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NAPOLEON BONAPARTE: A Life. By Alan Schom . HarperCollins: 888 pp., $40 : HOW FAR FROM AUSTERLITZ? Napoleon 1806-1815. By Alistair Horne . St. Martin's: 430 pp., $26.95

September 14, 1997|GREGOR DALLAS | Gregor Dallas is the author of "The Final Act: The Roads to Waterloo," forthcoming from Henry Holt

What do actors Rod Steiger, Charles Boyer, Marlon Brando and Albert Dieudonne have in common? They have all played the role of Napoleon. And they are not the only ones. Napoleon Bonaparte, next to Jesus Christ, is the most performed historical personality in cinema. There are Arabian films about him, along with Japanese films, Communist films and Nazi films. This year is the centennial of the first footage ever made on him. It was shot in a Paris studio and called "The Interview of Napoleon and the Pope at Fontainebleau," not the most alluring title, but the name Napoleon was enough to guarantee the pioneer filmmakers Brothers Lumieres a large audience. Since then, directors as different as Abel Gance, Henry Koster, Sacha Guitry, Veit Harlan and Woody Allen have offered interpretations of the "little corporal" for the screen. Now, it is rumored, Stanley Kubrick has a Napoleonic project up his sleeve.

In the next 20-odd years, with bicentennials coming up of Napoleon's coup d'etat, the establishment of his empire, the Battle of Austerlitz, the retreat from Moscow, Waterloo and ultimately his death on a South Atlantic island, we can expect plenty more. Why the continuing fascination? The most important single cause must be Bonaparte himself. In his green chasseur uniform, his black two-horned hat and a right hand tucked neatly into his coat, the man developed--years before the camera was invented--a curiously cinematic sense of self-promotion.

In our own time, it is chiefly men, not women, who perpetuate the cult of Napoleon. It is men who make the films, watch them, collect the posters, dress themselves up as the emperor and reenact his battles. Napoleon Bonaparte, who appears so young and resolute, provides more than a mere opportunity for boys to play at soldiers; his image satisfies an absolutely masculine type of lust for power that is today held in question. Napoleon thus fills a vacuum of contemporary male uncertainties.

That is surely our most lasting memory of Napoleon: his image. It was this image that inspired some of the greatest painters of his time. The sculptors too were hard at work before he turned 30, although not always to the taste of their subject: Napoleon had a 15-foot nude statue of himself banned to the cellars of the Louvre, where it was discovered by the British in 1815 and carried off for display in the Duke of Wellington's home. Popular images of Napoleon could be found in the French countryside before the empire fell; his familiar profile decorated plates, cups, pots, spades, hammers, fire pokers and candleholders--all early 19th century precursors to the Disney souvenirs of our day.

The image also kindled some of the most brilliant pieces of 19th century literature. He was an idol of the Romantics--Goethe, Sir Walter Scott, Victor Hugo and Stendhal--before he became an object of historical study. Beethoven tore up his dedication to Napoleon of his Third Symphony, renaming it "Eroica" after he learned, in 1804, that Napoleon had proclaimed himself emperor. A black legend and a white legend were born: Napoleon the ogre and Napoleon the hero.

Since his death in 1821, more than half a million books have been published on him. Yet, rather than add to our knowledge, the effect of this profusion has actually been the opposite. It has become exceedingly difficult to bypass the legends and get to the man; and, when one does eventually arrive there, one is more disappointed than excited. Like Tolstoy's Prince Andrei when gazing into Napoleon's eyes after the Battle of Austerlitz, one is struck by the "unimportance of greatness." Napoleon's most intimate letters to Josephine, to Marie Walewska and to Marie-Louise appear adolescent. His expressions of male friendship are a caricature of Latin macho culture. His jokes fall flat. His attempts at literature during his youth are indeed very youthful. His proclamations to the army--"Soldiers! The enemy must be chased out! The cowards!"--could be put to the music of Gilbert and Sullivan.

With all these books and films, it is hard to imagine anybody still having something original to say about him. Nonetheless, Alan Schom makes the extraordinary claim that his book is the first single-volume "full life" of Napoleon in English. One can, of course, argue endlessly about what constitutes a "full life" or go along with A.N. Wilson's idea that full lives about anybody are neither possible nor desirable. But Felix Markham, E.M. Thompson and Vincent Cronin--to mention but three--seem to have made competent efforts at the impossible task.

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