Whenever the historical figure of Napoleon is invoked, some mention of his height usually isn’t far behind. In film, thoughts turn to Ian Holm, a relatively short-statured actor (5’6”) who played the part of the French leader a number of times, in Time Bandits (1981) weeping over other allegedly dwarfish military commanders not remembered as such, or Napoleon as portrayed by Ron Cook in Quills (2000), his dangling feet not touching the floor of his throne. There have been other cinematic portrayals of Bonaparte as a man of average height — Marlon Brando in Desirée (1954) or Rod Steiger in Waterloo (1970), for example — but the idea of the French commander as a martinet is dominant in the modern imagination.
So, it may come as something of a surprise to most people that Napoleon Bonaparte wasn’t short, especially for his time.
As recorded in his book The Height of Your Life (1980), Ralph Keyes wrote to France’s Musée de l’Armée in Paris with the intention of determining Napoleon’s actual height. The reply came back:
The height of Napoleon was 5 feet 7 inches. ... This measurement is one given in the memoirs of Mr. Darling, carpenter of Saint-Hélen [a.k.a. Saint Helena, the island where Bonaparte spent his last years in exile] who was appointed to construct Napoleon’s coffin. I think that we can consider this measure as completely correct. (p. 93)
And 5 feet 7 inches was “slightly above the average height for Frenchmen” of that era, in the words of biographer and physician R. Frank Richardson, quoted by Keyes. So, why is Napoleon remembered as being short? One conjecture is that he was perceived as shorter because the military strategists with whom he surrounded himself were taller. Another faults British anti-Napoleonic propaganda, which depicted him as short in an effort to make him look ridiculous. Yet another attributes the misperception to a mistranslation from French measurements to English ones.
Whatever the reason, Napoleon Bonaparte was not short for his era. So, why does the idea of him as a diminutive military leader have such staying power, despite the facts to the contrary? I think that the popular imagination clings to the image of a pint-sized Napoleon as a figure of hubris, as a personification of megalomaniacal overreach. After all, what if Napoleon had been decidedly tall? Would his march across Europe during the Napoleonic Wars bear any resemblance at all to an act of overcompensation, as some today perceive his military exploits, a perception that has given rise to the term “Napoleon complex”?
Contrast the popular image of the diminutive, defeated Bonaparte with the image of the tall, victorious George Washington. (The historical Washington was 6’1.5” according to Wickipedia.) These two historical archetypes convey the socially sanctioned message that a man’s fitness for victory — military or otherwise — is manifested by the height of his body. The message seems to be that short stature embodies (so to speak) humanity’s limitations, while tall stature incarnates one’s strengths. This idea isn’t very consoling to those of us even shorter than Napoleon is believed to be. It’s as though because of something we can’t control — how tall our bodies grow — we shorter men can’t live “up” to what an adult male is supposed to look like and thereby manifest our physical potentials as productive humans. It’s as though that just by acquiring our height-determining DNA, we have already met our waterloo.