Who cares if Napoleon is historically inaccurate?
It’s a Ridley Scott film, not a documentary.
How much of an obligation do artists have to depict historical events accurately?
The old question has come to the fore once again in response to Ridley Scott’s latest film, Napoleon. The film, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte, is what we have come to expect from Scott – huge vistas, seductive cinematography, elaborate action sequences and an evocation of an out-of-time moment in history.
Predictably enough for our culturally febrile times, the film has drawn much criticism, in this case for playing fast and loose with historical details. A good chunk of the criticism has been from historians, and is of the literal-minded, ‘Marie Antoinette actually had short hair at the guillotine’ variety. Historian Dan Snow took to every academic’s favourite platform, TikTok, to air his pedantry. (Scott’s riposte was a curt ‘get a life’.)
All of France, according to the New York Times, is offended by the film. It ‘offers no point of view, neither on the man, nor on the myth’, according to Liberation. In the Guardian, Agnes Poirier echoed this sentiment. While excited by the prospect of an English take on French history, Poirier was disappointed by the lack of ‘an original perspective on [Scott’s] subject, let alone any understanding of his personality and achievements’.
The Spectator has stated the prevailing sentiment most plainly:
‘[T]his stuff matters… when people see it on the screen, [they] believe it really happened that way… [T]here’s more to it than merely causing offence. There’s the principle too – and the fact that if you’re not careful you can end up changing history.’
These exasperated responses from historians and the historically-inclined are perhaps understandable, but ultimately frustrating. The best way to understand Napoleon is to approach it not as a biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte, but as a Ridley Scott film. Rather than asking what Ridley Scott tells us about Napoleon, we should ask: what does Napoleon tell us about Ridley Scott?
Scott’s own explanation of his work, while amusingly abrupt, is also evasive. The stars of the film, with their immaculate PR training, have been more tactful, and in their euphemistic way have come much closer to truth. ‘Everyone has their own perspective’, says Vanessa Kirkby, who stars as Josephine. ‘But this was always going to be Ridley’s version.’ ‘If you want to really understand Napoleon, then you should probably do your own studying and reading’, Joaquin Phoenix told Empire. ‘Because if you see this film, it’s this experience told through Ridley’s eyes.’
Scott’s vision is paramount. Everything is subservient to this, including historical events. A revealing demonstration of this is an off-the-cuff remark from Scott himself. In a much-criticised scene, Bonaparte is depicted firing cannons at the Pyramids. ‘I don’t know if he did that, but it was a fast way of saying he took Egypt’, said Scott in an interview. This is what we used to call artistic licence. It also demonstrates Scott’s single-minded urge to unify and simplify events in his pursuit of narrative efficiency.
What is the content of Scott’s vision? He has one foundational motif that underpins all his work. He is a world-builder. From his earliest days, and before anything else, he was a storyboarder, drawing inspiration from graphic novels such as Metal Hurlant. He builds grand spaces, in which there is nearly always smoke. Smoke defines the unending cityscapes of Blade Runner. In Napoleon, the smoke of the cannons fills the battlefield. Snow clouds the air and envelops the soldiers at Austerlitz.
Scott builds these vast worlds with such obsessive attention because he needs to contrast them with individuals. He tells the same story over and over – of the vastness of a world, and an individual’s ambiguous, precarious place within it. The bigger, more persuasive the world, the more his character’s alienation from it can be brought home. This can be seen all the way back in his first film, Boy and Bicycle. ‘The idea was, boy plays hooky for the day, thinks it’s freedom. It’s not – it’s actually prison’ is how he once summed it up.
In Alien, the crew of the Nostromo fall foul of the otherness of space. In Blade Runner, the sprawl of San Angeles does not care whether or not Deckard is a replicant. In Gladiator, the colossal arena is indifferent to Maximus Decimus Meridius and his attempts to entertain it. Even Thelma and Louise culminates with a huge space, the Grand Canyon, swallowing up the two (anti-)heroines.
As for the lack of psychological insight in Napoleon – this is entirely typical of how Scott’s characters tend to work. He offers no insight into his characters’ psychologies. This is unimportant for the stories he tells. Instead, he trusts a cast of talented actors to embody their characters and bring inner life. His skill is in who he casts.
Scott describes Joaquin Phoenix, for example, as ‘the best player of damaged goods’. Phoenix brings to his portrayal of Bonaparte his essential on-screen persona – established in Gladiator and refined in Her, Beau Is Afraid and especially Joker – of the powerless incel. Vanessa Kirby, who has attracted critical attention as Josephine, is perfectly cast – with her middle-class manners and guarded, scheming energy – as a precariously ascended bourgeois.
Don’t expect to come out of a screening of Napoleon any the wiser about Napoleon. You will take out only what you take in. It is not quite true that Scott has no insight to speak of regarding Napoleon’s motives or achievements. They are paid lip service, but in the end this doesn’t really matter.
What you will see is Napoleon as an uneasy participant in, and witness to, incomprehensible, massive and violent worlds. You will see endlessly long corridors. You will see Bonaparte’s divorced wife, Josephine, at her palatial home, forever veiled in mist. You will see the silhouette of Moscow, ablaze. You will see a man in an ambiguous relationship with the worlds he finds himself in.
Does Ridley Scott fiddle with the history? Of course. Does this matter? Only if you let it.
Maren Thom and Alex Dale are hosts of the podcast, Performance Anxiety.
Picture by: YouTube.
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