Ridley Scott’s much-anticipated epic historical drama Napoleon hit theaters with a bang. This film, starring Joaquin Phoenix, follows the rise and fall of the world-famous French leader, as well as his complex relationship with his lover, Empress Josephine, played by the brilliant English actress Vanessa Kirby. Joining these stars in the cast are Tahar Rahim, Ben Miles, Ludivine Sagnier, Matthew Needham, and Youssef Kerkour.
Although Napoleon is performing decently at the box office, things are not looking so good with critics: so far, the film has been getting mixed reviews, with praise for the cast performances and battle scenes, but harsh remarks concerning its historical inaccuracies, which ultimately caused the film to be frowned upon in France. Although both Scott and Phoenix defended the production, stating that a great deal of Napoleon’s life is “up for interpretation,” many of the film’s historical inaccuracies are certainly too severe to go unnoticed.
10 Napoleon Was Not a Short Man
This historical inaccuracy correlates directly with a myth surrounding this French leader, which in fact spawned a social phenomenon known as “the Napoleonic complex.” According to the myth, Napoleon was noticeably shorter than the average man, and overcompensated for his short stature with his aggressive attitude and his thirst for power and conquest.
Scott’s film refers to this in a scene following the Battle of the Pyramids, in which Napoleon has to stand on a box to stare up-close at a mummified pharaoh’s face. Oddly enough, these myths regarding his height are not true: Napoleon was just over 5’6″, which was pretty much the standard height for men at the time.
9 He Did Not Lead His Cavalry Charges
In several scenes of Scott’s film, Joaquin Phoenix’s Napoleon is seen heavily involved in his battles, not only leading his men, but also fighting fiercely alongside them, many times riding his horse and exposing himself to great dangers.
In real life, things were quite different: according to several historians, Napoleon normally stood behind the battlefield and monitored all that was going on from a distance, never getting involved or exposing himself to physical harm. Napoleon also misrepresented the way in which he rode his horses, portraying him as highly trained, when, in fact, he was quite unskilled because he never finished his military riding training.
8 Josephine Never Suggested Divorce
Napoleon and Josephine’s love affair is one of the key elements of Scott’s film, as it follows their romance from their very first meeting up until the end of the Empress’ life, passing through their marriage and subsequent divorce. The movie depicts the marriage falling apart due to their inability to conceive children and the infidelities of both parties, to the point where, in one scene, Josephine directly discusses divorce with her husband, suggesting that it was inevitable in light of everything that was going on.
Truth is, Josephine married Napoleon precisely because he could provide her with protection and security, and she eventually became a highly influential figure. Josephine was terrified of losing her powerful position as Empress of France, so it is highly unlikely that she came up with the idea of divorcing Napoleon.
7 Napoleon’s Mother Did Not Organize the Bedding Incident
After Napoleon and Josephine had been unsuccessfully attempting to conceive children for a long time, things started to get messy within the marriage. As the birth of an heir to the throne was vitally important for the nation, in Scott’s film, Napoleon’s mother Letizia prompts him to have a one-night stand with a young girl to find out, once and for all, which side of the couple was having trouble conceiving.
However, this was not really necessary, as Napoleon had already fathered a few illegitimate children that resulted from his many affairs. That said, the film accurately depicts the contempt that the Bonaparte family had for Josephine, and their eagerness to cut her out of Napoleon’s life.
6 There Was No Frozen Lake at the Battle of Austerlitz
Scott’s Napoleon is widely acclaimed for its epic battle scenes, this much is true. Among the film’s most impressive ones are those depicting the Battle of Austerlitz, a confrontation that positioned Napoleon as a great military figure. In these chilling scenes, thousands of men from the Austro-Russian army drown to death in a frozen lake after Napoleon’s men charge at them with cannon fire.
In the real Battle of Austerlitz, however, there was no such frozen lake, just a few small fishing ponds that Napoleon ordered to drain after the battle, revealing only two bodies and several horses.
5 Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington Never Met in Real Life
Near the end of the film, we get to see the Battle of Waterloo, the conflict that ended the Napoleonic Wars with a loss that ultimately sealed Napoleon’s downfall. A post-battle scene features a meeting between the titular French leader and Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, taking place in Plymouth, England.
The relationship between these two men has been discussed extensively throughout history as they are commonly acknowledged to be fierce rivals, especially following the events that took place at Waterloo. However, Napoleon and Wellesley never met in real life. In fact, the closest they ever came to meeting was on the battlefield at Waterloo, but they were over half a mile apart.
4 Napoleon Did Not Witness Marie Antoinette’s Execution
The historical inaccuracies of Scott’s film hit home right from the start, opening with Marie Antoinette’s public beheading, which took place at Paris’ Place de la Concorde in 1793, in the midst of the French Revolution. Among the crowd that witnesses the woman’s execution is a young Napoleon appearing on the screen for the first time.
However, this scene is not accurate: when Marie Antoinette was being publicly executed, Napoleon happened to be on the other side of the country, serving as an officer in the French army, so it would have been impossible for him to attend such a major event in France’s history.
3 He Never Attacked the Egyptian Pyramids
Austerlitz’s frozen lake is not the only historical inaccuracy regarding Napoleon’s battles that spawned such an epic scene in Scott’s film. So did Napoleon’s troops’ alleged cannonball attacks on the Egyptian Pyramids. This incident never happened: although Bonaparte’s army fought near the ancient structures during the Battle of the Pyramids in 1798, they never targeted the pyramids.
In fact, according to historian Dan Snow, it would have been impossible for a cannonball to reach the top of the Great Pyramid of Giza considering where they were located on the scene. Still, the attack certainly made for one of Napoleon’s most impressive scenes.
2 The Age Gap Between Napoleon And Josephine
The age difference between Napoleon and his sweetheart is one of the biggest historical inaccuracies of Scott’s film. When the French leader met Josephine, he was 26 years old, and he broke off his engagement to another young woman to pursue this new relationship. Josephine, for her part, was six years older than Napoleon and had already been married, suffering the loss of her first husband during the Reign of Terror.
This age gap might explain why Napoleon seemed far more immature than his wife in the arena of romantic relationships, and perhaps also Josephine’s incapacity to conceive a child. However, this was not well depicted in the film, as Phoenix is 14 years older than Kirby, a significant age difference that certainly alters the dynamic between their characters.
1 “He came from nothing. He conquered everything.”
The film’s promotional poster features Phoenix superbly characterized as Napoleon, with a striking slogan that reads, “He came from nothing. He conquered everything.” There is no doubt that this line dramatically elevated expectations for the film, and added a certain mysticism to Napoleon Bonaparte’s figure.
However, the film’s slogan is not entirely true: Napoleon did not “come from nothing,” but was born into minor nobility on the island of Corsica to aristocrat Carlo Bonaparte, something that greatly benefited him when it came to establishing himself as a leader. The assertion that “he conquered everything” is not true either: in spite of winning many battles, he did not manage to conquer everything he had in mind, and Great Britain was one of the many territories he failed to secure.