SHORT TAKE: Realistically portrayed battle scenes and masterful acting highlight this bio-pic about Napoleon’s rise to and fall from power from the French Revolution to his death on St Helena, but for mature adults only because of gratuitous sex and authentic but extreme battlefield violence.

LONG TAKE: Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Alien, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down) is no stranger to depictions of realistic gore and violence. And his direction of Napoleon is no exception. From the guillotine to cannonballs, Scott unflinchingly demonstrates the brutal and de-romanticized effects of war and revolution.

Napoleon follows the adult life progress of the master tactician, obsessed lover, and fatally ambitious Bonaparte from the French Revolution through his many incredibly brilliant victories, his catastrophically foolish debacle in Russia, his resurgence back into France and his final ignominious defeat at Waterloo and exile to St Helena. He led over 60 campaigns with or against pretty much every European country in existence at the time, from Russia to Egypt to Austria and France during the years 1801 -1815.

Michael Broers, Oxford historian, consulted with Ridley Scott in both script and production of this epic saga. In interviews, Broers revealed a few incidents which were the creative fantasies of the director and not biographically accurate. Notably, Napoleon’s slap of Josephine during the formalities of their annulment, while dramatic, did not happen and was inconsistent with Bonaparte’s character. Another fabrication had Napoleon shooting at the tops of the pyramids during the Egyptian campaign. In justifying these colorful but inaccurate events, Ridley Scott reminded the bemused academic that Napoleon was a work of historic FICTION, not a documentary, and so liberties can be expected.

But what IS literally correct, is at the heart of Napoleon. Chunks of 200 intensely passionate letters are featured in the script – mostly from the eponymous character to Josephine, Napoleon’s adored: mistress, wife, empress and ultimately dismissed queen, most written during Napoleon’s extended absences. While leading his men into battle was what he lived for, the soul of what propelled him was his lifetime devotion to his morally flawed, emotionally equivocating and ultimately barren wife, Josephine, even after their annulment. Though, as the movie portrays and apparently as their letters reveal, Bonaparte absolutely adored her, her feelings toward him were far less straightforward.

The acting is excellent. Joaquin Phoenix (Signs, Gladiator, I Walk the Line, Her, Joker, You Were Never Really Here) is one of the finest American actors to date, exhibiting a virtuosity and chameleon ability to sink into a role challenged only by Dustin Hoffman and a bare few others. In Napoleon, Phoenix conducts a master class in performance. From subtle to gross movements, from outbursts to quiet moments, every expression and mannerism is a brushstroke in the portrait of the brilliant military strategist, the obsessed lover, the committed leader, the terrified but courageous soldier, and the hubristic and recklessly ambitious emperor. This is a three-dimensional and complex personality and Phoenix brings Napoleon to life on film. I even suspect there were moments which were improvised or bloopers, but so expertly kept in character by Phoenix that Scott retained them.

Vanessa Kirby (Mission Impossible – Fallout and Dead Reckoning), brilliantly catches Josephine’s ambiguous relationship and constantly contradictory and changing feelings towards Napoleon, from opportunistic social climbing former aristocrat to callous adulteress through to genuine affection for her husband. Her faithfulness to Napoleon was a checkerboard at best. And Kirby captures well Josephine’s complex attachment to this important historic figure.

The biggest difficulty I found with the film was the lack of adequate explanation of the intricacies of the political issues which fueled these decades of continental chaos. The how, who, and where were fairly clear, and the battles were compelling, but I was left puzzled through most of the movie as to the why of the constant, costly clashes among people who were often related to each other by blood and/or marriage. For anyone who already knows a good deal about the history of that time, it comes down to petty arrogance, pride and avarice. A bit more tweaking of the script might have made that clearer to the general audience member. But ultimately that flaw takes little away from the overall bird’s eye view of the events because the focus is on the eye of the storm, Napoleon.

The violence alone makes Napoleon inappropriate for even mid-teens. And a few scenes of gratuitously explicit sex, which sink almost to the point of raunchy vaudevillian comedy, advises against the film for anyone not an older adult. Nevertheless, this is a not-to-miss film for those sufficiently mature and interested in this tumultuous period in history and its driving force – Napoleon.



Charming and interesting but missing significant parts of the story. Recommended for only those well versed in the complete Biblical account.


I do not mind creative retelling of Biblical stories as long as they are faithful (literally) to the source material, in spirit, if not in fact. Liturgical dramas have been documented all the way back to the 10th century. Many were performed in the church, although not part of the liturgy. And some wonderfully portrayed Biblical stories emerge from the most unlikely of places. In the 1990’s,  Ted Turner, who at the time was openly and aggressively agnostic, and who referred to Christians as “losers”, produced some truly magnificent, accurate and respectful TV movies portraying the Patriarchs, featuring a cavalcade of (at the time) “A” listers: Richard Harris and Barbara Hershey as Abraham and Sarah, Ben Kingsley doing double duty as Moses and Potiphar, Leonard Nimoy as Samuel and Jonathan Price as Saul, to name only a few. These Turner productions took a few liberties, which did nothing to disrespect or undermine the historicity or religious narrative.  The point being that there is a millenia-long, distinguished tradition of respectful, imaginative, interpretations of Biblical events.

So, I had high hopes for a musical version of the Nativity story in Journey to Bethlehem, especially having seen the talented Antonio Banderas in the trailers belting it out as King Herod.

There is much to recommend the movie, which is quite charming. The songs are catchy and lyrically emote the internal turmoil of the characters, as all good musical songs should. The performers had strong and energetic voices, the comic reliefs were cute, and the actors playing Mary and Joseph (Fiona Palomo and Milo Manheim) sparked chemistry, convincingly portraying innocence without being saccharin.

There were even some inspired creative aspects. Antonio Banderas’s gleefully evil King Herod gives Shatner’s Kirk a run for his money in scene chewing. Herod’s conflicted first born was an interesting plot twist. And something that might be misinterpreted as inaccurate was appealingly depicted. The Archangel Gabriel paces nervously as he is about to greet Mary, practicing different ways he might introduce his mission to her. This is actually not as far out as one might think. In his Biblical greeting Gabriel says “Hail Mary FULL of Grace!” This has been interpreted by religious scholars to mean that Gabriel was, indeed, marveled by Mary, the human of perfect soul and the first person since Adam and Eve to be born without sin. So for Gabriel to be shown as just a bit nervous was not out of line and was kind of adorable.

There were aspects that did not fit the time period. The choreography, for example, was more Ballywood than Biblical, and the “romance” between Mary and Joseph reminded me more of La La Land than Luke’s Book. But anachronisms do not necessarily diminish the legitimacy of the presentation. Much Renaissance religious art showed Biblical figures in European garb, such as: the Donne Triptych, Madonna of the Meadow by Raphael and The Virgin Mary by Van Eyck. Even the controversially born Jesus Christ Superstar was endorsed by the Vatican on December 13, 1999, during the papacy of Saint Pope John Paul II, despite its anachronistic trappings.

I did think the writers pushed it to the edge of the envelope in the contrived dialogues between Mary and her parents, wherein Mary expressed her dismay both in being betrothed to a man she had never met (which was pretty much de rigeur then and would not have been a surprise) and that she would have preferred to become a teacher rather than “forced” into the more mundane obligations of wife and mother. This chronologically challenged, modernistic, angsty teenage attitude is simply out of character for Mary, who was without sin and would not have been confrontational with her obviously caring and attentive father. But as she ultimately agreed, I chalked it up to the writers showing how she was obedient despite her trepidations.

And, Joseph’s moaning about how his dream to be an “inventor” would somehow be thwarted by his nuptials was a bit ridiculous. Joseph was a carpenter and his modern age kvetching about unfulfilled daydreams was a bit silly.

Now, (SPOILER) I really do have an issue with a kiss between Mary and Joseph at the end of the movie, which implied there would be more than a chaste relationship between them in the future. While this kiss and its “promise” keeps to the rom com formula of the disparate couple finally falling in love, it is COMPLETELY inappropriate for the relationship between Joseph and Mary. Mary was God’s spouse, the Mother of His Son and Joseph was Jesus’ foster father and Mary’s protector, nothing else, (quite enough for one lifetime).

However, what troubled me most was not what was IN the movie but several things that had been left out. When Gabriel announces to Mary that God had chosen her to be the Mother of His Son, the writers left out Mary’s consent! Her last word as Gabriel departs is: “But I have so many questions.” That is a serious breach of Biblical narrative and context. Theologically, neglecting, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to Your Word,” is not a minor quibble. Leaving out Mary’s express and freely given consent is not only inaccurate but a dangerous misunderstanding of Scripture. This guts the infinitely important point of contrast between Mary’s obedience and Eve’s disobedience. It’s not as though these lines are under copyright protection AND,  these expressions of faith are in most Protestant as well as Catholic Bibles, so I do not understand why the writers failed to include them here.

Similarly, when Mary reaches her Cousin Elizabeth they embrace silently. No where are the lines: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus,” wherein Elizabeth acknowledges Mary’s position as Queen Mother of the Lord, and mentions John (the future Baptizer) leaping within her – a clear affirmation of the unborn disciple’s recognition of Our Lord and Savior even in the womb. Also neglected was Mary’s Magnificat: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior,” additional acknowledgement of her understanding of her place in what Bishop Robert Barron consistently refers to as Mary’s place in God’s Theo-drama, to which Mary FREELY CONSENTED.

Sadly, these significant blemishes could have been so easily repaired by the insertion of just a few sentences lifted out of the Bible. The 2017 animated feature, The Star, FROM AFFIRM, THE SAME PRODUCTION COMPANY, which shows the Nativity mostly through the eyes of a sentient donkey, clearly included Mary’s express consent: “Yes. Let it be done just as you say.”

Over all I’d give Journey to Bethlehem a qualified approval. But, I regret it is not for the demographic for which I think the producers were aiming. This is an awful shame, as with but a couple of small additions it could have been SO much better and spiritually fulfilling for all audiences. Those of immature or incomplete religious teaching may find some of the issues I have mentioned, and for the reasons I have given, confusing and damaging to their spiritual formation. But for those who are well informed and reasonably mature, who can afford to turn their brain off a bit and overlook the deficiencies in the script, Journey to Bethlehem can prove a relaxing, if fluffy, dose of Advent entertainment.

For the more impressionable or less well-formed, despite the animated silliness, I would rather recommend The Star.