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Ridley Scott’s latest epic, Napoleon, stormed the box office, raking in $78.8 million since its Nov. 22 theatrical release. Now some historians are accusing the director of stretching historical truths as dramatically as Napoleon stretched his empire.
The film follows the rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) during the French Revolution. It also examines his passionate relationship with wife Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) and his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, with jaw-dropping battle scenes that Scott, whose past films include Gladiator, Alien and Kingdom of Heaven, is known for.
Despite the hoopla, historian and Napoleonic author Michael Broers, who consulted on the film alongside Scott throughout the process, encourages audiences to "embrace" it with a pinch of artistic license.
"As a moviegoer, I loved it as a film," he tells Yahoo Entertainment. "I had to learn very quickly that we are making a movie, not a docudrama. They're both held to different standards."
The responsibility of "getting it right" was exceptional. That included going toe to toe with the director at times. "My job was to say, 'That didn't happen' or 'That's inaccurate' — not to nitpick or stop them doing what they wanted to do. I did my job," Broers says.
Tweaking history with Ridley Scott
Much of Broers's job, he explains, involved fact-checking details about the time period that only extreme "Bonapartists," or admirers of Napoleon, would be able to spot.
"You have to take things for the spirit in which they're meant," he says of the creative choices. While some scenes aren't entirely accurate, they aim to capture the "essence" of Napoleon's psychology, prioritizing a character's "intention" above all else.
"Very quickly, my view became 'Look, I'm here to help you do what you want to do — but I've got to point out where the straight and narrow is,'" Broers says. "I would say [to Scott], 'You've got this person stepping out of character,' 'You have Josephine or Napoleon saying things they wouldn't have said.' And I'm not just saying that because it's not in the historical record; it's because they wouldn't have said it as a person."
Scott relied heavily on Broers's knowledge when it came to bridging "what did happen" and "what could have happened" to make scenes as factual as possible. That was the fun part, the historian says, and it became the foundation from which he and Scott worked.
"In some scenes, I think he sometimes did it better than what some of the historical records show," he says about Scott. "I'd sometimes say of his choices, 'That's the kind of thing you're going to get [critiques] about.' Then he'd say, ‘I think it's good enough to take the chance.'"
'I don't have time to film a coup!'
One such example was the depiction of the Coup of Brumaire. While historically, the deputies of the assembly leaped from a tower window to escape, limitations on set prevented them from "leaping out a window easily," says Broers. To adjust, Scott had them rush toward the tower door instead.
"I absolutely loved that scene," he says. "It's true to the spirit of what happened."
There were other times, he says, when Scott was "gobsmacked" by learning that the truth of what happened was even better than fiction — including Napoleon's famous retreat from Russia that marked the beginning of the end of his dominance in Europe.
At one point, he recalls the creative team assuming that he marched the troops out of Russia himself, but what actually happened was far from it.
"Napoleon leaves them in the middle of Russia [in 1812]," Broers says, to clarify. "He, Armand de Caulaincourt and Rashtoum [Napoleon's bodyguard] get in a sleigh, and they sneak off. As he did in Egypt, he left a note behind and rushed back to Paris, just the three of them. They were alone for nearly two weeks, hurrying back to Paris."
Broers remembers Scott saying, "Oh, my God. Why would he do that?" As Broers explained, there was a coup against him, and the director jokingly replied, "I don’t have time to film a coup! And more to the point, I don't have time to explain a coup.'"
Producers had to bend many truths and layers of context for the sake of time and costs, Broers says. While the adjustments aren't going to "please everyone," when it comes to the realities of filmmaking, "it is what it is."
"When you haven't got a lot of time, you've got to reduce it to its essentials," he says.
Which scenes are made up?
Historians have called out many scenes that are factually untrue, like Napoleon's presence at Marie Antoinette's public execution (he wasn't), for example, or how he led an attack at the Egyptian pyramids.
Historian Dan Snow called out the scene in Egypt on TikTok soon after the trailer was released in July. "Napoleon didn't shoot for the pyramids, and the battle of the pyramids, so-called, was not fought at the base of the pyramids," he says. In fact, the attack in Egypt happened miles away from the pyramids.
Another error was Josephine's age. While Napoleon's first wife was six years older than him in real life — one of the reasons she was unable to bear an heir later in life — she's portrayed by Kirby as significantly younger.
"The unraveling of the empire is linked to Napoleon's ever-more obsessive desire for an heir," Katherine Astbury, French history professor at University of Warwick in Coventry, England, tells Yahoo Entertainment about the missed opportunity. "And this is a situation in part caused by Josephine's age."
Another error is that Napoleon is portrayed as someone with humble beginnings when, according to Snow, he was born into Corsican nobility. Broers rejects that claim, however, noting that the Bonapartes were a "solid middle class people," that his father was a lawyer, not a top French official on the island, and that he was in fact part of an anti-French rebellion.
What's more, some historians have noted, Napoleon was famously terrible at riding horses, despite several scenes of him charging into battle with his calvary.
"There was a moment, in real life, when Napoleon tries to make a speech to his troops and he actually falls off his horse," Broers says. "They didn't show that in the film, but it would have been funny."
The director isn't fazed by the critiques.
When asked by the BBC about French journalists calling the film "very anti-French and very pro-British," he responded, "the French don't even like themselves. The audience that I showed it to in Paris, they loved it," stressing that Napoleon is "not a history lesson, by any means."
He echoed those sentiments in an interview with Snow on History Hit, where he asked critics, "How do you know, were you there?"
In another interview with Total Film, he said, "I've done a lot of historical films. I find I'm reading a report of someone else's report 100 years after the event. So I wonder, 'How much do they romance and elaborate? How accurate is it?' It always amuses me when a critic says to me, 'This didn’t happen in Jerusalem.' I say, 'Were you there? That's the f***ing answer.'"