Napoleon is Barbie for men. Ridley Scott’s latest epic is perhaps the most anticipated movie since Greta Gerwig’s hit came out last summer. And just as Barbie dance parties spoke to the inner child of women who grew up playing with the Mattel mannequin, the Battle of Austerlitz caters to any man who collected toy soldiers as a child. Navy blue is the hot pink of the Napoleonic Wars.

We live in self-serious times, however. Barbie was entertainingly campy and silly, yet the film hitched itself to a thin veneer of girl-power feminism. Napoleon, which opens on November 22, fetishizes battlefield glory and carnage—the cavalry charges are a lot more seductive than the couplings of Napoleon and Josephine—but tacks on a perfunctory anti-war message, somberly listing the death tolls of the French emperor’s bloodlust.

Scott’s film focuses on Napoleon’s rise and fall on the battlefield—and atop Josephine. When it does stray from bayonets and bustiers, the civilian interludes sometimes veer toward a Barbie-like camp. When not firing artillery in Egypt, Napoleon, as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, moons around his palaces with too much time on his hands.

The BBC called Napoleon “an awe-inspiring achievement, although it may leave you with a greater appreciation of Scott’s leadership skills than of Napoleon’s.”

There is a scene of Napoleon’s coronation that echoes a painting by Jacques-Louis David. Intent on signaling his authority over the Catholic Church, Napoleon takes the crown out of the Pope’s hands and places it on his own head and then crowns Josephine himself. In Napoleon, the scene looks less like the painting than a jokey reference to Phoenix’s role as the Roman emperor Commodus in Scott’s 2000 film, Gladiator.

What’s more, at two hours and 38 minutes, there is no time for the French emperor’s peacetime achievements—the Napoleonic Code, ensuring religious freedom, a central bank, modernizing public education, that kind of thing.

In short, Napoleon is no War and Peace.

The movie isn’t wrong to lavish attention on the rites and ravages of 19th-century warfare. Saving Private Ryan didn’t devote a lot of time to F.D.R.’s work on the Office of Price Administration. It’s just that the film’s timing seems off. There is another side to Napoleon’s legacy that seems much more compelling right now.

Scott’s film focuses on Napoleon’s rise and fall on the battlefield—and atop Josephine.

Napoleon supported a Jewish homeland in Palestine in 1799, though, according to Andrew Roberts, author of Napoleon: A Life, that proclamation became moot after his failed siege of the Ottoman city of Acre. He also helped enshrine liberty for Jews in France and emancipated those living in conquered territories.

But unlike the civil code that takes his name, the religious reforms were not as long-lasting—some prompted a backlash. The trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer who was falsely convicted of treason in 1894, became a seismic scandal that exposed the virulence of anti-Semitism in the highest ranks of the French government and military—the same one Napoleon modernized and enshrined.

Alfred Dreyfus goes on trial in the case that divided France.

The scapegoating of Dreyfus, and the anti-Jewish rhetoric that accompanied it, tore French society apart. The trial helped inspire Theodor Herzl to build the Zionist movement and seek a place free from the prejudices of Europe. Speaking of historical epics, the excellent, award-winning 2019 movie about Dreyfus, J’Accuse, was never shown in the United States because film distributors were wary of its director, Roman Polanski, whose past might have incited a #MeToo backlash.

Ever since Dreyfus, France has remained a country with mixed feelings toward Jews. The French chose Léon Blum, the Socialist leader and a Jew, to lead the Popular Front government from 1936 to 1937. But when Hitler defeated France, in 1940, they rallied around World War I hero Philippe Pétain, who collaborated with the Nazis and helped them round up Jews during the occupation of France. (Blum was deported to a prison near Buchenwald, but survived.) A fascinating new book about Pétain, France on Trial, by Julian Jackson, brings that whole sad history back into view.

And those not so dim memories of the anti-Semitic past are part of the reason that, days before American Jewish organizations drew tens of thousands of people to the National Mall to march in support of Israel, French politicians of all stripes—including Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally party—led a rally of more than 100,000 people against anti-Semitism in Paris. (France is home to Europe’s largest Jewish and Muslim communities.)

Le Pen’s participation may well have been a cynical move to normalize a party once led by her father, Jean-Marie, a Holocaust denier, but overall the symbolism of the French demonstration mattered for many reasons, including its timing: it came the day after 300,000 pro-Palestinian protesters marched in London.

In the Middle East, but also in Europe, history is complex, contradictory, and intractable, and it explains a lot about the present. Ridley Scott’s Napoleon does not. Think of it as Barbieland for paintball warriors.

Alessandra Stanley is a Co-Editor at AIR MAIL