chanel No. 5 ads inspired by René Magritte. (Chanel’s chairman, Alain Wertheimer, had come to him, pleading, “Chanel No. 5 is my flagship perfume. It’s only seen as a present for Grandma!”) The “1984” Apple ad, which aired during Super Bowl XVIII, became an advertising classic and established the company’s image as a nonconformist juggernaut. But Scott’s next film, “Legend,” a grotesque fairy-tale fantasy starring Tom Cruise as a sprightly woodland boy, bombed. In 1987, he tried his hand at gritty realism, with the noir thriller “Someone to Watch Over Me.” It also failed. Tony, meanwhile, directed the back-to-back mega-hits “Top Gun” and “Beverly Hills Cop II.” “He was competitive with me, naturally, because I’m the older brother,” Ridley said.


His unlikely comeback was “Thelma & Louise,” in 1991. Scott picked up the script, by Callie Khouri, with the intention of producing it. After four directors turned him down, he was in a meeting with Michelle Pfeiffer, who was unavailable to star but told him, “Why don’t you come to your senses and direct it?” Again, Scott was thinking visually. As an outsider in America, he wanted to capture the grandeur of the Southwest: “I felt, I’m doing an odyssey of two women on the last journey, and so the last journey had better be beautiful.” The old Route 66 had become industrialized, so he shot in Bakersfield, California. “What he did was put it in an incredibly heroic setting, where John Wayne’s films had actually been shot, which I think was really special,” Susan Sarandon, who played Louise, later told W. Arriving during the throes of third-wave feminism, the movie was a lightning rod—and a hit. (As a bonus, it gave the world Brad Pitt.)


Then Scott drove his career over a cliff. His follow-up film was the plodding “1492: Conquest of Paradise,” starring Gérard Depardieu, of all people, as Christopher Columbus. Even in 1992, post-colonial sentiment was such that Scott’s treatment seemed weirdly hagiographic. But he clearly saw himself in the explorer. In one scene, Columbus argues with Queen Isabella’s treasurer over the budget for his voyage, like a director haggling with a studio head: “You expect me to take all the risks while you take the profit?”


The rest of the nineties were rough. Scott’s next films, “White Squall” and “G.I. Jane,” disappointed. He was divorced, again. His company had personnel problems. “He was being pulled in multiple directions,” Sammon observed. “He almost dipped below the radar.” In 2000, he rebounded with another once-in-a-decade hit, “Gladiator.” The movie, critically dismissed as a swords-and-sandals rehash, made nearly half a billion dollars and won the Oscar for Best Picture, though Scott lost the directing prize to Steven Soderbergh, for “Traffic.” “You know, I haven’t gotten an Oscar yet,” he told me. “And, if I ever get one, I’ll say, ‘About feckin’ time!’ ”


“Gladiator,” for better or worse, revived the Hollywood historical epic, along with Scott’s career. Instead of face-planting again, he directed two more hits, “Hannibal” and “Black Hawk Down.” He was sixty-two when “Gladiator” was released; since then, in a mad sprint, he’s directed seventeen movies, many of them grand in scale. In 2017, his film “All the Money in the World,” about the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s grandson, was six weeks from release when its Getty, Kevin Spacey, was accused of sexual abuse. (Spacey denied the allegations and has since been cleared in two trials.) Scott told Tom Rothman, at Sony, that he wanted to reshoot all of Spacey’s scenes with Christopher Plummer as Getty. Rothman recalled, “I said, ‘Let me tell you absolutely, positively, it cannot be done.’ And absolutely, positively, he did it.” Plummer was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. In 2021, Scott released the medieval drama “The Last Duel” and the campy “House of Gucci” within weeks of each other.


Jake Scott has a theory about what is driving his father’s turbocharged late period: “I think he didn’t get to do it early enough.” Ridley reminded me twice that he didn’t release his first movie until he was forty. “He’s watching Spielberg, he’s watching George Lucas, he’s watching all those guys in their twenties and thirties,” Jake said. “Beginning in midlife means that he didn’t get to do all those films that he wanted to do.” Or maybe, Jake conjectured, it has something to do with what happened to Tony.


One August night in 2012, Scott was in France when his brother called from L.A. Tony had been battling cancer and was recovering from an operation. He’d survived cancer twice before, as a young man, but his earlier chemotherapy had complicated his treatment. He sounded downbeat, so Scott tried to energize him about work: “I said, ‘Have you made your mind up about this film yet? Get going! Let’s get you into a movie.’ ” What he didn’t know was that Tony was standing on the Vincent Thomas Bridge over Los Angeles Harbor. After hanging up the phone, he jumped. He was sixty-eight.


Scott shut down his offices for days. He dedicated his next film, “The Counselor,” to Tony. Then he made another. And another. “Ridley once told me that he has been dogged by deep depression his whole life,” Sammon said. “He calls it ‘the black dog,’ which is what Churchill called it.” (Scott’s fashion and music-video division is called Black Dog Films.) “He says, ‘If I stop, I find myself sinking.’ ”


Napoleon was just forty-five at the Battle of Waterloo, but David Scarpa, the screenwriter, sees him as a man battling against time. “This sense of infinite possibility that he had when he was younger is gone,” he said. Napoleon died six years later, banished and broken.


In 2014, Scott told Variety that he found his brother’s suicide “inexplicable.” At his offices in L.A., I asked if he still found it so. He didn’t. Tony, he explained, was a serious mountain climber. “He’d done El Capitan twice. He would go to the Dolomites. And the operation meant he couldn’t climb again. I think climbing was his enthusiasm. It was his mojo.” He pointed to a photo on the wall, showing a youngish Tony sitting on a craggy mountaintop, a cliff yawning behind him.


Then Scott drifted into a memory: When Tony was sixteen and Scott was twenty-two, Tony took him climbing in the Yorkshire Dales. “I said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Let’s see what you’re made of.’ ” The Dales were wet and windy and grim. Scott recalled, “I think, Why am I here? And he’s looking around, going, ‘Isn’t it fantastic?’ ” Tony tied a rope and scaled up an eighty-foot granite rockface, then called down to his brother, “All right. You come up.” Scott started climbing, as Tony clutched the rope from above. “I’m saying, ‘This is a bad idea.’ He’s going, ‘Oh, no, I’ve got you!’ In the fog, I said, ‘My arms are going!’ He said, ‘That’s because you’re holding on too strong.’ ”


Scott felt himself losing his grip on the rockface. “Tony said, ‘Don’t peel off!’ I said, ‘I can’t help it!’ ” Scott let go and spun on the rope, “like a dead spider hanging on the wall,” he recalled. As a movie played in his mind of his younger self dangling in midair, all his battles ahead of him, Scott gave a wicked, staccato laugh. “This sixteen-year-old is going, ‘I’ve got you. I’ve got you.’ And then he lowered me down, with his hands burning.”


Published in the print edition of the November 13, 2023, issue, with the headline “Napoleon Complex.”


Napoleon review – Joaquin Phoenix makes a magnificent emperor in thrilling biopic


Ridley Scott dispenses with the symbolic weight attached to previous biopics in favour of a spectacle with a great star at its centre


Peter Bradshaw


Wed 15 Nov 2023 00.01 GMT


Many directors have tried following Napoleon where the paths of glory lead, and maybe it is only defiant defeat that is really glorious. But Ridley Scott – the Wellington of cinema – has created an outrageously enjoyable cavalry charge of a movie, a full-tilt biopic of two and a half hours in which Scott doesn’t allow his troops to get bogged down mid-gallop in the muddy terrain of either fact or metaphysical significance, the tactical issues that have defeated other film-makers.


Scott cheekily imagines Napoleon firing on the pyramids in the Egyptian campaign as well as witnessing the execution of Marie Antoinette (but not the humiliation of Louis XVI by the Tuileries mob, which he might actually have seen). Out of deference moreover, Scott and his screenwriter David Scarpa suppress all mention of Napoleon’s reintroduction of slavery into the French colonies. But above all, there’s a deliciously insinuating portrayal of the doomed emperor from Joaquin Phoenix, whose derisive face suits the framing of a bicorne hat and jaunty tricolour cockade. Phoenix plays Napoleon as a military genius and lounge lizard peacock who is incidentally no slouch on horseback. Others might show Napoleon as a dreamy loner, but for Scott he is one half of a rackety power couple: passionately, despairingly in love with Vanessa Kirby’s pragmatically sensual Josephine. Scott makes this warring pair the Burton and Taylor of imperial France.


Rod Steiger gave us Napoleon as the world-weary gangboss exchanging barbs with his consigliere in Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo in 1970; Herbert Lom found him a dwindling absurdity in King Vidor’s War and Peace from 1956, unable to believe no one is there to submit to him in the Russian capital; for Albert Dieudonné in Abel Gance’s silent masterpiece of 1927 he was ascetic and gaunt like Joan of Arc or Rasputin. But for Phoenix he is the arch satirist and grinning mastermind, the outsider, the brilliant observer and exploiter of other people’s weaknesses, the proto-capitalist entrepreneur, grabbing power, boosting confidence, bolstering the printed paper money. Later people might be nicknamed the Napoleon of Crime, but Phoenix’s Napoleon is already that.


 Scott stages a thrilling action set piece for Napoleon’s first great achievement as a young artilleryman: the audacious attack on the British at Toulon in 1793, which cemented his reputation as a strategic master and a hater of the English. Scott bookends the whole thing imagining a defeated Napoleon’s interview with Wellington aboard the HMS Bellerophon, insouciantly congratulating him on the quality of breakfast served to the Royal Navy.


It is course Britain’s sea power that gives Napoleon the nearest thing possible to an inferiority complex; Phoenix gets a big laugh when he petulantly whines at the British ambassador: “You think you’re so great because you have boats!” For a second, Napoleon becomes Phoenix’s creepy young Commodus, from Scott’s Gladiator. There’s also a fair bit of Commodus in Napoleon’s auto-coronation scene as the new emperor who realises that the crown does not quite fit atop his Roman-style laurels. And with the help of his patron and friend Barras (Tahar Rahim), the young Napoleon rides the opposing stormfronts and triangulates the violent impulses of revolution and royalism and becomes himself the distillation of pure power, ruthlessly suppressing the mob with his “whiff of grapeshot”, which Scott shows us graphically.


As symbol and icon, Napoleon has always been seductive; since Tolstoy, the abandonment of Moscow and Napoleon’s subsequent retreat have been symbolic of Mother Russia’s miraculous deliverance, analogous to the resurrection itself. Hitler was fascinated by him; but the postwar cult of Napoleon lives on for those who want to annul the horrors of the 20th century and revive what they take to be the romantic adventure of warfare. For Kubrick in his famously abandoned film project, Napoleon might perhaps have been expected to bear the weight of all kinds of significance. But this isn’t Ridley Scott’s intent; he doesn’t detain the audience with metaphysical meaning and certainly doesn’t withhold the old-fashioned pleasures of spectacle and excitement. Phoenix is the key to it all: a performance as robust as the glass of burgundy he knocks back: preening, brooding, seething and triumphing.

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