Ridley Scott's 'Napoleon' makes waves 2
From left, Joaquin Phoenix, Ridley Scott and Vanessa Kirby attend the premiere of 'Napoleon' in London. Image: Scott Garfitt/Invision/AP/picture alliance

Ridley Scott's 'Napoleon' makes waves

While some have questioned the film's accuracy, those who helped make the biopic have suggested it should just be enjoyed for what it is.
John Silk | Nov 23 2023

"Those in power only see me as a brute. Unfit for higher office." So goes a line in the official trailer of Ridley Scott's "Napoleon."  This quote could apply to some 21st century politicians. However, it is about a man who shaped European history in the late 18th and early  19th centuries.

With actor Joaquin Phoenix playing the titular role, the film is highly anticipated as Scott explores Napoleon Bonaparte's origins, his rapid and ruthless rise to crowning himself French emperor as well as his relationship with his wife Josephine de Beauharnais, played by Vanessa Kirby.

The film also promises to bring historical events to life — from the beheading of Marie Antoinette to the Battle of Waterloo.

A scene depicting the crowning of Josephine on December 2, 1804 at the Notre Dame cathedral
A scene depicting the crowning of Josephine on December 2, 1804 at the Notre Dame cathedral. Image: Aidan Monaghan/AP Photo/picture alliance

Depiction of events questioned

But the veracity of Ridley Scott's storytelling has already drawn criticism. 

For instance, British historian and television presenter, Dan Snow, highlighted some of the inaccuracies in a TikTok clip, arguing that "Napoleon didn't shoot at the pyramids" as shown in the film's trailer, while Marie Antoinette "famously had very cropped hair for the execution, and, hey, Napoleon wasn't there." The trailer shows Antoinette with long, frizzy hair and Napoleon present at her execution.

The film is seen "through Ridley's eyes," Oscar-winner Joaquin Phoenix told Empire earlier this year, adding that "if you want to really understand Napoleon, then you should probably do your own studying and reading."


'The Greatest Movie Never Made'

Ridley Scott is not the first director to embark on telling Napoleon's story.

One such take on the life of the French military commander who rose to prominence during the French Revolution never came to fruition. But the unmade movie was documented in a book titled "Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made."

For several decades, movie buffs and critics had wondered about director Kubrick's mysterious movie on Napoleon. Slated for production immediately after the release of "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Napoleon" was to be both a character study and a sweeping epic, replete with grandiose battle scenes featuring thousands of extras. However, it was eventually canceled due to high costs.

According to movie director Scott, maybe that wasn't such a bad thing. The filmmaker told The New Yorker in early November that he was once sent Kubrick's unused screenplay, but he found it a let-down, as it covered the entirety of Napoleon's life. Scott found the battles, the leading and the empire building the only elements of the commander's life worth retelling.

Nevertheless, publisher Alison Castle started researching the "The Greatest Movie Never Made" in 2002 and was surprised to discover the rich Napoleon pre-production archives available at the Kubrick estate. The book, published by Taschen, details how much energy Kubrick dedicated to researching his film.

The film has received mixed reviews, though its battle scenes have been praised
The film has received mixed reviews, though its battle scenes have been praised. Image: Kevin Baker/AP Photo/picture alliance

Book that focused on newly released letters

Elsewhere, Andrew Roberts' "Napoleon: A Life" capitalized on the publication of some 33,000 letters penned by the French military commander, which transformed our understanding of his character and motivation.

"A thrilling tale of military and political genius," The Washington Post said in its review of Roberts' novel that was published in 2014.

The fascination with Napoleon continues to this day. Indeed, in 2019, the French auction house Drouot announced that three love letters written by Napoleon had been sold for a combined total of €513,000 ($575,000). The letters, penned by Napoleon between 1796 and 1804, were sent to his wife Josephine de Beauharnais.

Whether Ridley Scott's new movie can shed as much light on Napoleon as the aforementioned letters, books, documentaries or even unmade films, remains to be seen. Perhaps it might even earn Scott his first ever Academy Award. “And, if I ever get one, I’ll say, ‘About feckin’ time!’,” the 85-year-old recently told The New Yorker. 

"Napoleon" is released on November 22 in the UK and US, and on November 23 in Germany.