04 December 2023

“La France, l’armée, tête d’armée, Joséphine”.

I don’t blame you if these words don’t sound familiar, I accept that not everyone is a history nerd like me.

In English, the words translate to “France, the army, head of the army, Josephine.”

These are the last words of Napoleon Bonaparte, who for those not up to date on the hot button issues of the 1800s, was considered a brilliant military strategist and was a storied emperor of France. You might know him as the guy who looks like he’s got his hat on sideways. The jaunty bicorne is almost a character in its own right. Don’t judge, it was very on trend.

The story of Napoleon is a captivating history lesson that tells the tale of his meteoric rise from obscure Corsican artillery officer during the French Revolution to military genius. He fought more than 80 individual battles and reigned for a decade as self-proclaimed emperor of France.

As is often the case, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. For Napoleon, this meant rejection, exile and his death on the island of St Helena in 1821. His death in itself is quite a topic of debate.

While he was often painted as a great leader, those of us who have watched the Ridley Scott film over the past week see him portrayed as a wildly complicated man.

While his military and political achievements and his passionate French patriotism may make him a hero to many, he was also, as we now know, cruel to his wife Josephine, and a man obsessed with status and history. Psychologists are divided on whether he was a narcissist or not but he certainly had grandiose ambitions. Maybe this bloke — or his mum — really believed conquering Europe was his destiny.

He penned a romance novel, had a son who ruled France for two whole weeks, and ordered the imprisonment of 13 Catholic cardinals for not attending his wedding.

It was fascinating to watch a multi-layered life laid bare on the big screen in 158 minutes — even if all scenes weren’t historically accurate. Before all you history buffs come at me, I think getting the depth of the characters in the story is more important than watching 80 battle scenes, especially because not everyone can sit through something like 248 minutes for Cleopatra or 229 minutes for Once Upon a Time in America.

Another great historic film of 2023 was Martin Scorsese’s Killer of the Flower Moon, which tells a terrible true story of men in their pursuit of power. Based on the book by the same title by David Grann, Killer of the Flower Moon tells the story of a Native American Osage tribe whose lands spanned the three great rivers of the Missouri, the Mississippi and the Arkansas. The film follows the infiltration of the tribe by greedy outsiders who seek to exploit the rich oil reserves on Osage land.

In their lust for wealth, the interlopers are prepared to go to any lengths, including murder, to increase their holdings. It’s a damning insight into American history.

Hollywood can obscure or expose, all in the name of entertainment.

Movies such as Barbie, Oppenheimer, Priscilla and Ferrari all follow a similar theme of reality roughly intruding on illusion, which tells us a lot about how our focus as a society is shifting away from glorified fantasy to more raw retellings of the past.

When looking at all of this, one thing is clear — the truth does not always get in the way of a good story.

Movie makers understand that audiences seek greater authenticity and have more access to information than was available in pre-internet days. As a result, movie consumers are growing and evolving and are seeking out more authentic stories that display both the highs and the lows of the past, while acknowledging some of history’s depths.

It has me thinking about how the actions we take today can influence the way we will be remembered.

Winston Churchill is often credited with coining the phrase “history is written by the victors”.

But is this what is right and just? I don’t believe so.

The fact is, truth can be uncomfortable and we must listen to those prepared to speak it, even if it is challenging and makes us question the stories we have told ourselves — and maybe disappoints us when we learn sometimes our heroes were flawed and our villains can be more complicated than we assumed.

Movies show how history can be reinterpreted through a modern lens, and how above all else, it is essential to wade through the plethora of information from reliable sources so we can decide if the victors’ version is right.

Films such as Napoleon and Killers of a Flower Moon have got me thinking, how will our time now be told? I believe it’s up to all of us to trove through the misinformation, stand up for what is right and think about how we want our children to remember us.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Saturday 2 December.