Ridley Scott’s Napoleon: how accurate is the
movie? The real history explained
The latest historical epic from Ridley Scott, Napoleon
tells of the rise and fall of the French emperor, and explores his tumultuous
relationship with Joséphine de Beauharnais. How closely does it match the real
Kev Lochun Published:
November 22, 2023 at 10:27 AMTreat yourself or someone special to book when you
subscribe to BBC History Magazine
Scott’s latest historical epic Napoleon is a warts-and-all biopic of the
much-maligned French emperor, arriving in cinemas on 22 November and then later
on streaming service Apple TV+.
Phoenix is Napoleon Bonaparte, playing emperor for a second time in a Ridley
Scott magnum opus (he also portrayed the Roman emperor Commodus in 2000’s
Gladiator) while Vanessa Kirby of The Crown fame takes the role of his first
wife, Empress Joséphine.
article contains spoilers for Napoleon (dir. Ridley Scott, 2023)*
The film is
not short of lynchpin moments. It spans much of Bonaparte’s adult life,
rippling from the end of the French Revolution and the execution of Marie
Antoinette – when he was but an artillery captain – right through to his death
during his second exile on St Helena in 1821.
predictably, it rattles through time. Entire campaigns pass in the blink of an
eye. You would not know that Napoleon fought some 60 battles, nor that he faced
five coalitions of Allied powers during his time as emperor. This is not a
faithful retelling of the Napoleonic Wars. This is stretched-thin Napoleonic
phwoar, a spectacle of pomp surrounding a man who brought Europe to its knees.
there are plenty of unanswered questions, the meatiest of which we’ve tackled
below. Not seen the film yet? Here is Napoleonic historian Zack White giving
his thoughts on what you should expect based on the film’s first trailer.
yes – in the sense that Napoleon, and all the major players in the film, are
real historic figures, and that events very loosely played out as they do on
screen. But as always, the devil is in the detail.
assertion of the film publicity: ‘He came from nothing. He conquered
everything’. Neither of these things are true, says Napoleon historian Zack
made, both in real-life British propaganda and in the film, of Napoleon being a
‘Corsican ruffian’; a man with a funny way of talking and lacking in
came from minor nobility on the island of Corsica,” says White. “That meant
that he was not a mover and shaker in social society in France before the
being of the nobility – however minor – gave Napoleon a crucial leg up. “It
meant that he was a somebody, and particularly importantly, it meant his father
could send him to military academy to be educated in France,” says White.
practical terms, what that meant was that Napoleon had a head start. He had a
career that was gifted to him as part of the efforts of the French King to
ingratiate the minor nobility and build a section of society that was indebted
to the king.”
What happened at the siege of Toulon?
that Napoleon led the siege of Toulon is something that sees Ridley Scott play
on Napoleonic myth – but like all good myths, it has a very significant kernel
of truth behind it,” says White.
port city on the French Riviera, had turned against the revolution in favour of
the monarchy, and invited the British to take control of the French fleet that
was moored there.
always had an eye for terrain, and it didn't take him long to do two
significant things. The first was to reorganise the artillery, which he did
with staggering speed and the energy that would be so typical of much of his
career. But he also managed to identify a key weak spot in the British
spot was one particular redoubt which, if captured, could dominate the inner
harbour. Take the redoubt, and the British position would become untenable. And
that is exactly what Napoleon did.
was somebody who, at this point, was inclined to get hands-on, and so he
personally led one of the attacks on this redoubt and was wounded in the thigh.
Had the bayonet gone a few inches in the opposite direction, Napoleon may very
well have died.”
Did Napoleon fire into a crowd during the Vendémiaire
Napoleon of Ridley Scott’s film agrees to quell the Vendémiaire Uprising – a
royalist revolt on the street of Paris in October 1795 – it’s on the condition
that it is done his way.
then see is a crowd shuffling towards Napoleon’s artillery, which stands
between them and the government buildings; a stone-faced Napoleon signals his
men to fire straight into them, a moment that has become known as the ‘whiff of
“The way in
which the Vendémiaire Uprising is portrayed in the film is interesting,” says
White. “You're having to look at [Napoleon’s] actions and decide whether or not
you actually feel okay with that.”
There is a
cautionary note to this tale. “It's often said that this was predominantly a
crowd of women and children, and that isn't entirely fair. There were a lot of
armed royalists – if not trained professional soldiers, certainly a well-armed
militia – that were willing to engage in this fight.
of grapeshot is that it is very effective as an anti-personnel weapon. It does
effectively clear the streets, and Napoleon gets rewarded for that.
because of this incident that he's then appointed as commander of the army in
Italy, so this whole episode is seen as really key to Napoleon's rise to
What was the nature of Napoleon and Joséphine’s
du Beauharnais cuts a powerful figure throughout the movie, fulfilling a vital
role for the tactically brilliant but socially inept Napoleon. But their
relationship is fiery, a love story stacked atop neediness, infidelity, and
They met in
1795; she was a widower, six years older than Napoleon, and at that time the
mistress of Directory member Paul Barras.
“Is my life
about to change?” the Joséphine of the film quips. For Napoleon it certainly
young general was completely besotted, sending her love letter after love
letter, Joséphine remained ambivalent,” says historian Laura O’Brien of the
real Napoleon. “She eventually agreed to marry him, recognising that he was on
the rise and that he might provide security and protection.”
letters, notes White, were so agonizingly intense and naïve that they “give an
indication of his immaturity when it came to questions of love”.
Yet in many
respects, White adds, Joséphine was Napoleon’s rock.
that there were issues with the relationship, and for all the insecurity and
infidelity time and again on both sides, there was a really key role that
Joséphine could play.
“She was a
hugely intelligent, very adept, very shrewd and also very beautiful woman, and
she was able to use her many charms in order to help ingratiate herself with
people by becoming Empress of France. She was able to move in certain circles
and create soft levels of influence.”
had more than purely a ceremonial role, White notes, something that viewers
won’t see in the film. “When Napoleon went off to invade Russia in 1812, he
fundamentally left Joséphine in charge. She was the one who had to sign off on
the edicts of the French government.”
their annulment, she remained his lifelong confidant.
Did Napoleon fire on the pyramids?
1798 during the Egypt campaign, the Battle of the pyramids was such a shock to
the Mamluks that they subsequently abandoned Cairo, allowing Napoleon to enter
the city almost unopposed.
shows Bonaparte drawing his battle lines under the proverbial shadow of the
Great Pyramid of Giza – which he then directly fires upon, sending portions of
rock raining down on the Mamluk cavalry.
happen – the pyramids were within view, but no closer.
itself takes place about seven miles away from the pyramids themselves,” says
White, “well outside effective artillery range for the period”.
viewers may be disappointed to learn that Napoleon didn’t shoot the nose off
the Sphinx, either.
Was Napoleon short?
Battle of the pyramids, Napoleon’s men open a pharaoh’s sarcophagus and –
wishing to stand face-to-face with the mummy within – he is forced to stand on
a box so he can stare into its wizened visage.
throwaway moment that plays on the age old (some might say tired, others
Gillray-esque) joke that the real Bonaparte was shorter than the average
into that myth that Napoleon was 5’ 2” and had the so-called ‘Napoleon complex’
as a result,” says White.
of standard measure – because different nations used different lengths of
measurement at this time – Napoleon was a little bit over 5’ 6”, which made him
just above the average height of the standard French infantryman during the
battle of Waterloo.”
Did Napoleon really crown himself?
coronation as Emperor of the French in December 1804, Ridley Scott’s Napoleon
shows Bonaparte snatching up the crown and placing it atop his own head,
drawing stifled gasps from the onlooking throng.
But did he
really do it? You bet he did.
portrayed as a hugely controversial move because it was a hugely controversial
move,” says White. “Napoleon knew how to make a statement, and the crowning of
himself was the epitome of that kind of statement because the Pope was in
almost slapping the Pope in the face by saying: ‘You are not the most
significant person in the room. My authority is greater because I'm the
representative of the French people.’”
Did Napoleon believe himself to be equivalent to
Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar?
Napoleon likens himself to both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar in the
film, and the real-life Napoleon insisted that neoclassical sculptor Antonia
Canova craft a heroic nude of himself as the Roman god Mars.
unpicking how Napoleon feels about himself and his own place in history is
complicated, says White, because Napoleon was a master propagandist.battle of
certainly inclined to position himself as somebody on a par with Alexander or
Caesar,” says White. And after his second exile to St Helena, and he was able
to cast himself in the guise of such men by having the luxury of telling his
being the loser, Napoleon is the exception to the rule that history is written
by the winners,” says White, “because he was able to dictate [his memoirs] at
length, to ruminate and to cast blame and aspersions on those who failed him.”
latest in our series charting the contested reputations of key historical
figures, Laura O’Brien and David Andress discuss French military and political
leader Napoleon Bonaparte, and explore why his story still proves divisive two
Did Napoleon’s mother force him to have an affair?
presence, absent from any of the publicity, is Napoleon’s mother Letizia
Scott’s film, the inference is that Napoleon retains a strong deference to his
mother even after he becomes emperor, alongside a faintly Oedipal whiff that he
sees his mother in Joséphine.
standout interaction comes when Letizia cajoles a bashful Napoleon into having
a one-night stand – already waiting in bed for him at the other end of the
corridor – to ‘settle’ the issue of whether his lack of an heir is down to him
or Joséphine once and for all.
happen? The bedding incident is most likely a fabrication, and even in the film
Napoleon admits to having already had affairs long before this incident. In
real-life, these affairs had already resulted in illegitimate offspring.
true, writes historian Laura O’Brien, is that the Bonapartes “loathed the ‘old
woman’ [as they referred to Joséphine] they felt had stolen him from the clan”
and did actively try to turn Napoleon’s eye to other likely prospects – though
this tended to be the machinations of his siblings, not his mother.
Did thousands drown at the battle of Austerlitz?
Napoleon’s greatest victories is also the scene of one of his greatest myths.
The battle of Austerlitz, fought in 1805 against the combined forces of Russian
tsar Alexander I and Austrian emperor Francis I, cemented Napoleon’s reputation
as a military genius.
Scott’s film cleaves to popular myth: that Napoleon funnels the Austro-Russian
army onto an iced-over lake, something they only realise when the cannonballs
start raining down. Thousands drown in what can only be described as a chilling
is, there was no great lake – only a handful of fishing ponds. “Napoleon knew
how many men had been killed in this manner because he ordered them to be
drained himself,” says White. “The French found plenty of wagons and plenty of
horses in those lakes, and only found two bodies.”
Napoleon never intended to trap the Austrian and Russian army on a lake, but
this is where the propagandist re-emerges.
upon that opportunity of a PR and propaganda coup to make it look as though
that had always been part of the plan,” says White. “That he was suckering the
enemy into being exactly in the position where he wanted them to in order to
make them all die in a particularly grizzly and horrendous way.”
Did Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington meet?
battle of Waterloo is among the defining moments of the Napoleonic Wars,
marking both Napoleon’s final defeat and the last battles of both Napoleon and
his British nemesis, the Duke of Wellington.
and Napoleon are often – both in Ridley Scott’s Napoleon and elsewhere –
portrayed as the best of enemies, and here they come face-to-face aboard the
HMS Bellerophon shortly before Napoleon is packed off to St Helena.
But it is a
meeting that never happened. Nor did it happen anywhere else.
reality is that Wellington was a reasonably subsidiary and insignificant figure
until much later in the Napoleonic Wars; it's only with his success in Spain
and Portugal that Wellington rises to a position where he is respected across
came close to meeting. The nearest they ever got, and in fact, the only time
they ever fought one another was at the battle of Waterloo,” says White. “In
the closing stages they come within about half a mile of one another.”
What happened to Napoleon’s second wife, Marie-Louise
Joséphine. Joséphine. In the film she rides roughshod through Napoleon’s mind,
even after their marriage is annulled, and it is to her his mind turns as he
dies. What then of the woman he sets Joséphine aside for, the Habsburg
In both the
film and real-life, Napoleon’s quest for an heir prompts him to seek the hand
of another. “There could have been no more desirable marriage candidate,” says
historian Deborah Jay of Marie-Louise. “She was related to practically every
ruling dynasty in Europe.”
would both bear Napoleon the son he craved and become his loyal devotee, siding
with France even after her father allied with Russia against her husband.
1814, Marie-Louise stood alone as regent of France, forced to decide whether
she should confront her father and his allies – who were poised to march on
Paris – or flee to Loire Valley, Centre-Val de Loire, as urged by her husband’s
cowardly ministers. Her courage and heroism could not help her.
from Napoleon, she and her son were forced to return to Vienna as refugees,”
writes Jay. “After a hard campaign, Marie-Louise was finally granted the
duchies of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla promised her by the allies to secure
her husband’s first abdication.”
She set out
for Parma in 1816, though her time as duchess would be a precarious one.
How did Napoleon die?
film, Napoleon gently keels over in exile on St Helena, after dispensing a
final bit of propaganda about who burned down Moscow in 1812 after the battle
of Borodino (it wasn’t Napoleon; the Russians did it themselves), but the fate
of the emperor might be murkier.
after his death in British custody on 5 May 1821, 16 observers attended the
autopsy, seven doctors among them,” writes Siân Rees, author of The Many Deaths
of Napoleon Bonaparte. “They were unanimous in their conclusion: Napoleon had
died of stomach cancer.”
not stopped the doubts and theories that the French emperor might have met an
early end – either at the behest of the British or his French rivals – or
indeed that Napoleon never arrived on St Helena at all.
arrives in UK and US cinemas on 22 November 2023 in conjunction with Sony
Pictures Releasing, before streaming on Apple TV+ at a later date.
Digital Editor, HistoryExtra
is Deputy Digital Editor of HistoryExtra.com and previously Deputy Editor of
BBC History Revealed. As well as commissioning content from expert historians,
he can also be found interviewing them on the award-winning HistoryExtra