How accurate is Napoleon?

Posted by Josh on 6th Dec 2023 in the blog in the french culture, french media category

Napoleon is out in cinemas, and it's causing quite a stir among moviegoers. Some critics have hailed it as 'terrific fun', while others believe it falls short of the usual quality of a Ridley Scott production.

But one of its most contentious issues was dividing historians before the film was even released. Historian Dan Snow took issue with everything from the tagline ('He came from nothing. He conquered everything') to Le Petit Caporal's propensity for riding headlong into battle. (Like most sensible generals, Napoleon watched his battles from a point of safety.) Meanwhile, Andrew Roberts, a recent biographer of Napoleon, criticised the film for not providing enough context as to why Napoleon was so popular in the first place, suggesting that the film mishandles his strategic prowess.

It’s normal for directors to take some artistic liberties with historical films. Given that the film is a Hollywood production, we shouldn’t be too surprised that Joaquin Pheonix and Vanessa Kirby aren’t speaking French throughout the film. And one could even argue that Napoleon’s American accent, in contrast to the British accents of the supporting cast, authentically evokes his Corsican background and his unshakeable status as a pariah among his Parisian friends and colleagues.

In other areas, however, it's hard not to argue that the film has sacrificed accuracy for dramatic effect. The following are some of the most glaring factual inaccuracies in Napoleon.

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Napoleon was not present at the execution of Marie Antoinette

The opening scene of the film depicts the guillotining of the last queen of France – which, of course, is a well documented historical fact. However, the scene closes with a shot of Napoleon watching the execution from a distance. In reality, Napoleon was on garrison duty in the south of France at the time of the execution, on 16 October 1793. So although the scene sets the stage for the rest of the film, it unfortunately doesn't pass the historical accuracy test.

Napoleon was younger than Joséphine

Napoleon was born in 1769, Joséphine in 1763. Indeed, thirty-two years old at the time the would-be lovers met, she was considered by many contemporaries to be too old for the twenty-six-year-old Napoleon. These fears weren't completely unfounded, however, as Joséphine was unable to bear Napoleon an heir, a conundrum which forms one of the main subplots of the film.

In the the film, however, Joséphine appears significantly younger than Napoleon. Scott revised their ages to better represent those of the actors. Indeed Vanessa Kirby, who plays Joséphine, is fourteen years younger than Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Napoleon.

Napoleon didn’t actually fire at the pyramids

One of the most memorable scenes in the trailer – and arguably the film itself – is when Napoleon orders his men to fire their cannons at the pyramids behind the Ottoman forces during his Egyptian campaign.

Well, we don’t know for sure that this didn't happen, and that was Scott’s defence. 'I don’t know if he did that,' said Scott in a Times interview, 'but it was a fast way of saying he took Egypt.' However, the pyramids show no sign of cannon damage, and the battle depicted in the scene in question actually happened quite a distance away from the pyramids. Moreover, it seems pretty likely that at least someone would have written about such an event had it happened.

It's likely that Scott was inspired by the myth that the Sphynx lost its nose during Napoleon's campaign in Egypt. However this, too, is apocryphal.

There was no ice lake at Austerlitz

In the film we see Napoleon's forces chasing the Russian and Austrian armies across a great ice lake. In what is one of the more harrowing scenes from the film, cannons are fired towards the lake, smashing the ice and causing countless soldiers and their horses to fall into the freezing water.

While this is inspired by real events, the actual ice lake in question wasn't so much a lake as a series of small pools. Napoleon had them drained after the battle, and only a few corpses were discovered. Still, it must have been a terrible way to go.

Napoleon never met the Duke of Wellington

While the two men famously fought at the battle of Waterloo, both stayed out of the combat and observed from a distance, until Napoleon led a charge against incoming Prussian soldiers. Nevertheless, the two certainly didn't meet on the battlefield (a fact which the film admittedly respects).

After the fateful battle – spoiler alert – there is a scene in which Wellington speaks to Napoleon, freshly captured and hauled over to Britain, informing him that the British have decided to exile him. Napoleon touts the idea of spending his exile in the Cotswolds, but Wellington informs him that he will be relegated to Saint Helena, a small island at the other side of the world.

In fact, Napoleon never set foot in Britain, and there is no record of these two titans of history ever having met.

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