Can Napoleon Be Another Oppenheimer ?

Nader Elhefnawy
3 min readNov 1, 2023

As a biographical film about a historical personage Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer seemed an unpromising commercial prospect to me even before I learned how unconventionally structured it was (that at least at a glance it was a “weirdo art film”). As a result I did not think it likely to match the relatively high projections for its gross some had suggested ($164-$194 million in Boxoffice Pro’s final long-range forecast a week before release), and even after the strong opening weekend beat prior expectations for that ($82 million vs. the $52-$72 million projected) wondered if the film would not collapse in its second weekend as audience reactions came to matter more than the cacophonous claquing. However, the movie actually displayed extraordinarily legs at the box office, quadrupling its already high weekend gross to beat the high end of Boxoffice Pro’s prediction by 67 percent (taking in $324 million at last count), while taking in nearly twice as much internationally, making of the movie a near-billion dollar hit.

The result is that when looking at Ridley Scott’s Napoleon my first reaction was to dismiss it the way I dismissed Oppenheimer — as the kind of biographical-historical period piece for which American audiences in particular have had little appetite for a long time, but then am given pause by how Oppenheimer actually did.

As I said before, I cannot altogether account for Oppenheimer’s success with general audiences, who not only came out in those extraordinary numbers on the opening weekend, but kept on coming in the weeks afterward in that way suggestive of a really positive reaction. Still, I can think of at least two advantages that Oppenheimer had that Napoleon does not.

1. Napoleon director Ridley Scott is an established, respected, director with many a hit behind him — notably including one of the biggest commercial successes for the historical drama genre since its collapse in the ’60s, Gladiator. Still, he does not have the kind of vocal and effective cheering section that Nolan does — which probably helped to bring audiences out for the unlikely Oppenheimer, and whose lack will not be helpful to the risky Napoleon.

2. Whatever one makes of their handling, Oppenheimer’s themes were quite plausibly presented as having contemporary relevance. I do not think that relevance was as fully acknowledged by the media as it ought to have been (it still seems to be pretending nuclear war is irrelevant to our situation in 2023, for example, and does not seem to have given much thought to the portions of the film dealing with McCarthyism), but it seemed common to draw analogies between the development of the nuclear bomb and artificial intelligence in a moment in which the mass media, stupid, irresponsible and reactionary as ever, were working very, very hard to drive the public into hysterics over artificial intelligence research. Accordingly, important as the subject matter of Napoleon’s life was, and relevant as it could be made to seem to audiences today (revolution, the descent of democracy into dictatorship, a world war, etc.), I do not see any sign of the press or anyone else doing anything likely to similarly work on the film’s behalf.

The result is that it is easy to see Napoleon confirming rather than defying the view that the American public is not up for period pieces like this one — with the tracking information Boxoffice Pro has made available doing little to contradict that reading at the moment. The publication’s first long-range forecast for the film anticipates a $16-$21 million opening weekend and a $46-$74 million longer run — which especially in the absence of the film absolutely exploding in the international markets, leaves it a very long way from recouping the doubtless considerable outlay for a lavish production such as one would expect of a Ridley Scott period film, or simply from looking at the commercials. Still, I will be watching how things go for the movie in the coming weeks.

Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.

--

--

Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.