Napoléon (miniseries)

Created by Didier Decoin and Max Gallo, Yves Simoneau - director
Starring Christian Clavier
Gérard Depardieu
Isabella Rossellini
John Malkovich
Alexandra Maria Lara
Heino Ferch
Claudio Amendola
Country of origin France / Canada
No. of episodes 4
Running time 357 minutes
Original network France 2

Napoleon is a historical miniseries which explored the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. In 2002, it was the most expensive television miniseries in Europe, costing the equivalent of $US46,330,000 to produce. The miniseries covered Napoleon's military successes and failures, including the Battles of Eylau, Austerlitz, Waterloo and the retreat from Russia. It also delved into Napoleon's personal life: his marriage to and divorce from Josephine de Beauharnais, his marriage to Marie Louise, the Duchess of Parma and daughter of Francis II, and his affairs with Eleanore Denuelle and Marie Walewska. The series draws from Bonaparte historian Max Gallo's bestseller.

The miniseries was produced by GMT Productions in France and co-produced by Transfilm in Canada and Spice Factory in the UK. In France it first aired October 7, 2002 on France 2, in Quebec it ran from February 2 to February 23, 2003 on Super Écran and was then re-aired on Télévision de Radio-Canada. In the United States, it aired on the Arts and Entertainment (A&E) channel.


The series begins with Napoleon on Saint Helena. Hudson Lowe, the British governor of the island, repeatedly demands Napoleon show his presence. After a futile attempt to convince Napoleon to leave his home, an English girl (Miss Betsy), soon appears.

Although there is no explicit mention of this, it is assumed that Napoleon is reminiscing about his past successes to Miss Betsy, as it is revealed at the end. The story begins with his meeting of Josephine de Beauharnais, his future wife and Empress. Later, it focuses on Napoleon's military involvement as the Vicount of Barras' chief of staff in neutralizing Royalist forces, followed by his seizure of the French throne, declaring himself Emperor, and waging war on all of Europe.



Filming took place in Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Morocco and Switzerland. The filmmakers found that many locations in Hungary resembled 19th century France. However, matte paintings and various digital effects were also employed in post-production in order to recreate the historical setting. In many of the battle sequences, computer-generated soldiers created by Hybride Technologies were added into the footage. "With digital effects, you always want to create something dramatic", said Pierre Raymond, president of Hybride. "But for Napoleon, we had to present the reality of the time period with imagery that was visually interesting, but more important, totally accurate."[1] The fact that Napoleon left behind many historical records helped in the production, and other records were supplied by the modern-day French Army.

Upon its release, it was the first television series to be broadcast simultaneously in all the participating European countries.[1] However, when originally broadcast in the United States, it was edited down to a running time of three hours, as opposed to the original six hours.

Battles and action

The first episode begins with the young Napoleon's suppression of Royalist rioters on 13 Vendémiaire with the famous "Whiff of Grapeshot" (short range canister fire from a cannon) around the Church of St. Roch (October 5, 1795). Later on, Napoleon is shown failing to take a bridge from the Austrians at the Battle of the Bridge of Arcole (November 15–17, 1796) during his first Italian campaign. The episode ends with the attempted bombing by the Royalists of Napoleon's carriage while it was en route to the opera house.

In the second episode, there is an extended sequence showing the Battle of Austerlitz (December 2, 1805). This is followed by a very brief scene of the Battle of Jena (October 14, 1806). The episode ends in the midst of the snowy Battle of Eylau (February 7–8, 1807) with Napoleon waiting desperately for reinforcements led by Marshal Michel Ney.

The third episode begins with the last minute arrival of Ney's reinforcements at Eylau battlefield, the charge of the French cuirassier heavy cavalry (led by Marshal Joachim Murat) against the Russian lines, and Napoleon's sending of his Imperial Guard grenadiers into action. The middle of the episode shows Napoleon suffering a serious defeat at the Battle of Aspern-Essling (May 21–22, 1809) and the death of his closest friend and general Marshal Jean Lannes. There is no depiction of the Battle of Borodino (September 7, 1812), though it is mentioned later in the episode. Instead, Napoleon and his forces are shown waiting outside of Moscow before his entire army parades into the empty Russian city. The episode ends with Napoleon opening the window in the Tsar's Kremlin bedroom to see the city engulfed in flames.

The fourth episode begins with the retreat of half-frozen French soldiers in the bitterly cold Russian winter while being attacked by mounted Cossacks. Later, there is the Battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815) with Ney's heavy cavalry charge, the French taking of the farm Le Haie Sainte from the British, the assault of the Imperial Guard, and the final rout of the French forces. As soldiers flee the battlefield, Napoleon's Imperial Guard grenadiers form a square around their emperor and retreat in disciplined order in their square.

Historical inaccuracy


The series premiered at a time when many other books and films about Napoleon had recently come out or were in production, including a stage production called C'était Bonaparte, which opened days before the miniseries premiered. When it first aired in France it drew in seven million nightly viewers.[2] Critical reviews have been mixed. Some reviewers were uneasy at the casting of Christian Clavier, an actor known mostly for his work in comedy films, in the title role.[3] French critics generally found Clavier to be "a good Napoleon but a poor Bonaparte." That is, striking an imposing figure but failing to give insight into the man.[4] In terms of the dispute over whether Napoleon was a visionary, a tyrant, or an imposter, historian Jean Tulard considers the miniseries to be "too soft" on the emperor. However, the series also endows him with some unsavory characteristics, including a certain insensitivity towards the human costs of war.[4] Mark A. Rivera of stated that, "Napoleon is not portrayed as an angel in this miniseries, but neither is he portrayed as a monster. I think this might be one of the most courageous attempts to present the 'Emperor' simply as a human being."[5] Clavier himself referred to the character he portrays as an intellectual and a true liberal.[6]

Anthony Nield of DVD Times criticized the series' pacing.[7] John Lichfield of the Independent found the battle scenes inconsistent in terms of realism.[4]


Early on the film received negative reviews in Italy but was praised in France. An Italian politician, Umberto Bossi, was angered by the series, stating that it glamorized Napoleon despite the fact that his occupation of Italy resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the looting of many of the country's artistic treasures. He also criticized Italy's RAI television network for co-funding the series. Producer and cast member Gérard Depardieu defended the series, stating that it keeps to the truth and that "perhaps Bossi would have preferred an idiot Napoleon." Two other members of the cast, Christian Clavier and Isabella Rossellini, vouched for the integrity of their respective portrayals of the French emperor and empress.[6] Lichfield, on the other hand, says that the series omits most of the unsavory elements of Napoleon's Italian campaign.[4]


In 2003 the series won a Bavarian TV award. In France, it won a 7 d'Or award for Best Director. In the United States it was nominated for nine Emmy awards,[8] and it won the Emmy for Outstanding Costumes for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special[9]

DVD release

A three-disc DVD (full screen) recording, under the A&E label and with A&E extra features, is sold in the United States. In Canada, there is a four-disc DVD (fullscreen) recording, under the REMSTAR label and without the A&E extra features, in both English and French editions. French edition is in 1.78:1 (16:9) widescreen.

Game release

A game based on the miniseries was released on November 14, 2002 by Atari and Infogrames for Mac & Windows. The game allows players to recreate some of Napoleon's historical battles. Richard Grégoire, the composer of the soundtrack of the miniseries, also contributed a part of the game's music.


  1. 1 2 Karen Moltenbray, A Napoleonic Quest: Digital artists re-create history for the mini-series Napoleon, Computer Graphics World, October 2002, vol. 25, no. 10, pages 24-29
  2., Little General Gets Big
  3. "N'est pas Napoléon qui veut " : les fausses notes de Christian Clavier - le Journal Culturel Le Mague agite l'E-monde
  4. 1 2 3 4 John Lichfield, Vive l'Empereur
  5., Napoleon: Collector’s Edition DVD Set Review, ,
  6. 1 2 BBC News, Napoleon series angers Italian party, , October 7, 2002,
  8., Director: Movies & Miniseries, Veterans take first shots at Emmy gold
  9. "Napoléon" (2002) - Awards
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