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Photograph: Sony PicturesJoaquin Phoenix as Napoleon and Vanessa Kirby as Josephine in ‘Napoleon’

How accurate is the Napoleon movie? The historical facts and fiction you need to know before watching

Bonaparte’s biographer fact-checks Ridley Scott’s blockbuster

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Ridley Scott has been pretty crisp in his feelings for those who’ve dared nitpick the historical accuracy of Napoleon, his new big-screen epic about the life of France’s Emperor and military leader. The gist? If you weren’t there in person at Waterloo, the Paris Convention, Austerlitz, or any of the other key moments in Boneparte’s life, take a seat.

Well, at a risk of incurring the wrath of the legendary filmmaker, we’re taking a closer look at what in the film really happened – and what counts as artistic licence.

To help run the rule over the historical veracity of some key moments in Boney’s life, we called on the man who helped Sir Ridley to put the bones onto his big-screen Bonaparte, Oxford University’s Professor Michael Broers. One of academia’s leading Napoleon experts, Broers was hired as an historical consultant on the movie. ‘We’d all sit around the table and everyone would have their say,’ he says, ‘and “RS” would stop every so often, point at me and say: “Okay, you tell me what
really happened.” That’s not to say that he was going to adhere to it, but he wants to know.’

So did Napoleon really fire cannonballs at the Pyramids? Did he and the Duke of Wellington ever have a face-off? And was his bedroom technique a bit, well, lacking? Over to you, Professor Broers.

Foto: Sony Pictures'Napoleón'

Was Napoleon at Marie Antoinette’s execution?

The movie opens with a young Napoleon witnessing the 1793 guillotining of a defiant Marie Antoinette in the Place de la Révolution. ‘He wasn’t at the execution, he was on garrison duty down south at the time,’ notes Broers. But the historian points out that Napoleon was in Paris to see Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI slung into jail in 1792. ‘It made an indelible impression on him – he was terrified by this rabid mob – so Sir Ridley is bringing two things together there.’

Did Napoleon really say the line about the British and their boats?

One of Napoleon’s top zingers has him barking at the British ambassador: ‘You think you’re so tough because you have boats!’ Sadly, he never said those exact words, although, notes Broers, ‘he said something very close to it’. ‘It’s a great line and it catches the essence of what he said. It’s based on a true encounter with the British ambassador William Wickham. This English aristocrat rubbed him up the wrong way, and Napoleon almost revealed that he had an army of 200,000 men in a fit of temper.’ 

How accurate is Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Napoleon? 

The historian praises Phoenix’s depiction of Napoleon’s ability to compartmentalise. ‘Napoleon was multifaceted but not complicated, and I thought he caught that very well.’ Broers points out that the Frenchman was also ‘an incorrigible tease’. The actor, he says, ‘gets Napoleon’s sense of irony and his ability to laugh at himself when he’s laying down the law’.

Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd / AlamyNapoleon at Fontainebleau, 31 March 1814 by Hippolyte Paul Delaroche

Did Napoleon fire cannons at the Pyramids?

Non! That definitely did not happen during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt (although Broers points to some evidence that French soldiers did shoot the nose off the Sphinx). ‘I said to RS: “Come on, shoot the top of the pyramids?”’, recalls Broers, ‘but he replied, “Well, you laughed, didn’t you?” I learned that we weren’t making a documentary, we were making a movie.’

Did he keep the cannonball that killed his horse?

Like a reverse chestburster, Napoleon reaches inside the corpse of his horse after the Battle of Toulon to retrieve the cannonball that killed it. Happily for horse lovers, this is pure creative license – the horse survived the seige. ‘I’ve never come across any evidence that it happened,’ says Broers. ‘But Napoleon was shot in the leg and bayoneted. His wound was very important because he was very young, leading veterans and that was the moment he proved himself.’

Photograph: Sony Pictures Releasing

Was Napoleon that bad in bed?

Broers confirms that Napoleon’s sexual prowess was lacking, at least with the more worldly Josephine. ‘We know that he was pretty sexually inexperienced when he met Josephine, because he told people and it’s in his memoirs. He was insecure with Josephine, but not with anything else I can think of.’ Understandably, the movie eschews strict historical accuracy in its depiction of Josephine. ‘Her teeth were almost non-existent,’ says Broers, ‘from chewing sugar cane when she was in the Caribbean’. 

Was he trolled by the newspapers?

When he’s cheated on by Josephine or finds himself in political jeopardy in the film, Napoleon is confronted by sneering newspaper headlines and lampooning caricatures. All strictly accurate, stresses Broers. ‘It was far worse than the film depicts,’ he says. ‘Especially in “Punch”, the 18th century’s answer to “Private Eye”. A ship carrying Napoleon's passionate letters to Josephine was captured and it was a field day.’

Photograph: Sony Pictures ReleasingRupert Everett as the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo

Did Napoleon and Wellington meet?

In the movie, Napoleon sits down with the Duke of Wellington after Waterloo in a grand warship cabin, two old battlefield foes exchanging pleasantries and mutual respect. It’s an oddly touching scene but sadly, it never happened. ‘Wellington and Napoleon never met,’ says the historian.

Was he a red wine lover IRL?

Broers says that Phoenix’s Emperor drinks more in the movie than the man himself would have done, but he pinpoints one boozy detail that Napoleon gets spot on. ‘When offers Emperor Frances a glass of wine after Austerlitz, he says: “Ah, Burgundy. Can’t beat it.” I think I can take some credit for appraising Sir Ridley that he was a Burgundy lover, so that lines gives me great pleasure.’ 

The first two books in Professor Broers’ award-winning Napoleon biography trilogy, ‘Napoleon: Soldier of Destiny’ and ‘Napoleon:The Spirit of the Age: 1805-1810’, are available via Faber. The final part, ‘Napoleon: The Decline and Fall of an Empire: 1811-1821, is published by Pegasus Books

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