Though he earned his place in history as a ruthless emperor and military genius, Napoleon Bonaparte was also a peerless megalomaniac. In the final years of his forced exile on the South Atlantic island of St. Helena, the fallen master predicted that his hated internment by Britain would only enhance his myth. "If it hadn't been for the crucifixion," Napoleon reasoned, "Jesus would not have become a god." It was a truly Napoleonic comparison, but contained a kernel of truth: the Napoleonic legend is enjoying something of a resurrection these days in France.
While the French don't revere Napoleon as divine, they do consider him among the nation's most glorious sons. In October, producer Robert Hossein opened his Broadway-like stage extravaganza, C'était Bonaparte ("Thus Was Bonaparte") amid considerable media attention and box-office jostling. Days later, French TV aired the €40-million Napoléon mini-series, pulling in around 7 million nightly viewers during its four-episode run, with a cast that included Gerard Dépardieu, Isabella Rossellini and John Malkovich. Next February, popular French actor Antoine de Caunes will make his directing debut with the release of Monsieur N. , a historical thriller about the final years of Napoleon's life. Later in 2003, award-winning director Patrice Chéreau will start production on a Napoleonic film with a script he wrote for Al Pacino, who will play the lead.
While the flurry of entertainment activity is exceptional, Napoleon scholars note that their man has always ranked among the most studied figures in history. More than 80,000 books have been published on the "petit caporal" and experts say he's been the world's most frequently portrayed character in theater and film. But the current French interest in Napoleon may also arise from nostalgia for the nation's former glory. Modern French world-beaters from former business tycoon Jean-Marie Messier to the champion national football team have suffered spectacular crashes. Napoleon did too, of course, but the new renditions of his life focus on his victories. "The events surrounding Napoleon's downfall and eventual death ensured his legend would only grow," comments de Caunes, whose film focuses on the St. Helena exile. "But even before that, he was a larger-than-life figure, and the driving force behind France's last period of dominance and splendor."
But Napoleon is more than just the stuff of legend. His accomplishments remain alive in France today. Though some say his control of the press, repression of opponents and creation of a secret police make Napoleon the godfather of totalitarianism, his record also includes founding the legal code, central bank, public administration, and higher education system on which the French still rely. Similarly, Napoleon also established France's Legion of Honor then named himself to it almost immediately.
New discoveries pertaining to Napoleon's life are stoking further interest. Scientists are currently analyzing nearly 2,000 skeletons recently unearthed near Vilnius, Lithuania the remains of some of the 440,000 Imperial soldiers who perished while fleeing Russia following Napoleon's catastrophic 1812 campaign. And French Culture Minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon is considering a request to allow genetic testing on the remains in Napoleon's Parisian tomb. The exam would end decades of speculation that the British returned the corpse of Bonaparte's valet rather than the man himself to France in 1840. French scientists have already cleared the British of the 41-year-old charge that they poisoned the exiled emperor with arsenic. "Today's world seeks consensus above all, and Napoleon was more about conflict and debate," explains Thierry Lentz, director of the Napoleon Foundation in Paris. "That, too, is one of his great appeals; he left no one the luxury of neutrality or indifference."
The current wash of movies, stage productions and books doesn't seem to be trivializing Napoleonic history. Museums and monuments devoted to the French general report a 20-35% increase in visitors amid the renewed hype. Being the center of attention 181 years after his death would certainly please Napoleon.