He was the ruler of France, but learned French as a second language, and spoke it with an accent. He praised the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution, but always considered himself a little more equal than everyone else (much like a Marxist that way). And he was a military genius whose victories brought him glory and power, but who lost it all through the tragic flaw of always wanting more, and never knowing where to stop.
The man was Napoleon Bonaparte, and his name is well known to young and old; but few in America know much about him, or care. It's not only that he lived far away from the world we live in - Americans have a never-ending interest in (and horror of) Adolf Hitler, even though he too was across the Atlantic - but Napoleon is perceived not to have had much effect on American history. Part of it may be that he was so long ago, but part of it also may be the perception that he was beneficial to our country - that his fighting our mutual enemy of that time (Great Britain) kept us from losing our War of 1812. There may be some truth in this; but regardless of one's feelings about this, he was a major foreign policy issue for the presidencies of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison; and was the central fact of domestic life for the vast majority of the continent of Europe. He hit very close to home for them, and inspired a never-ending fascination with his life that lives on in Europe today.
The man who would become emperor of France grew up on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, and spent much of his life hating France, considering it destructive of his homeland. He may have been right; but he and his family moved to France at a young age in search of economic opportunity, and his father got him a commission in the French army. He got an excellent military education at a French academy, but was ostracized somewhat because of his Corsican accent and provincial background, and spoke French only with great difficulty. It was the French Revolution that caused Napoleon to rise, allowing him to win early victories in France's campaigns in Italy, and showcasing both his military skill and extraordinary charisma - qualities that would serve him well throughout his life.
Battle of the Pyramids, Egypt 1798
He proposed an expedition to Egypt, to fight the British where the Royal Navy's influence was weakest, and won an important victory at the Battle of the Pyramids. But the Royal Navy cut off his supplies from home, and Napoleon's expedition ended in dismal failure, with Napoleon abandoning his troops and returning to France. The expedition was a strategic failure, but a propaganda success; owing to the many paintings Napoleon commissioned to sweeten the campaign's image. He arrived back in France just in time to take part in a coup d'état that put him into power, taking advantage of his war hero image to make himself emperor of France. He would crown himself Emperor soon, with the Pope attending the ceremony to legitimize his coronation.
Napoleon's coronation, 1804
Josephine de Beauharnais, Napoleon's wife
While Napoleon had been in Egypt, he had received news that his wife was cheating on him, and had begun some cheating of his own with the wife of one of his officers. He fully intended to divorce his wife; but she turned on all her charm to persuade him not to divorce her, and he gave in and kept his marriage; but was never again faithful to her. As dictator of France, he was a promiscuous man; something that is covered to a nauseating extent in the Napoleon miniseries by A&E. It is not covered for long in this wonderful documentary by PBS; a decision which allows them to focus on more important (and more interesting) things, like his military and political career. (I'd rather hear less about the bedroom, and more about the battles.)
Battle of Austerlitz, 1805
"Napoleon crossing the Alps," a famous propaganda painting
The documentary covers just enough of the complicated geopolitics of this time to communicate background information, but not enough to get confusing and overly long. Too much coverage, and it would be "war on, war off," and "nation A joins the war, nation B sues for peace" - a pattern repeated so often in the Napoleonic Wars that it's hard to find much stability in the era. I won't go into it all here; but suffice it to say that Napoleon tried to enforce a Continental System, or a stopping of all trade with Britain by his conquered territories. This would later get him into trouble.
Marie-Louise of Austria, Napoleon's second wife
After briefly covering his divorce with Josephine after failed attempts to produce a male heir (she had grown old and barren), they mention his marriage to a beautiful young Austrian princess - a marriage with political significance, because of the alliance between Napoleon's France and her father's Austria. The king of Austria ordered his daughter to marry this "Corsican upstart" to prevent him from making war on Austria; and despite a hatred of Napoleon, she obeyed. Napoleon managed to charm her into liking him, though, and the marriage did produce a male heir - something Napoleon took great satisfaction in.
Napoleon's retreat from Russia, 1812
But Russia was now refusing to enforce the Continental System, with its embargo on British goods; and Napoleon retaliated with an invasion of Russia. Like Hitler some generations later, though, Napoleon was defeated by the harsh Russian winter; and lost nearly all of his army to the cold. The conquered nations of Europe sensed weakness, and all began to declare war on him - including, eventually, the very Austria whose princess he had married; all moving in for the kill. Napoleon was ousted from power, and allowed to rule only the tiny Mediterranean island of Elba. This did not suit the massive ego and ambition of Napoleon, and so he escaped from Elba to try to restore his empire; only to be defeated again by the Allies at Waterloo, this time for good.
Napoleon returning from Elba, 1815
Battle of Waterloo, 1815
This time, he was sent to the remote Atlantic island of St. Helena, and was not allowed to rule anything. Instead, he was a prisoner, and the only campaign left to him was the public relations campaign of writing his memoirs. I won't say much for Napoleon's character, but I think it was a service to history that he was forced to write his memoirs; for it put him on the record about the important events of his time. I won't vouch for all of his conclusions (I haven't even read it), but I'm told that it's an interesting read, and that he had a gift for self-expression.
So now, some comments about PBS's specific telling of the story: The movie covers all the events I've just talked about, and tells the epic story of Napoleon with the dramatic flair that the story deserves. The documentary is not always sympathetic, but nor is it always unflattering, as it has some moments of sympathy for the man; and the story is of great importance to world history. The story is told in Ken Burns style, using the many paintings 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 some epic re-enactments, you'd be better off looking elsewhere - to the A&E miniseries, for example, or to the Rod Steiger "Waterloo" movie. But if you're just 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. Highly recommended to anyone interested in him, or the Napoleonic Wars period.
DVD at Amazon
If you liked this movie, you might also like:
Oliver Cromwell movie
French Revolution program
Napoleon & Latin America
American War of 1812 program
Available on YouTube