There have been around a thousand movies and TV dramas made about Napoleon over the years. That’s more than even Hitler or Jesus, it seems. The latest one, Ridley Scott’s new epic, might be one of the better ones.

First-, because it is indeed an epic. It has an impressive scale and the battle scenes are remarkable - particularly the wintry horror of the Battle of Austerlitz. It moves fast - there is no languorous fetishising of the detail of its historical re-enactments here - and manages to embroider some human comedy into a story about war and ego. Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon and Vanessa Kirby as Josephine even bring elements of acid farce to their performances.

In all, it’s an astonishing advertisement for the energy of its director, all the more impressive given that Scott shot it in just 61 days and that he turns 86 today (happy birthday, Ridley). Joe Biden, take heart.

And yet I did come away from watching the film thinking, well, what’s it for? Does it have anything to say about Napoleon particularly? There has been much discussion - much to its director’s annoyance - about the film’s historical accuracy. Napoleon did not, despite what the film claims, fire cannons at the pyramids. Historical verisimilitude is rarely the first principle of the movies.

What surprised me more, I guess, is that I’m not sure the film had much to say about Napoleon’s place in history. Was it for or against? Some French critics suggest “against”, labelling it “pro-British” (not obviously so as far as I could see). Le Figaro even argued it was “Barbie and Ken under the Empire” which, to be fair, does catch some of the film’s off-kilter humour.

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The French have, perhaps understandably, a complex relationship with Napoleon. He is both loved and loathed. But watching Scott’s film, it’s not immediately obvious that the director has a strong opinion for or against its subject. Scott just seems to find his progress from soldier to emperor an interesting story. Questions of whether Napoleon tamed or destroyed the French Revolution are not addressed. Bonaparte’s indifference to suffering and his lust for power merely glanced at.

As Simon Schama noted in the Financial Times at the weekend, Napoleon “was the very prototype of a modern despot”. That idea can be found in Scott’s film, but at the same time the movie seems slightly glamoured by the egomania required to be an empire-builder. It leaves the cost of that egomania to the captions that total up the number of dead in the battles we see. And the film is in no hurry to join the dots between Napoleon and other modern despots (Vladimir Putin springs to mind). That’s left to the viewers.

The fact that we are currently seeing war in Europe again might have made Napoleon’s story very timely, but that’s not the film Scott has made. And I’m wondering if it’s because we’ve arrived at a historical moment when Napoleon is no longer useful to us.

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Because, let’s face it, the way we look at the past is nearly always through the lens of the present. We are very guilty of shaping history to inform our current debates.

It can be no surprise that in recent years there has been an appetite for historical narratives that reclaim black and gay stories from the margins. Similarly, women are finding new ways to write about female experience through the ages. We find stories in the past that speak to how we live now.

It’s why Hitler and the Nazis remain so disturbingly present in the culture in a way Napoleon perhaps does not. Hitler remains not just a warning from history but a clear and present danger, it would seem.

In short, I wonder if we here in the UK have any relationship with Napoleon at all. In the 19th century parents and teachers in England used Napoleon’s name as a way to scare children. Does he remain a bogeyman in the UK? I suspect we have many other candidates who have since taken his place.