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HomeNewsRidley Scott’s Napoleon: Probably the most inaccurate historical film I have ever seen

Ridley Scott’s Napoleon: Probably the most inaccurate historical film I have ever seen


FOR those really interested in the historical events of the Napoleonic era, there are only two great movies: Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic three-part War and Peace, released in 1968; and his Waterloo, released in 1970. The latter was originally more than four hours long and was considerably cut: it did not excel at the box office but has remained in demand ever since. Many of us were looking forward eagerly to a director’s cut at the bicentenary, restoring some of the lost footage, but no. Sadly, the original celluloid must have been burned. Both these great films focus on one period in Napoleon’s life and are thus able to explore events in detail and take great pains to ensure historical accuracy. And here, of course, is Ridley Scott’s first problem: one film about the entire career of a man who dominated Europe for fifteen years is simply too much information. Inevitably there will be gaps, precis, abridgement. We see nothing of the Italian Campaign of 1796 that propelled Napoleon upwards and without which so much that follows is not clear. The Egyptian campaign is left dangling, when in fact Napoleon did not abandon the army until after the siege of Acre, of which again we hear nothing. Nothing, too, of the foiled invasion of Britain in 1805, the wars with Prussia, Austria and Russia from 1806 onwards, the strategic mess he created in Spain. Nothing of his once again abandoning his army during the debacle in Russia which, according to the film, led directly to his abdication in 1814; so again, nothing of the campaigns of 1813, the rejection of peace at the Congress of Prague, and the greatest battle in Europe before the Great War, Leipzig, in which half a million men fought for five days. Nothing of the marshalate on whom he depended – men such as Berthier, Davout, Lannes, Soult, Ney; but inevitably we are subjected to Wokery. The only General portrayed is a single black officer from Haiti, Alexandre Dumas. What is left is a shell of unreliable narrative and a film about the supreme arrogance of one man.

We see little or nothing of Napoleon’s strategic vision, and the great flaws in it, aside from the expedition to Russia which is presented without context. By 1811, Napoleon was aiming not just at a stable limit to his empire in Europe, but at total domination of the world: his empire would have no limits. The hostility of the old monarchies, and especially of England, forced him to keep expanding until no opponents were left. In that year he remarked that ‘in five years, I shall be master of the world: there only remains Russia, but I shall crush her.’ Napoleon and his system existed only through greater and greater success, as the means to a favourable and lasting settlement: that is, one that saw Napoleon and his empire in control of the international system.

We are unable to form any view of how popular, or not, Napoleon was. Some mention of conscription would have been illuminating, for this was the means of generating the strategic mass that would provide the manpower for his all-important army. Around two million men passed through the ranks of the army, not to mention the clients and allies. No other policy intruded the Napoleonic state so forcefully into the lives of people or the fabric of states, for it was imposed throughout the empire and the client states during the entire period of Napoleonic rule. Certainly, no other policy engendered so much hatred. 

All that said, the film has some good points. The clothes and uniforms are correct; the sets and locations are stunning, and some of the casting is excellent – Louis XVIII, Talleyrand, Caulaincourt, Robespierre, Barras. As a simple love story, it might be acceptable – except that to dress up Napoleon’s return from Elba as being driven by Josephine is arrant nonsense – even so, it is still not particularly compelling. From here on, sadly, Napoleon abounds with historical nonsenses and downright fiction in those episodes which are actually included in the narrative, rather than simply being ignored. Austerlitz did not take place on a frozen lake. Some Austrian cavalry were drowned while retreating across a lake under French cannon fire, but when Napoleon had the lake drained, only two bodies were found. Borodino was a draw, not a French victory, and was characterised by the fighting around a series of Russian redoubts. In the depiction of both battles, the infantry and cavalry tactics are portrayed simply as chaotic charges ending in individual combats. Napoleonic infantry tactics were designed to bring large bodies of men in close order to a point at which massed fires from inaccurate weapons could be brought to bear. Cavalry, again in controlled bodies, was used to break into the gaps thus created and exploit success. Because we do not see enough of the context of Napoleon’s campaigns, nor get an understanding of the battle tactics within them, we do not realise that even in those campaigns which could be accounted successful, there were serious, sometimes near-disastrous, setbacks – too often, the system of marching divided resulted in Napoleon being left waiting for some subordinate to arrive, while his troops withstood the devastation of close-quarter battle in the appalling conditions of the day. These potential disasters were as often as not averted by sheer bloody fighting on the battlefield.

This mishmash of historical make-believe might have been alleviated if we were able to gain some insights into Napoleon’s character and abilities as a commander. We see nothing of his domineering will, his endless capacity for work and little of his undoubted physical courage. Nor do we see his extreme temper tantrums – so terrifying to subordinates in a man with, effectively, absolute power. What we see is something of a wimp, often in tears, and by the way, too short. Napoleon was slightly above average height for a Frenchman of the time.

If an example of his work ethic was needed, then some broad look at his innovations in logistics and the arrangements to supply and feed his troops would have been illuminating, especially in the context of Russia. It is ironic that, having succeeded in many campaigns on the basis of providing just enough just in time – by foraging and his system of supply depots and the wagon train, just enough – Napoleon should fail in Russia after the most extensive preparations undertaken in the history of warfare up to that point. Of course, he had no railways, no mechanised transport, no cold storage nor food processing technologies; it was these factors that allowed armies to grow to the size they did during the First World War, and to remain static for extended periods. That he overran most of Europe, and that his armies did not starve until Russia, is nothing short of a miracle. 

The final, miserable, stupidity of the film is the portrayal of the Battle of Waterloo. We see nothing of the engagements at Ligny and Quatre Bras – and it was Wellington who chose the battleground at Waterloo, not Napoleon. Fighting from trenches? No. The British on a forward slope? No. Hougoumont, La Haye Sainte (the key to the battle), Plancenoit? No. A proper sequential portrayal of the action? No. The final assault by the Imperial Guard? No. To cap it all, the Prussians arrive from the wrong direction. Matters are not improved by a supposed meeting between Napoleon and Wellington on HMS Bellerophon – the ‘Billy Ruffian’. The two, almost exactly the same age as it happens, never met. Nor did Napoleon speak English. We are also subjected to more wokery with the fiction of a black midshipman – something possible only if today’s norms are superimposed on the past.

At the end of the film, we see some casualty figures. One common aspect of Napoleonic battles, regardless of the opposition, was the bloodletting. Because of his insistence on rapid marching to gain time, and because this enabled him, at Ulm, to outmanoeuvre an enemy and force a surrender without fighting, the myth grew up that, as old soldiers would repeat, ‘the Emperor uses our legs instead of our bayonets’. Nothing in subsequent history shows this to be true. In battle after battle, French conscripts would hold on in desperate combat, waiting for support from the rest of the army, which was marching divided. Then, when the greatest possible mass had been assembled, the day would be settled – either in victory or in a draw – by the crude application of force. Massed artillery fire to blast holes in the enemy, and columns of infantry and cavalry pouring in. In terms of casualties as a percentage of the numbers engaged, Napoleon’s equal the very worst days on the Western Front and yet the Generals of the Great War are vilified while Napoleon’s reputation still shines. It might have been well to let him utter one of his famous remarks: ‘What are the deaths of a million men to me?’

Really, when making historical films, it is as easy to get it right as it is to get it wrong: watch Band of Brothers, The Dambusters, or A Bridge Too Far for examples. But apparently, getting it right does not matter. Was a historical adviser hired? Was he or she listened to? If so, Scott hired the wrong person. If one views the film as simply a love story, based on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, it is entertainment of a sort. But as a serious commentary on the period, forget it. There is not enough of the meat of real history to be able to say whether or not this enhances or detracts from his reputation. A little less of Josephine and rather more of the compelling drama of the time would have decided this. As it is, this is probably the worst historical film, in terms of accuracy, that I have ever seen. So, save your money and buy a DVD of Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo.

Updated 20.30, 10 December 23

Jonathon Riley has authored several books on Napoleon including Napoleon as a General and 1813: Empire at Bay: The Sixth Coalition and the Downfall of Napoleon.

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Jonathon Riley
Jonathon Riley
Lt Gen Riley is a former commander of British Forces in Sierra Leone and Iraq and Deputy Commander of all Nato forces in Afghanistan.

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