Given the amount of political posturing in this presidential election year, it would seem as though bogus claims about career triumphs are a direct result of the media age. However, Learning Channel’s latest documentary debunks that myth with a tribute of sorts to one of the greatest political spin-doctors of all time — Napoleon Bonaparte.
“Napoleon’s Obsession: The Quest for Egypt” details the real facts behind a little-known account in Napoleon’s illustrious military career. Those who do know of the French leader’s invasion of Egypt, and the so-called Battle of the Pyramids, may have fallen victim to one of the best public relations campaigns in history.
As we learn in the docu, hosted by the enthusiastic Egyptologist Bob Brier, Bonaparte’s attempt to conquer Eqypt was nothing short of an exercise in vanity. By 1798, General Bonaparte, at the ripe old age of 29, was looking for new military challenges after conquering Europe. He turned his sights on the historical and symbolic wealth of Egypt.
Economical with everything except the lives of his men, Bonaparte was ill prepared for this invasion and marched his troops from Alexandria through 130-degree desert heat in woolen uniforms and with very little water.
He had small victories, including a melee against the defending Mamelukes of Cairo, which became know as the Battle of the Pyramids. In reality, it was fought in a melon patch miles from the city.
The campaign on the whole was disastrous; the French Fleet was destroyed by the British, and the troops were stranded in Egypt without reinforcements or supplies.
Napoleon, however, commissioned a different version of the invasion through paintings and letters. He even returned to France a hero after sneaking out of Egypt in the middle of the night, leaving his men behind. If he had thought of it, he probably would have claimed he discovered a cure for cancer.
Thankfully, Brier reminds us several times throughout the production of the practical contributions Napoleon made, not the least of which came from this ill-conceived campaign.
Napoleon brought 40,000 soldiers with him to Egypt, as well as several artists, scholars and scientists to establish the Institut de l’Egypte. Their work and the work of the soldiers led to the discovery of the Rosetta stone and the birth of modern Egyptology.
While these contributions are impressive, Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt included horrible atrocities against Turkish civilians, including the rape and slaughter of women and children in Jaffa, and Brier’s awe of Bonaparte’s legend is sometimes ill-fitting with the horrific details of these accounts.
Still, it is Brier’s enthusiasm in general that brings to life the many illustrations, some by Institut de l’Egypte’s own Vivant Denon, which are combined with stunning footage of the Egyptian and Israeli landscapes.
Crisp editing by James Marshall and concise direction by Peter Spry-Leverton make for an informative and handsomely packed hour of entertainment.