Ridley Scott’s Napoleon Leaves Out Real History of His First Big Disaster in Egypt


When director Ridley Scott was promoting his latest—and we might argue funniest—historical epic back in November, the filmmaker spoke with pride about the film addressing Napoleon Bonaparte’s legendary campaign into Egypt. As Scott pointed out to Deadline, no previous film about the Frenchman who plunged Europe into decades of war had also addressed his misadventures in North Africa and the Near East too.

“I saw these wonderful two paintings,” Scott said at the time. “One was of a man sitting on a horse staring at the Sphinx, and it was Napoleon. So I thought I had to have that because no one has done the Egyptian campaign. And the truth [is] they took it over pretty easily.”

He is partially right. Napoleon did indeed conquer Egypt with relative ease in 1798. Keeping the land proved to be another story entirely, one which Scott’s Napoleon glosses over in its rush to compress a monumental (and monumentally bloody) lifetime into under three hours. Before the film even came out, in fact, it received some harsh words from Egyptologists and scholars for images in the trailer of Napoleon firing a cannon at the Pyramids of Giza.

This, of course, did not happen. The so-called “Battle of the Pyramids” occurred several kilometers away from its namesake. But one can hardly fault a filmmaker for embracing the visual splendor of it all, from the Great Sphinx to Napoleon communing with another self-proclaimed god-king by way of an unnamed pharaoh’s mummy. In truth, the idea of Egypt captured Napoleon, just as it had so many like him since antiquity: Caesar. Antony. Alexander the Great. But Egypt was also Bonaparte’s first great folly, and one which would in retrospect be a microcosm for Napoleon’s perpetual overreach and self-destruction.

In the Napoleon movie, it’s a quick victory that Joaquin Phoenix’s Corsican general is unable to savor because he discovers in the press that his wife Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby) has been stepping out… and that is partially true! Napoleon was in Egypt when he was made aware, yet again, of his bride’s unfaithfulness. This in turn caused him to write an anguished letter to his brother that read, “My passion for glory is gone. I am sick of humanity. I have no more reason to live. At twenty-nine years of age, I am worn out.”

That letter was then intercepted in the Mediterranean by a British warship. It became a great source of laughter from London newspapers to the palaces of Russia. Still, despite that embarrassment, it was not Joséphine who caused Napoleon to flee Egypt and abandon many of his men to suffering and death. It was his own bad leadership that carried him into his first disaster—as well as his greatest legacy.

Blood, Sand, and an Emperor’s Folly

From practically the very beginning, Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt was fraught with death and delusion. This starts with arriving on the Egyptian coast outside Alexandria in 1798 during a storm. Hundreds of soldiers drowned in the violent, churning surf after their small boats capsize. It would be prescient of things to come. Fortunately for Napoleon, the French population did not hear of these things. They received reports, like the rest of Europe, of Napoleon’s lightning speed victories over the city of Alexandria, which surrendered with barely any resistance. They also hear of the Battle of the Pyramids, which while not quite so anticlimactic as in Scott’s Napoleon, where a single cannon blast (into the Pyramid of Khafre, no less!) seems to unhorse all of his Mameluke opponents, was nonetheless a resounding success for the French.

In fact, the actual Battle of the Pyramids was a bloodbath. Wave after wave of Mameluke fighters—warriors enslaved in infancy and trained since childhood in horseback warfare (and an inspiration for the Unsullied in Game of Thrones)—charged Napoleon’s French armies in their perfect squares upon the desert plateau of Giza. The Mamelukes’ tactics, right down to their bejeweled swords, were positively medieval. Which was a disadvantage when falling upon French rifles. More than 10,000 of the Mamelukes’ charging cavalry died; meanwhile the French lost a mere 289 soldiers.

Still, before the day was over, by sheer strength of momentum dying horses would carry their bleeding passengers into the midst of French ranks where stead and occupant alike were finished off by bayonet. When the enslaved soldiers finally hastened into a retreat, Napoleon ordered a massacre. He conquered Cairo’s defenses in an afternoon.

It would prove to be a pyrrhic victory though. Consider that while watching the carnage from a safe distance on his horse, the French general began dictating notes for what his occupation of Cairo would look like: his army would create a new sanitation system to combat the plague, which was already dogging them from a march across the desert in summer heat; they would find new ways to light the city at night; he’d even build a fleet of windmills along the Nile, right there on the bank where his soldiers are currently drowning fleeing Mamelukes in the crocodile-infested waters.

Yet only one of Napoleon’s windmills was ever built. It stood alone, a sad monument to failed modernity and a general’s folly. Napoleon won Egypt but he would barely hold onto it for more than a year.

Admittedly, conquering the land of the Nile made good sense for the French. It was Britain’s quickest gateway to India and all the resources that went with it in the days before the Suez Canal—which itself was actually built atop a ruined, ancient canal from Pharaonic times that Napoleon’s engineers discovered in 1799. Egypt was a tactical advantage, but the French general from Corsica never seriously thought about how to defend it.

Even the march across the desert between Alexandria and Cairo was a disaster, with Napoleon factoring in he’d let hundreds of his men die from heat and exhaustion if he could get there fast enough to surprise the local government. By the time they did arrive, morale was so low that when Napoleon scoffed off the concerns of his subordinate generals, one named Mireur rode out into the desert and promptly shot himself in the head. His body was found with the tricolor sash of France wrapped around the corpse.

It would be worse the following year when Napoleon attempted to strengthen his hand by conquering what is modern day Syria and Israel. He led 13,000 men across various deserts, losing thousands to conflict, and thousands more to bubonic plague. This did not include the prisoners he took in Jaffa. Unable to feed them, he had his men execute as many as 5,000 men, women, and children with bayonets. He eventually returned to Egypt in defeat.

The irony is that even before he set out for Damascus is the whole enterprise was lost. The British fleet, led by Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson descended upon the French ships in the mouth of the Nile Delta in August 1798 and utterly obliterated them. It would be the first of several pivotal British naval victories spearheaded by Nelson over Napoleon—a feat Scott’s movie only mentions in passing when Phoenix’s Bonaparte throws another amusing tantrum and whines, “You think you’re so great, because you have boats!”

By that time in the film, the Battle of the Nile has already occurred, and the entire Egyptian campaign has failed. Napoleon didn’t leave ahead of his army to confront Joséphine; he left to avoid holding the bag of eventually having to surrender to Nelson. He didn’t even tell his second-in-command, General Kléber, about his hasty flight. Instead he left a note that read, “By the time you receive this, I will have left Egypt… hold out for as long as possible.” The man of great ambitions smuggled his own person like ill-gotten contraband through the lines of the British Navy, and left Kléber to be assassinated by a religious fundamentalist on the streets of Cairo. The last words Kléber heard were “death to the infidel dogs!”

His replacement, a man named Menou, went “native,” as the saying went, and converted to Islam to marry an Egyptian woman before eventually surrendering to the British.

Out of Failure Also Came Napoleon’s Greatest Triumph

Scott’s Napoleon skips over how Egypt was ultimately one in a long list of Bonaparte’s egotistical mistakes that left scores of thousands—and eventually tens of millions—dead. Consider it a preview for coming attractions in Russia. However, the film also ignores why if this megalomaniac had one positive effect on history, it also was probably in the sands of Egypt. There is a hint of this when Phoenix’s Napoleon seems entranced while staring at his likeness in the face of a mummy-king who might’ve ruled an empire three or more thousand years ago. His underlings stare on, too, in bewilderment at their general.

This merely teases Napoleon’s curiously erudite and philosophical interests. Because even before leaving France for the Land of the Pharaohs, Bonaparte had been as seduced by  the Nile’s golden shimmer as Augustus, Alexander, or the Persian kings who invaded before him. It’s why he baffled his generals, soldiers, and sailors by insisting on taking 167 French academics, scholars, and philosophers with him to Egypt. He called them his “savants.” Napoleon filled ship after ship with scientific equipment, historic texts, and atlases; a veritable floating library of Latin and ancient Greek sources. At night he would dine with his thinkers, who were nicknamed with scorn by his men as “the general’s favorite mistress.”

Yet Napoleon would later state with pride, “The true conquests, those that will never be forgotten, are those that are wrested from ignorance!” And he wasn’t wrong. While the actual militaristic and strategic function of the Egyptian campaign ended in despair, a few years later in 1809, the first volume of Description de l’Égypte was published. It was the first part in what wound up being a 60-book survey that enriched the modern world’s understanding of Egypt, from its geography to its history. To this day, the French’s perspective shapes our ideas of Egypt, right down to a pharaoh’s royal emblem being called a “cartouche,” the French word for a military rifle’s “cartridge.”

Most important of all was the discovery of a granodiorite royal decree from Ptolemaic Egypt (an era where the land was ruled by Greek-descended colonists). The stele, or stone, was found near a town named Rosetta. With the decree written in three languages—ancient Greek, Demotic script, and hieroglyphs—its importance was immediately recognized by the French engineers who discovered it. For they, like all of Napoleon’s army, had it drilled into their heads that this was a scientific expedition of discovery!

The ability to read hieroglyphs died out somewhere near the dawn of the Middle Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire and the Christianization of Egypt. With that loss went the knowledge of one of the oldest and most prodigious record-keeping civilizations in history. By the 18th century, many scholars dismissed hieroglyphs, and by extension their civilization, as primitive picture-writing by a primitive people.

Being able to finally decipher hieroglyphs was an opportunity that exceeded even Napoleon’s wildest dreams. It would be the birth of Egyptology, a rise in “Egyptomania” in 19th century Europe, and a doorway through which modern Egypt would eventually establish its independence and renewed national pride after several millennia of occupation. You can draw a line from the discovery of the Rosetta Stone to King Tut, art deco architecture, and The Mummy.

But even then it wasn’t an immediate innovation. The British quickly commandeered the Rosetta Stone from the French (never mind the Egyptians), but after 20 years of attempts, no English scholar could decipher it. In fact, it was another Frenchman and largely self-taught scholar named Jean-François Champollion who finally decoded the Rosetta Stone by filling in the gaps in knowledge left by its paraphrasing with his own personal study of Coptic, a largely abandoned language now mostly used in ceremony by Coptic Christians in Egypt. Champollion also proved it was the last remnant of the ancient Egyptian language.

… And Champollion even was able to preview his discoveries to Napoleon when they met. Just once. This moment, too, aligns with another scene in Scott’s movie.

In the early winter of 1815, Napoleon escaped his first exile on Elba, an island off the Italian coast. In the movie, Scott tracks the surreal ease with which Napoleon returns to France, and the even more shocking ease with which he uses his cult of personality to transform the army sent to arrest him into his own fighting force. All the years of blood, snow, and loss in the wastes of Russia are forgotten and forgiven. Afterward, the emperor set up headquarters in a nearby town where he plotted his reclamation of French greatness.

In the midst of all this, however, he took the time to meet with French university dignitaries and luminaries, including a young obsessive named Champollion.

Upon hearing that the shabby linguist believed he is on the verge of deciphering hieroglyphics through the use of Rosetta Stone—which he studied based on French artists’ sketches made before it was surrendered to the British—and Coptic, Napoleon demands Champollion spend an evening with him. They discussed Egypt, Coptic, and the history of emperors and scholars; kings and pawns. By the following morning, Napoleon vowed to publish a book on Champollion’s findings about Coptic in the imperial press.

This of course never came to pass since Napoleon met his literal Waterloo a few months later. He would die abandoned on the island of Saint Helena in 1821, three years before Champollion’s full discoveries were published. Despite that setback, the impact of their meeting, and a mad general’s scholarly pursuits in Egypt, changed the course of archaeological, cultural, and even Egyptian history. It is a self-crowned emperor’s greatest legacy, “a true conquest” that wrested knowledge from ignorance.

… Still, it’s worth noting that the final victory is not made by actual conquerors like Napoleon, but the scholars who make sense of the messes they leave in their wake. A major source for this article was Daniel Meyerson’s The Linguist and the Emperor, and in that book, Meyerson mused, “Power or knowledge, knowledge or power? When all is said and done, which is the shadow and which is the substance? Which is worth having? Which is worth striving for?” Napoleon yearned for both and wound up with neither. He unlocked knowledge that changed the world, but only after his crimson sword was taken away, and he himself cast aside and beneath the sand.

Napoleon is streaming on Apple TV+ now.

The post Ridley Scott’s Napoleon Leaves Out Real History of His First Big Disaster in Egypt appeared first on Den of Geek.

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