Napoleon: historical filmmaking gone awry?

Some critics have praised Ridley Scott's latest historical epic, Napoleon, for its stunning visuals and performances, while others have criticised its historical inaccuracies. What do we want from a movie: entertainment or education? Or both?

Ridley Scott’s latest epic, Napoleon, has drawn criticism for its historical inaccuracies. Some argue that the film’s embellishments are too much, while others believe that they are necessary to create a compelling and engaging story.

“If Ridley Scott has such contempt for history, he should probably stop making historical epics,” writes Matthew Puddister, a journalist, history buff, and amateur film critic, as he denounces the historical errors in Scott’s latest film Napoleon, currently showing in cinemas.

He goes on to argue that, while writers and filmmakers are entitled to some artistic license in interpreting the past to make a good story, there’s a certain point at which deviation from the facts makes a work of art useless in shedding light on history.

Maltese Francophile historian and author of ‘France in the Maltese Collective Memory’, Charles Xuereb, tends to agree. In a post on social media, he describes the film as a series of laced episodes that rather portray a caricature of Napoleon while ignoring the strong personality of the social reformer. “Napoleon has been treated in about 200 films; the latest, from an English perspective, deals only with a love story and a number of battles…” he writes. Xuereb bemoans the omission of Malta and its French era from the film – ironically, Malta served as the primary location for the film’s battle scenes.

Martin Debattista, a digital media academic with a long-time passion for history and heritage – he’s also a Napoleonic re-enactor with the Historical Re-enactment Group of Malta (HRGM) – believes it’s ultimately a matter of expectations: “What do we want from a movie: entertainment or education? Or both?” he asks, remarking that, if a historical movie is 99% correct in terms of facts, then we would be watching a documentary with a re-enactment. Having said that, movies like Saving Private Ryan, Ghandi, and All the President’s Men have shown that a good movie can be both. Many people would not want to watch a documentary at the cinema that cost tens of millions of dollars in production. So, the entertainment element always wins because that makes money, though not always at the expense of historical accuracy. Debattista singles out the movies U-571, Braveheart, and 300 as definitely grossly inaccurate, to say the least.

Spoilers now: “In Napoleon there are some major inaccuracies like how the Battle of Austerlitz developed or that Napoleon just dropped and died while entertaining children on St Helena, and other less important details like that it would have been impossible for a sniper to take a shot with an 1815 rifle from the British camp to kill Napoleon a couple of miles away in the French camp,” he points out.

It’s more about Joséphine

In essence, Debattista believes that directors have cinematic and poetic licence to do whatever they want but they cannot, afterwards, claim authenticity. “I found Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, played by Joaquin Phoenix, to be rather flat, monotonous, and monochromatic, unlike Rod Steiger’s in the movie Waterloo (ok, maybe he overdid it a bit) or Christian Clavier in the TV series (a Frenchman playing a Frenchman: parfait!),” he adds.

Members of the Historical Re-enactment Group of Malta, clad in the Napoleonic army’s 19eme unit uniforms, get some refreshments before watching the film’s premiere at the Eden Cinemas. (Photo: MGRG)

To Debattista, the movie’s main plot was the love story between Napoleon and Joséphine de Beauharnais, his first wife, with wars, intrigues, and politics getting in the way.  In agreement with this is leading film critic Mario Azzopardi, who stated that he too feels that, despite its name, the film is not about Napoleon but more about Joséphine’s influence over him.

But here’s the challenge, Martin Debattista warns: many cinema goers tend to ‘learn’ history from such movies. So, if you want the facts, read books, but this may be more time consuming than a 2 hours 38 minute movie and maybe less entertaining than munching popcorn while watching a love story developing and crashing to the sound of cannons.

Mario Azzopardi expressed his eager anticipation for the release of the film’s extended Blu-Ray edition, rumored to span four hours. He hopes that the extended version may shed light on certain aspects of the film that he felt were underdeveloped in the theatrical cut. “I expected more from Ridley Scott in certain aspects of the film,” he remarked.

A Napoleon aficionado in a minister’s office

Very few know that one of Malta’s top Napoleon enthusiasts is Jo Etienne Abela, Minister for Active Ageing. He was one of the first to go see the film, which he describes as “pleasant enough to watch”. While appreciating the film’s cinematic brilliance, he aligns with critics who have noted the lack of attention to crucial events in Napoleon’s life. He attributes this to Ridley Scott’s tendency to prioritise dramatic impact over historical accuracy in his large-scale productions. He acknowledges that there are other productions on Napoleon that have a more accurate historical foundation. Among these, he specifically mentions the French mini-series Napoléon.

Despite the film’s shortcomings, Minister Abela maintains that a director has the freedom to take artistic liberties: “I don’t think it was Ridley Scott’s goal to create a straightforward biography of this complex historical figure,” he asserts, encouraging viewers to approach the film with an open mind and appreciate its artistic merit.

“It’s a crowd-pleaser,” he says. “It doesn’t have that wow factor, but it’s still an entertaining story. I’d be happy to watch it again.”

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Carl Springer
Carl Springer
6 months ago

Thanks for this article. It gave me a balanced view on whether I want to watch the film, or rather do without. I tend to the second option.

6 months ago

It’s more about Joséphine.Then I’ll watch it, coz it must be a tad raunchy, Jo being Napoleon’s elder. The French have a penchant for an older Mme. First Lady, even if Jo wasn’t by a quarter century like Mme.Macron. Crystal clear who’s the boss of the French household.

Last edited 6 months ago by Randolph