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Napoleon at the Movies

Published August 19, 2021

Marysia i Napoleon, designed by Napoleon Zamfir. Film: Poland, 1966; poster: Romania, 1966.

More films have been made about Napoleon Bonaparte than any other figure in history. What is it about this man that intrigued filmmakers, actors, and audiences throughout the 20th century?


Napoleon, Unknown Designer. Film: Joint production of Italy and France, 1955; poster: Japan, 1956.

Napoleon’s story arc is epic in scope and dramatic opportunity. It is a narrative that spans his idealistic youth as a Corsican nationalist and revolutionary in the French army to the height of his power as an ambitious emperor to his eventual ego-fueled downfall. These plot points are punctuated by shifting love interests and awe-inducing battlefield set pieces.

Napoleon at the Movies is a collection of posters that advertise these films to specific audiences around the world. Part of what has made Napoleon’s character so enduring in performance is its changeability – in the archetypal story of rise and fall, each filmmaker can find a point of view that makes the story newly relevant. This same flexibility is present in the posters: the image that compelled moviegoers in East Germany to see 1970’s Waterloo is quite different from the one that spoke to an audience in Cuba.

Through the lens of these films and the posters that typify them, much can be understood about the cultures, moments, and histories that contributed to their making. Throughout the world, the 20th century was marred by wars, economic depressions, and the brutalities of authoritarian governments, each of which was accompanied by prolonged periods of social unrest. Napoleon’s legacy is difficult to comprehend in 2021 as we revisit the limitations of his liberal ideals, the violence of colonialism, and his embrace of slavery. These posters tell us what twentieth-century audiences might have seen in Napoleon and how national identities were projected and performed through him.

Napoleon at the Movies features more than forty original posters created between 1908 and 1989 from sixteen countries, including Argentina, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Egypt, Italy, Japan, Poland, Romania, and Spain. The exhibition also includes displays of rare books and materials from FSU Libraries’ French Revolution & Napoleon Collections to aid in exploring the history of self-fashioning and myth-making that surrounds Napoleon.

Napoleon at the Movies opens on Monday, August 23, and runs through Saturday, October 30, 2021. 

Please click here to access the Gallery Guide.

Napoleon, Unknown Designer. Film: France, 1927; poster: Hungary, 1927.

Marysia i Napoleon, designed by Waldemar Swierzy. Film: Poland, 1966; poster: Poland, 1966.

Waterloo, designed by Dimas (Jorge Dimas Gonzalez Linares). Film: Joint production of the Soviet Union & Italy, 1970; poster: Cuba, 1973.