Ridley Scott’s 238 minute opus, “Napoleon,” is a crash course in French history. But how accurate is it?
I always appreciate directors who try to “get it right.” I kept wondering, throughout the lengthy film, whether this or that really happened. Let me be clear right now that I have investigated with the goal of finding out whether the film is substantially true or false. Read no further if you are saving the viewing of the film to learn the specifics of the plot.
The costumes are wonderful—even the tri-cornered hat that Napoleon wears. By the way, the actual height of Napoleon was five feet seven inches, which was not that short for the time.
The staging of the battles is amazing. There are many battles and they are all extremely well-done and riveting.
Most of the acting is fine, although the dialogue is often jejeune (to steal a French phrase, which seems appropriate).
The things I know to be false:
- Napoleon was not present in the crowd that witnessed the beheading of Marie Antoinette.
- Napoleon never met with the Duke of Wellington on a boat (the Bellerephon)
- The time-line for Napoleon’s marriage to Josephine is not exactly right
- Napoleon may well have been completely besotted with Josephine, but each of them had other affairs and Napoleon had several illegitimate children. Did newspaper headlines of the day say things like, “Napoleon’s Bony Old Bird Caught Out of the Nest Again”? Don’t know; can’t tell you.
- One child that the movie dwells on is the heir apparent that Napoleon divorces Josephine to have with his wife, Mary Louise, the Arch Duchess of Austria, and great-niece of Marie Antoinette. We never see the child after Napoleon shows the newborn to Josephine in one scene, but the answer to “Whatever happened to Napoleon’s son?” Wikipedia tells us this:
“Napoleon and Marie Louise remained married until his death, though she did not join him in exile on Elba and thereafter never saw her husband again. The couple had one child, Napoleon Francis Joseph Charles (1811–1832), known from birth as the King of Rome. He became Napoleon II in 1814 and reigned for only a fortnight. He was awarded the title the Duke of Reichstadt in 1818. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 21, with no heirs.”
You might wonder, as I did, whether the highly cinematic battle of Austerlitz (Aug. 2, 1805) involving cannons breaking the ice on which the advancing army is approaching, killing them in vivid visual style, really happened that way. The answer is yes, there was a battle where the approaching army approached on ice; however, the ice was evident to both sides. When an investigation of the body of water took place years later, there were only roughly 12 bodies buried beneath the surface.
Napoleon did not fire a cannon into a pyramid while in Egypt.
To me, the worst thing about the film was the script, written by David Scarpa. The laughter of the audience, hearing some of the pot-boiler lines in this film, may be intentional. I found it jarring in the context of this epic.
Here are a few of those lines:
Napoleon: (about the British, spoken very petulantly): “You think you’re so great because you have boats!”
This was shouted with a childish tone, indicating that Napoleon was very annoyed by the British Navy. It may not be totally fair to blame the screenwriter, as one of the reasons it came off as humorous was the manner in which it was delivered. For that matter, the scene where Napoleon is shown stomping his foot like a horse in anticipation of sex with Josephine (who is reluctant because she has just had her hair done). I’m being generous in calling it mediocre; it’s pretty bad.
Another such line, spoken by Rupert Everett as the Duke of Wellington, before he rides off to battle in the rain: “I never get wet if I can help it.” O……K…..
Just prior to uttering that line, we see Napoleon getting ready to lead his troops into battle. When he is asked, “What shall I tell the men? He responds, “Tell them to make the rain stop.”
During one state dinner, Napoleon shouts, “Destiny has brought me this lambchop.”
Again, the delivery of these bon mots is also part of the problem. While there were some lines that sounded as though they might have been spoken by Napoleon or taken from his letters and writing), there were way too many that were laughably bad.
The acting by Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby was adequate, but they were given lines like the above examples. I don’t see any acting nominations coming out of this one, but she (Vanessa Kirby) was better than he was.
The music also good at times and mediocre at times. When Napoleon mounts up and rides forth as the Prussians have arrived, the music was weird. It was inconsistent throughout, just as Joaquin’s acting is only as good as the lines he is given to say.
Here’s a line that does try to give us insight into the character of the one-time Emperor of France: ”The most difficult thing in life is accepting the failures of others.”
I enjoyed the film from 85-year-old Ridley Scott and was amazed at his staging of the battles. What an accomplishment! May he stage many more!
[I also noticed that the Stunt Department Coordinator was Natalie Wood. No. Not THAT Natalie Wood, but if only she were still alive and still with us.]