Napoleon Is Not Helped By Historical Inaccuracies

Napoleon (JOAQUIN PHOENIX) prepares for battle in Apple Original Films NAPOLEON, released theatrically by Columbia Pictures.

Ridley Scott’s newest film, Napoleon, suffers in its storytelling from the many historical inaccuracies that plague the picture.

Napoleon is the latest film from Scott to be a miss for this film critic, joining both House of Gucci and The Last Duel. I missed my screening in mid-November because of last-minute scheduling conflicts in the nation’s capital. While I had an opportunity to attend a FYC screening during Thanksgiving weekend, my sinuses had other plans in mind. While I was told that there would not be any screeners, Apple TV+ recently sent a digital screener this week. As a result, I watched the film on Wednesday night. Going off of how many times I paused the film to see the remaining time, I would have been very bored while watching the film in theaters.

The film follows the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) and sees this journey through his relationship with wife Josephine (Vanessa Kirby). Napoleon’s military and political leadership is also on full display during battlefield sequences that are drawing both acclaim and controversy for their depictions.

Things that are historically inaccurate about the film:

  • Napoleon wasn’t short. He was 5’6″ in real life, not much difference that Phoenix’s 5’8″ but camera framing and set design can do some tricks. Look at what happens following the Battle of the Pyramids.
  • Napoleon never finished military training so his horse riding skills were not as the film makes it out to be. Furthermore, he never led the charge during battles, always watching from afar. Historians are very open about this fact. Why does Ridley Scott mess so much with history?
  • Ridley Scott sets the inaccurate tone right from the start as Napoleon was not on hand for Marie Antoinette’s execution in 1793. Napoleon was serving in the army and nowhere close to Paris at the time.
  • Unlike the film, it is unlikely that Josephine ever suggested a divorce. She wielded power as Empress of France so why would see want to lose it? Speaking of, Josephine was six years older than her husband where Phoenix is 14 years older than Vanessa Kirby. Phoenix was too old for the role and there’s no attempt at de-aging him through CGI.
  • Napoleon’s mother, Letizia, had no role in his having an affair to see whether it was him or Josephine having problems conceiving. The fact is that Napoleon had already fathered kids out of wedlock during previous affairs. Was a scene with Napoleon having an affair with a young girl really necessary? Doubtful.
  • While the film contains many epic battle scenes and rightfully so, there was no frozen lake at the Battle of Austerlitz. Just several frozen ponds. Only two bodies were found in them after battle.
  • Despite their rivalry, Napoleon never met Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, at any point in his lifetime. However, they were half a mile from each other during the Battle of Waterloo.
  • The Battle of the Pyramids in 1798 did not target the Egyptian Pyramids. A cannonball couldn’t have reached the top according to historians.
  • Zero mention of Napoleon bringing back slavery in the French West Indies.
  • Nothing about the Napoleonic Code a.k.a. Civil Code of 1804
  • Nothing about Napoleon and the Jews, which could be a book or documentary in and of itself. Where he helped promote integration into French society, he also placed restrictions on Jews in a way that regulated Jewish life in France and countries conquered by the French Empire. Following the Wars of the Coalition, the discriminatory laws were put back into place.
  • Despite press and marketing materials saying he came from nothing, he was born into minor nobility. This is hardly anything that can be described as nothing.

Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix can defend this film all they want. It does not change the fact that they get so much history wrong. As such, it is not surprising that French historians are slamming the film. I mean, if a filmmaker were to make a film about one of the American Founding Fathers and it was filled with inaccuracies, people would be calling it out. Oh wait, this happened with a pair of miniseries, John Adams and Sons of Liberty. You can never go wrong with a documentary in that regard.

If this is the film that is just over two and a half hours in length, it makes you wonder what Ridley Scott has in store for his four-hour cut. Will it be in a miniseries format or one lengthy film in which audiences can press pause as they wish? Personally speaking, I would rather skip over whatever the filmmaker is planning if this very inaccurate film is any indication.

There’s no mistaking the fact that Napoleon Bonaparte is a compelling subject for a biopic but much like Waterloo, Napoleon is a letdown. We can only hope that Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon, which Steven Spielberg is developing as a 7-part series for HBO, will be an improvement in terms of historical accuracy.

DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott
CAST: Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Mark Bonnar, Rupert Everett, Youssef Kerkour, Ian McNeice, Ben Miles, Jannis Niewöhner, Julian Rhind-Utt, Paul Rhys, Ludivine Sagnier

Sony released Napoleon in theaters on November 22, 2023, before the film starts streaming globally on Apple TV+. Grade: 1.5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.