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Photograph: Sony Pictures Releasing

Where was ‘Napoleon’ filmed? The surprising locations behind Ridley Scott’s new epic

The surprising real-life locations behind Ridley Scott’s new epic

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

With his new historical epic, Napoleon, Ridley Scott has gone full circle. His 1977 debut film, The Duellists, tackled the same period of Napoleonic France but recreated it in France’s Dordogne region. This time, with bigger battles to stage and a larger chunk of French Imperial history to capture, the legendary filmmaker has kept it local. Instead of France, Napoleon was filmed in England and Malta. ‘There is enough ‘neoclassical architecture in England to make it possible,’ says Arthur Max, the film’s production designer, ‘probably because a lot of the design that comes out of France and England is based on Italian classic Palladian architecture.’

A Covid-era production, staying in the UK had obvious practical benefits, but it also reunited the filmmaker with some favourite old haunts from Gladiator and other past movies. Take a tour of Scott’s Napoleon itinerary below

Photograph: Sony Pictures Releasing

Boughton Manor, Northamptonshire

Built in the 17th century by the 1st Duke of Montagu, a former ambassador to France, Broughton Manor wears its French influences on its sleeve – especially that of the Palace of Versailles. A perfect spot, in other words, to film Napoleon’s in March 2022 (not to mention, the 2012 Les Misérables). ‘It looks just like a French chateau in a beautiful estate, with hundreds of acres, with sheep and horses grazing and beautiful old oak trees everywhere,’ says Max. ‘It was very special for that reason, so we decided to use that as Napoleon's chateau.’

Bourne Woods
Photograph: Forestry EnglandBourne Woods in Surrey

Bourne Wood, Surrey

To recreate the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon’s defining victory over the Austrians and Russians in 1805, Ridley Scott turned back to an old stomping ground: Surrey’s Bourne Wood. It was here that he shot Gladiator’s opening battle, as well as scenes in his 2010 Robin Hood. ‘It was like an old friend, an old pair of shoes,’ says production designer Arthur Max. ‘We used many of the same areas and spaces that we had before, but in much different ways.’

Churn Farm
Photograph:Churn Farm in Oxfordshire

Churn Farm, Oxfordshire

'Churn Farm' sounds like the kind of place you’d have a battle and Ridley Scott did exactly that, using this corner of Oxfordshire’s countryside – part of James Dyson’s Dyson Farming Estate – to stage his version of Waterloo. Napoleon decamped to the farm in April 2022 under the production name ‘Marengo’, with locals advised of ‘heavy machinery, cannons and gunfire’ on site for a ‘large scale period battle scene’. A footpath was diverted, presumably to avoid curious dog-walkers stumbling into the middle of Marshal Ney’s cavalry charge. (As an aside: Sergei Bondarchuk’s huge-scale 1970 Waterloo was filmed on farmland in Uzhhorod, Ukraine.)

Fort Ricasoli in Malta
Photograph:The Siege of Toulon was recreated at Fort Ricasoli in Malta

Fort Ricasoli, Malta

Another old Ridley Scott location that the filmmaker revisited on Napoleon, this imposing 17th century fort appeared in Gladiator and has been used in a variety of other period epics (it starred as the Red Keep in Game of Thrones). In the film, it stands in for the French port of Toulon, seized by Napoleon in the 1793 military engagement that helped make his name. Ironically, the Maltese fort itself was captured from the French IRL in 1798 and ended up in British hands. Take that, Boney!

Hankley Common, Surrey

Napoleon’s infamous retreat from Moscow in 1812 required somewhere suitably forbidding. And while ‘the retreat from Surrey’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, Scott’s team found a place to stage the bedraggled Grande Armée’s trudge back to France just to the south west of London. Filming there took place in March 2022, so of course, the snow is fake. Scott has already recreated these events once in his career – in 1977’s The Duellists – on that occasion the snow was very much real, with the scenes set during the retreat from Moscow shot in Scotland’s Cairngorms mountains.

Photograph: Sony Pictures ReleasingThe coronation scene was filmed at Lincoln Cathedral

Lincoln Cathedral, Lincolnshire

Standing in for Paris’s Notre-Dame is England’s Lincoln Cathedral, which was used for Napoleon’s coronation. The cathedral’s choir was even called on to sing in the scene.  

Petworth House, West Sussex
Photograph: Ian Baigent-Scales / Shutterstock

Petworth House, West Sussex

A National Trust property, the 17th century Petworth House stood in for Josephine’s home, Château de la Ferté Beauharnais, in the movie. It also hosted the Victims’ Ball scenes, when the affluent survivors of the Terrors threw decadent parties. ‘Streamers, party debris and people had to be tastefully and carefully draped around the house and the collection,’ says Harvey Edgington, the National Trust’s locations manager. ‘We removed over 190 artefacts including paintings involving 21 specialists taking about 6 days and naturally had to close the property.’

Blenheim Palace
Photograph: ShutterstockBlenheim Palace was used for ‘Napoleon’s Victims' Ball scenes

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire 

No stranger to period pieces (and Transformers: The Last Knight), Blenheim Palace was used for interior shots of Napoleon’s state rooms in the Fontainebleau and Tuileries Palaces – as well as a few exterior shots. ‘It’s a neoclassical, Palladian-style building – throughout, the scale of it, the materials, it’s magnificent,’ says Max. ‘We found we could use the exterior from several angles for several different countries, as Napoleon is approaching Paris or returning from Moscow. Ridley is a master of that – you think, how is that gonna look different? But move some furniture around, change the lighting and the angle and the camera lens, and you’ll never know.’

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