I once asked Martin Scorsese why no epic biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte had been made since Abel Gance’s iconic movie of 1927. He replied that if the studio moguls hadn’t withdrawn the funding from Stanley Kubrick’s projected Napoleon film in the early 2000s, perhaps that would have been it, but that also there is always the possibility some personalities and lives are just too enormous to be fitted into 150 minutes on the silver screen.

Having worked in the Kubrick archive at the London Design Museum and seen the extraordinary lengths that he was willing to go to get everything accurate for the film—he even collected soil from Napoleon’s battlefields to get their colors right—I, too, believe that Kubrick’s was the greatest Napoleon film never made.

Kubrick’s efforts make it all the sadder that another great moviemaker, Ridley Scott (the director of Alien, Gladiator, and Blade Runner), could not be bothered to make his new $200 million Napoleon movie historically accurate, even though it would have been easy and virtually costless to do so, and the result would have been a far more interesting and nuanced film than the Napoleon he has released.

For in each case of Scott’s inventions and shortcuts, the truth would have made a far better story. That is the tragedy of this missed opportunity, which is essentially a triumph of spectacle over story. It should be said, however, that the spectacle is worth the price of the ticket alone. The cinematography is gorgeous; the uniforms and medals and palaces and dresses are superb; the street and battle scenes are excellent; the vast mise-en-scènes such as the coronation at Notre Dame and the burning of Moscow are memorable. Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby act very well, too, albeit burdened with a cringemakingly terrible script by David Scarpa.

The film presents Napoleon’s career from the French Revolution in 1789 to his death on St. Helena in 1821 almost entirely through the prism of his love affair with Josephine. That is a perfectly reasonable artistic stance to take, but it involves presenting the emperor making important decisions for very different reasons from the real ones, to the detriment of any real understanding of his motives and thus of his true personality. He is shown returning from the 1798 Egyptian campaign in order to confront Josephine with her infidelity, for example, whereas in fact it was to overthrow the Directory government of France. He is also shown returning from exile in Elba in 1815 to see Josephine, rather than to displace the Bourbons.

Now, this is a movie, not a documentary, but there are ways of showing that Napoleon was far more than a conqueror who had to divorce his wife for political reasons, and Scott never grasps any of them. His ludicrous inventions detract from the much more interesting aspects of the real Napoleon. Having Napoleon take part in cavalry charges, which he never once did, means we do not see him strategizing, which he did brilliantly. Having him bombard the Great Pyramid of Cheops, which also never happened, means we do not see him engaging with the intellectuals who founded Egyptology.

This self-defeating obsession with spectacle over truth leads Scott to present Napoleon’s greatest victory, the battle of Austerlitz in December 1805, as being fought in a blizzard and won by Napoleon firing cannonballs at the ice and drowning the Austro-Russian army. The truth is that, unusually for that time of year, it did not snow that day. When what Bonapartists later lauded as “the sun of Austerlitz” rose over the battlefield, it burned off the mist in which Marshal Soult’s French corps was hidden, thus allowing Napoleon to assault the Pratzen Heights at precisely the right psychological moment. As diving expeditions have repeatedly shown, only a handful of men and one cannon fell through any ice. The truth is far more interesting, and indicative of Napoleon’s genius, than Ridley Scott’s caricature.

Hollywood’s disregard for historical truth was once summed up in the clerihew:

Cecil B. DeMille,
Rather against his will,
Was persuaded to leave Moses
Out of The Wars of the Roses.

But at least DeMille’s movies had crisp, quotable dialogue: The screenplay of this movie, by contrast, says more about the argot of 2020s Hollywood than it does about the repartee of the Napoleonic court. Napoleon was a genuinely witty man, constantly making jokes that are funny even today. By contrast, Joaquin Phoenix never says anything amusing, except unconsciously, as in the lines: “Destiny has brought me this lamb chop,” and “They want me to abdicate? Fine, I’ll abdicate!” When the Russians burn down the Kremlin, he says, “It’s not very sporting, is it?” When he quarrels with Lord Whitworth, the British ambassador to Paris, Phoenix is given the line, “You think you’re so great because you have boats!”

There are so many ways that even so much as a nod at the truth would have improved this film, and historical consultants are inexpensive to hire. Instead of showing Napoleon (incorrectly) as being present at Marie Antoinette’s execution, Scott could have depicted the genuine occasion when Napoleon saw the decapitated head of her lady-in-waiting paraded outside his hotel window on a pole. Instead of claiming Napoleon entered Toulon as a spy before its capture, he could have explained the brilliant strategy by which he expelled the Royal Navy from the port (which was not done with heated cannonballs, as we see here). Napoleon was wounded in the leg by a pike at Toulon, but Scott ignores this in order to invent a scene in which Phoenix pulls a cannonball out of his horse’s carcass with his bare hands.

In the scene covering the Brumaire coup of November 1799, Scott has soldiers leveling muskets at senators, which did not happen—and thereby misses the opportunity to show those senators in their red cloaks jumping through the windows of the Orangerie to escape arrest. Scott weirdly has Napoleon’s mother meet Josephine for the first time in 1799, despite Napoleon having married Josephine three years earlier. (Napoleon’s mother for some reason calls him “Emperor.”) In a court that was in real life criticized for its formality and pomposity, Phoenix is depicted pulling Vanessa Kirby under the dining table for sex on the marble floor in a room full of servants, and years later slapping her in the face in public during their divorce ceremony.

The battle of Waterloo looks magnificent but is laughably inaccurate. Cannonballs did not explode on impact like ordnance shells in the First World War. They were solid iron with no explosive inside. Nor were there 25 British squares formed during the battle, but 13. There was no heavy downpour of rain on the morning of the battle of Waterloo; that was the day before. A marksman did not offer to the Duke of Wellington to shoot Napoleon as he was well out of range; that was a cannoneer. Nor did the same man later blow a two-inch-square hole in Napoleon’s hat.

Nearly a century after he made his Napoleon epic, Abel Gance’s crown remains intact, and all because Ridley Scott despises what he calls “f—ing historians” who he says don’t know what happened regarding Napoleon, because “they weren’t there.”

Yes. We do.

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