Cultural depictions of Napoleon  

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Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, has become a worldwide cultural icon generally associated with tactical brilliance, ambition and political power. His distinctive features and costume have made him a very recognizable figure in popular culture.

He has been portrayed in many works of fiction, his depiction varying greatly with the author's perception of the historical character. In the 1927 film Napoleon, young general Bonaparte is portrayed as a heroic visionary. On the other hand, he has been occasionally reduced to a stock character, depicted as short and bossy, sometimes comically so. Confusion about his height also results from the difference between the French pouce and British inch—2.71 and 2.54 cm respectively; he was about 1.7 m tall, average height for the period. Napoleon surrounded himself with tall bodyguards and had a nickname of le petit caporal which was an affectionate term that reflected his reported camaraderie with his soldiers rather than his height.




  • Napoleon is an important character in Tolstoy's classic novel, War and Peace, where considerable space is devoted to Tolstoy's interpretation of his historical role. He consequently also appears in the adaptations and films of this novel, listed in the following section.
  • Napoleon features prominently in the BBC Doctor Who Past Doctor Adventure World Game, where the Second Doctor must avert a plot to change history so that Napoleon is victorious. In an alternate timeline created by the assassination of the Duke of Wellington prior to Waterloo, Napoleon is persuaded to march on to Russia after the victory of Waterloo, but he dies shortly afterwards, his empire having become so overextended that the various countries collapse back into the separate nations they were before, thus degenerating into a state of perpetual warfare. (This situation is made worse due to the intervention of the Doctor's old enemies the Players).
  • Napoleon plays an indirect yet important part in Alexandre Dumas's novel The Count of Monte Cristo the novel starts in 1815 with Napoleon exiled on the island of Elba, here we learn he hands a letter to the protagonist Edmond Dantes to give to one of his chief (fictional) supporters in Paris - Nortier De Villefort the president of a Bonapartist club. Dantes is unaware that Villefort is an agent of the exiled Emperor and that the letter Napoleon handed him contained instructions and plans about Napoleon's planned return to Paris: however Dante's rivals including Geared De Villefort, the opportunistic son of Nortier (who is a royalist) use the letter to frame Dantes and have him imprisoned in the Chateau d'If until he escapes after 14 years and seeks vengeance upon those who wronged him.
  • In an Archie comic story featuring Jughead Jones, he is inadvertently transported by ambulance to a mental hospital. At first he protests, but relents upon hearing how well the patients are fed. When a nurse asks for his name, he replies "Napoleon Bonaparte." A later update changed this to him saying "You know who I am, Sonic! I am the genius, Dr. Robotnik!"

Film and television

Note: the name immediately following the title of the film is the name of the actor portraying Napoleon

Music and songs

  • Ludwig van Beethoven had originally conceived of dedicating his Third Symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte. Beethoven admired the ideals of the French Revolution, and Napoleon as their embodiment. According to Beethoven's pupil, F. Ries, when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor in May 1804, Beethoven became disgusted and went to the table where the completed score lay. He took hold of the title-page and tore it up in rage.
  • The Tori Amos song "Josephine" from her 1999 album To Venus and Back is sung from the viewpoint of Napoleon during his unsuccessful invasion of Russia.
  • The Mark Knopfler song "Done with Bonaparte" from his 1996 album Golden Heart is sung from the viewpoint of a soldier in Napoleon's army. The song recalls the soldier's many battles serving in Napoleon's Grande Armée.
  • The Ani DiFranco song "Napoleon" satirizes the desire to continuously "conquer"; more specifically musicians who sign with big labels, thus employing "an army of suits" in order to "make a killing" rather than just "make a living".
  • The Al Stewart song "The Palace of Versailles", from his 1978 album Time Passages, is filled with references and allusions to the French Revolution. One line specifically references Napoleon: "Bonaparte is coming/With his army from the south".
  • Swedish Pop group ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest 1974 with the song "Waterloo", which uses the battle as a metaphor for a person surrendering to love similar to how Napoleon surrendered at Waterloo.
  • The song "Viva la Vida" by Coldplay is loosely based on Napoleon's reign.
  • During the Napoleonic Wars, a nursery rhyme warned children that Bonaparte ravenously ate naughty people.
  • Bright Eyes recorded a song called "Napoleon's Hat" for Lagniappe, an album released by Saddle Creek Records to raise funds for the Red Cross' Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
  • The Charlie Sexton song "Impressed" references Napoleon and Josephine (from Pictures for Pleasure)
  • Napoleon was the topic of many Sea Shanties following his death, most notably the song Boney was a Warrior
  • Napoleon figures in one episode of Pinky and the Brain entitled "Napoleon Brainaparte." While France awaits Napoleon's triumphant return from Austria, Brain develops a recipe for exploding crepe-suzettes in an effort to conquer France. He uses the recipe in a cooking class and when the crepes explode, he is arrested. When he is taken to prison, however, his luck begins to change when people mistake him for Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon eventually returns and is, typically, very short and temperamental. His sounds like Marlin Brando, who played Napoleon in the movie Desiree.
  • Iced Earth released the song "Waterloo" on their album The Glorious Burden, which details Napoleon's defeat at the Battle Of Waterloo.
  • An episode of Epic Rap Battles of History is a rap battle between Napoleon Bonaparte and Napoleon Dynamite.

Computer and video games

  • The campaigns of Napoleon have been depicted in the sixth installment of the Total War series, Napoleon: Total War. Player have a chance to follow Napoleon's Italian, Egyptian or Russian campaigns.
  • Napoleon is a frequently used leader representing the French civilization in the Civilization series.

Other references in popular culture

  • Psychonauts, a video game developed by Double Fine Productions, features a level in which the player is to aid the future kin of Napoleon Bonaparte in a board game which was based on the battle of Waterloo.

Napoleon's height

Image:Evacuation of Malta.jpg
A caricature depicting a diminutive Napoleon

British propaganda of the time depicted Napoleon as of smaller than average height (see contemporary caricature right) and the image of him as a small man persists in modern Britain. His actual height was about 1.7m (5 feet 7 inches), average height for the time or slightly taller. Confusion has sometimes arisen because of different values for the French inch (pouce) of the time (2.7 cm) and for the Imperial inch (2.54 cm).

Napoleon's nickname of le petit caporal has added to the confusion, as some non-Francophones have mistakenly interpreted petit by its literal meaning of "small". In fact, it is an affectionate term reflecting on his camaraderie with ordinary soldiers.

Napoleon also surrounded himself with the soldiers of his elite guard, required to be 1.83 m (6 ft) or taller, making him look smaller in comparison.

Despite his normal height, Napoleon's name has been lent to the Napoleon complex, a colloquial term describing an alleged type of inferiority complex which is said to affect some people who are physically short. The term is used more generally to describe people who are driven by a perceived handicap to overcompensate in other aspects of their lives.

Napoleonic delusions of grandeur

Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the most famous humans in the Western world. As delusional patients sometimes believe themselves to be an important or grandiose figure (see delusion), he was a notable object of such delusions.

This idea has often been used in popular culture:

  • In the 1922 film Mixed Nuts, Stan Laurel plays a book salesman whose only volume for sale is a biography of Napoleon. When the character receives a blow to the head, he comes to believe that he is Napoleon and is subsequently admitted to a mental institution.

This cliché has itself been parodied:

  • The award-winning video game Psychonauts features a mental patient locked in an obsessive mind-game with Napoleon, who is fighting for his mind.
  • In The Emperor's New Clothes, Ian Holm plays Napoleon who stumbles into the grounds of an asylum and finds himself surrounded by other "Napoleons" - he cannot reveal his identity for fear of being grouped with the deluded. Holm also played a less-than-serious Napoleon in the 1981 film Time Bandits.
  • The Discworld novel Making Money features a character who believes himself to be Lord Vetinari, imitating Vetinari's mannerisms and entertaining delusions of grandeur. It is later revealed that the local hospital has an entire ward for people with the same delusion, where they engage in competitions to determine who is the "real" Vetinari.
  • In an episode of cult 1960s British TV sci-fi show The Prisoner called "The Girl Who Was Death", which unusually for the series was a light-hearted comedy tale parodying the spy thriller genre, the villain Dr. Schnipps (Kenneth Griffith) believed that he was Napoleon and acted accordingly, at one point asking the protagonist Number Six (Patrick McGoohan), "You're not the Duke of Wellington, are you?"
  • In an episode of Night Court, Judge Harry Stone (Harry Anderson) is placed in a jail cell along with a number of 'mentally disturbed' inmates all dressed as Napoleon. His court defense attorney (played by (Markie Post) sees him and exclaims "Oh sir. They put you in with the little generals".

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Cultural depictions of Napoleon" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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