Napoleon: Spectacle-filled Epic Slightly Disappoints with Historical Inaccuracies


James Clay (he/him) reviews Ridley Scott’s historical drama about Napoleon Bonaparte

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By James Clay

Ridley Scott’s Napoleon came out with high anticipation amongst fans and critics alike, given Scott’s notoriety as an epic historical set piece drama enthusiast. As enjoyable as the film was to watch, it did leave me feeling a tad disappointed. As a history student, I am naturally going to obsess over the slightest historical inaccuracy, but the flaws go deeper than that. Fundamentally, Scott seems to misunderstand the significance of Napoleon Bonaparte, played by the usually mesmerising Joaquin Phoenix, as a 19th-century imperial statesman.

What makes Napoleon interesting from a historical perspective is that he was such a devastatingly effective military tactician, other than marching on Russia in the winter, of course. The film instead decided to dedicate a significant amount of time to the romance between Napoleon and his wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais, played by Vanessa Kirby. In the grand scheme of things, the romantic personal lives of other historical figures are not only far more interesting but also don’t detract from focusing on Napoleon’s military and political prowess.

For the sake of argument, let us examine the film on its own terms, assuming that Napoleon’s marriage to Joséphine de Beauharnais was so notable that it deserved to be the main theme of the film. Kirby, for one, is 14 years younger than Phoenix despite the fact that Josephine was six years older than Napoleon. Kirby is a very talented actress and performed very well, but her casting was sadly a poor decision. This age difference could have been a very interesting feature of the film, given that they lied about their ages on their marriage certificate, and Napoleon actually faced disapproval from his family for marrying an older woman. Everybody loves a good forbidden romance story! History is so wild and neurotic that it always makes me wonder why film directors decide to ignore reality when the truth would make far more interesting film viewing.

Inevitably, major historical dramatisations for the big screen will be riddled with historical inaccuracies, ranging from the minor and nuanced to the grossly offensive. To take this film, one only has to look at the farcical idea that Napoleon fired cannons on the pyramids of Egypt. There is no historical record of this and no reasonable strategic reason for doing such an action. It just made Napoleon look a bit silly by wasting good ammunition.

Another notable moment in the film, incidentally included in the trailer, is the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz between the French forces under Napoleon and those under Alexander I of Russia and Francis II of Austria. Ridley Scott, playing into the famous misconception about the battle, had many Russian soldiers drowning in icy waters as cannon balls thundered all around them. Evidence would suggest that potentially only three Russian soldiers actually drowned in the icy waters, with the vast majority avoiding the lake altogether. However grandiose this may have looked to an historically ignorant audience, surely directors should have a duty to uphold a commitment to the truth. After all, that matters far more than looking cool.

One performance that really did steal the film was that of Rupert Everett as the Duke of Wellington. Upper-class Englishness was encapsulated so magnificently in his manner and his speech as to make one wonder why he only appeared in the final movement, not all the way through. I say that as a patriotic Englishman myself, so perhaps I’m slightly biased. Rupert Everett’s magnificence mirrored the equally engaging Battle of Waterloo, making the final movement of the film pleasantly surprising. It is rare in a film to see the square formation that was so often used amongst infantrymen when faced with enemy cavalry charges. The battle had everything anyone could want in an epic set piece military engagement. It showed the horrors of war, military strategy, had no glaring historical inaccuracies and struck the right screen time balance between individual characters and their armies.

A final issue that is worth mentioning is that 49-year-old Joaquin Phoenix never had any age-altering prosthetics hence, he looked rather odd playing a 24-year-old Napoleon leading the Siege of Toulon in 1793. Phoenix was very impressive as the pudgy middle-aged Napoleon, but he just lacked the dynamism to pull off Napoleon in his younger years. That being said, other comparative historical biopics are far more problematic when it comes to actors playing characters with wildly different ages.

When I set out to write this review, I told myself that I wouldn’t go overboard obsessing about history but predictably I just haven’t been able to control myself. The truth matters and so does creating a good engaging film, but that doesn’t mean that the two have to be mutually exclusive. It was still an enjoyable and occasionally mesmerising film to watch, but it is a shame that overall live up to what it undoubtedly could have been.

Editor’s note: The tickets were provided by City Screen York. In the heart of York, City Screen is an award winning Student Friendly Cinema showing the latest and greatest films! With Live showings from the Royal Opera House and blockbuster hits, to their specially curated Discover, and Culture shock showings, there’s something for everyone at City Screen! With their free U25 membership you can get £4.99 Tickets all day Monday-Thursday! In the café-bar and restaurant, there’s a relaxing environment for studying, getting together with friends and family, or just enjoying some food and drink that’s bound to leave you wanting more. And with a student membership you can save 25 percent on all food and drink purchases across the Cinema and Café-Bar! For more information, visit their website here.