Napoleon and the heroic archetype: How Films and Paintings Depict Heroes

Ridley Scott’s recent spectacular biopic Napoleon is but the latest depiction, following many portraits on the screen of the revolutionary general and self-crowned Emperor. From his beginnings as a humble Corsican soldier to his heroic defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte’s life is a fascinating story that has long appealed to painters as well as filmmakers, and is a good way to examine the hero archetype in art and film.


Bonaparte at the Pont d’Arcole, by Baron Antoine-Jean Gros, (c. 1801), Musée du Louvre, Paris

In his film, Scott borrows heavily from the paintings of the great Antoine-Jean Gros, the painter who accompanied Bonaparte on his campaign and painted the battles in unflinching detail. Gros was a painter who did not only want to capture the heroism of Bonaparte but also the context and the struggle of his life and work.

Gros, Napoleon at the Battle of Eyelau, 1807 The Louvre

(for another analysis of Gros and film see this post)

However, to understand the challenges of depicting real life heroes on screen we need to take a deeper look at how heroes are depicted in art history.

Heroic images of mythical beings and historical paintings were regarded as the pinnacle of artistic achievement. History painting has always shown heroic exploits, battles, and significant events.
Despite changing heroes, the heroic form and gesture remain recognisable in visual culture.
The “hero” model dates back to ancient epics like Gilgamesh, the Iliad, and the Norse sagas. According to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with 1000 Faces, similar stories of heroism exist throughout history and across societies. Throughout history, artists have portrayed heroes and heroic acts.

Paintings depict heroic figures rather than realistic ones.

Human culture revolves around heroic characters. They are constantly present, but their appearance may alter. Carl Jung established the concept of archetypes, or “primordial images,” which govern human behaviour from birth. The hero archetype is one of these. Greek mythical characters were the most commonly depicted in paintings, but biblical heroes like David also made frequent appearances.
One issue with portraying biblical people as heroes is that Jesus, the most heroic Christian character, does not fit the hero paradigm. Greek mythology was a more reliable source of painting inspiration for ‘heroic’ subjects.
Hercules, the legendary hero, has been depicted in art throughout history, from Greek friezes and vases to Renaissance paintings and modern film.

Titian’s painting of Perseus and Andromeda depicts the hero diving into the water to save the woman from a terrifying sea monster. The hero character is distinguished by their mortal or half-mortal status, making their feats even more impressive.
The distinction between a Greek deity and a heroic character is that the former is expected to be great and powerful, and basically just fulfils their role as a god. In contrast, the hero must develop heroic qualities. Perseus definitely fits that bill.

TWC61686 Perseus and Andromeda, 1554-56 (oil on canvas) by Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) (c.1488-1576); 175×192 cm; Wallace Collection, London, UK; ( from Ovid\’s Metamorphoses;); Italian, out of copyright.

The cinema, especially during Hollywood’s golden period, quickly embraced the old-fashioned concept of hero. Heroes always seem to be popular; just look at the success of films like “Alien” with Ripley and “The Matrix” with Neo.
In The Matrix, Neo’s sidekick Trinity plays a character reminiscent of the Greek goddesses who aid and eventually fall in love with heroes such as Odysseus and Perseus. The formidable goddess Diana the Huntress, also known as Artemis in Greek, was a common motif in Greco-Roman sculpture, and Trinity incorporates aspects of her.

The indelible image of the hero

The enduring image of Napoleon Bonaparte is the one by Jacques-Louis David: Napoleon Crossing the Alps.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps ; Artist, Jacques-Louis David ; Year, 1801; Château de Malmaison

Regardless of how radical the French Revolution became Frenchman Jacques-Louis David remained a devoted supporter of the cause. One of the most significant paintings from the French Revolution, David’s The Death of Marat depicts the lifeless body of the murdered revolutionary, a close friend of David, lying in a bathtub. But David changed sides when the radical camp lost and Napoleon came to power.
David became Napoleon’s official court painter and painted his coronation after the French leader proclaimed himself emperor and entrenched his power.
David was actually offered the position of court painter by the restored King Louis XVIII, despite widespread belief that he would be disgraced following Napoleon’s downfall. The artist stayed loyal to his revolutionary beliefs and declined.
It turns out that Napoleon actually rode a mule across the Alps, which is a lot more appropriate animal for a treacherous and tough trek like this. But this doesn’t look heroic, so David has depicted the general riding a magnificent horse that is standing on the brink of a cliff.
Looking straight forward, towards victory and triumph, the resolute general keeps his poise. The army advances in the backdrop, with the tricoleur in the lower right and the war machines being carried up the mountainside. Impressive composition: Bonaparte stands tall in the middle of the painting, and a powerful diagonal connects the horse and the mountain, which extends from the upper left to the lower right.
The diagonal layout is what draws the eye first and gives off a powerful impression of drama and peril.
The forceful alpine winds that the army must contend with are symbolised by the billowing cape, mane, and tail of the horse, which give the impression of wind blowing from behind. But pay attention to the wind: the very winds are driving the general, the horse, and the army onwards to triumph. Even the gods are on Bonaparte’s side, according to David.

Because the horse couldn’t have possibly reared up like that and Napoleon is dressed in a formal ceremonial costume, this heroic painting is blatantly, purposefully exaggerated.

Nearly half a century after Bonaparte’s death, in 1850, artist Paul Delaroche recreated the epic in a more realistic style. Even in the midst of victory, Delaroche’s Napoleon, atop his mule, seems wise and reflective, as if he could already see his eventual downfall.

Bonaparte Crossing the Alps, 1850, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

David’s picture solidified Napoleon’s reputation as a remarkable and heroic leader, and it also proved that heroes might exist outside of mythology. Delaroche’s portrait reminds us that even heroes are human and being a world-winning general is really hard work.

More about Gros

Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps 2005 Brooklyn Museum

Contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley produced a painting of a young Black man astride a horse in 2005 titled Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps. David’s painting is the inspiration. Both David’s and Wiley’s paintings have many of the same basic compositional ideas though the backdrop of the contemporary artwork is ornamental, as opposed to the scenic backdrop of David’s. The hero archetype in art and film can take many forms. Check out some of the other movies that depict Napoleon Bonaparte.


Films about Napoleon Bonaparte: how “heroic” is he?

Napoleon (1927), dir. Abel Gance, DP Jules Kruger; one of the greatest history films, owing much to both David and Delaroche
Désirée (1954), dir. Henry Koster, DP Milton R. Krasner; a different approach, focusing on the relationship between Bonaparte (Marlon Brando) and Désirée Clary (Jean Simmons)
Waterloo (1970), dir. Sergei Bondarchuk, DP Armando Nannuzzi; Rode Steiger’s world-weary General is a tour de force performance, as is the depiction of the charge of the Scots Greys.
Adieu Bonaparte dir Yousseff Chaine; Bonaparte is a secondary character in this film about the conquest of Egypt, but he is played very well by Patrice Chereau – well worth seeing.
Napoleon (2023) dir. Ridley Scott DP Dariusz Wolski

Sergey Bondarchuk ‘Waterloo’ (1970) with Rod Steiger
La bataille d’Austerlitz. 2 decembre 1805 (François Gérard)

Heroes and the heroic in art and film

a heavily fictionalized biopic

Heroic stories – whether true or mythical, are enduringly popular. This heavily fictionalized biopic of William Wallace, who led a Scottish rebellion against the English King Edward I, was a critical and box office success, winning Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director – in all, a total of five Oscars.

The ideal “hero” model was established in earliest antiquity, in the ancient epics of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, and the Norse sagas. Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with 1000 Faces shows that similar stories of heroism are present in all societies, at all times in history. It is not a surprise to see that from early times artists have sought to portray heroes and heroic acts. Heroes in paintings are not meant to be realistic; they are heroic. What about heroes in films?

Braveheart in Action

The old-fashioned notion of hero was taken up immediately by cinema, particularly during Hollywood’s Golden age. The appeal of the heroic character endures: some of the most popular include Indiana Jones, Ripley in the Alien films and Neo in the Matrix films. Neo’s partner in The Matrix, Trinity, performs a role  similar to the Greek goddesses who help (and often become lovers with) heroes like Odysseus, Perseus and others. Trinity also has elements of the powerful goddess Diana the Huntress (Greek Artemis), a popular subject in Graeco-Roman sculpture. Wearing a tunic and carrying weapons, Diana seems quite dangerous (see the Diana of Versailles from 200 AD in the Louvre). But later paintings tend to show her nude and sexualised (e.g. Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, 1556).

Diana of Versailles, Wikipedia

Napoleon Crossing the Alps (Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass) 1801

This well known painting of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David is a famous depiction of more recent heroism.

Apparently Napoleon actually crossed the Alps on mule, a far more suitable animal for this kind of tricky and difficult journey. However this wouldn’t do for heroic painting, and so David has portrayed the general not only on a horse, but on a splendid horse rearing up on the edge of a precipice.  The staunch general maintains his composure, looking directly out of the canvas and pointing upwards, towards victory and triumph. In the background the Army pushes forward: we can see the war machines being transported up the side of the mountain, and the tricoleur in the lower right.  The structure in the picture is striking:  Bonaparte is centre and is upright, while the horse and the mountain are on a strong diagonal running from the top left to the bottom right. This arrangements creates a string sense of drama and danger. The diagonal arrangement in the painting that immediately catches the eye.  The sensation of wind coming from the rear is shown in both the billowing cape, and also the mane and tail of the horse, indicating the harsh alpine winds that confront the Army. Yet look at the wind direction:  these winds are themselves propelling the general, the horse and the Army forward towards victory. David is indicating that even the gods are behind Bonaparte. 

David was a staunch supporter of the French Revolution, even its most extreme faction.  However when Napoleon took control,  David switched allegiances. One might think that David would be disgraced after the fall of Napoleon, but in fact the restored King Louis 18th offered to keep David on as court painter. The artist refused, remaining true to his revolutionary principles.

David was not the first artist to show that portraying real-life people as heroes involves exaggeration and theatricality. David knew that this is not how Napoleon crossed the Alps,  but he understood that in order to create a painting with the highest impact to deliver the propaganda message of Napoleon’s overarching genius, strength, power and glamour, it was necessary to create a powerful, glamorous painting. This problem is at the heart of bio-pics which attempt to show the core character in a heroic light. Much of the true story and extraneous detail has to be removed, and any act or gesture made by the central character needs to be reinterpreted as heroic. One of the best examples of this in recent cinema is Mel Gibson’s 1995 film Braveheart, which puts a completely new gloss on the true story of William Wallace. Wallace was a real person, who did rebel but under circumstances rather different to those shown in the film. The film tries to capture historical detail, but there’s no question that it was glamorized for dramatic effect

Films about Napoleon Bonaparte – how ‘heroic’ is he?

Napoleon 1927 Directed by Abel Gance DP Jules Kruger, one of the greatest history films, owing much to both David and Delaroche.

Désirée 1954 Directed by Henry Koster, DP Milton R. Krasner. This film takes a different approach and focuses upon the relationship between Bonaparte (Marlon Brando) and Désirée Clary (Jean Simmons).

Waterloo 1970 Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk  DP Armando Nannuzzi (Napoleon played by Rod Steiger)

Youssef Chahine’s Adieu Bonaparte depicts Napoleon (Patrice Chereau) from the point of view of a young Egyptian during the French conquest and occupation of Egypt. In Fench and Arabic – no English versions available. 

I have not really said anything about ‘superheroes’ in this article – I have been focusing more on real people portrayed as heroes. I’ll come back ot the topic of hero and superhero in the fantasy genre.