'Awkward and atrocious': Napoleon historian weighs in on the inaccuracies in Ridley Scott's biopic

The film depicts the life and rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon (Apple TV+)
Napoleon depicts the life and rise to power of the French monarch (Apple TV+)

Ridley Scott's Napoleon has been the subject of much criticism from historians over its accuracy, and while the director has hit back at such complaints it hasn't stopped people from pointing out the errors in his film.

The biopic stars Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte and it charts the military leader's rise to power, which saw him become the emperor of France, as well as his long-standing romance with his wife Josephine (Vanessa Kirby).

A number of aspects of the film have been criticised by historians, including the accuracy of the battles shown and how they compare to the real-life events, and the way in which the film approaches Napoleon as a political figure.

Read more: Did Ridley Scott's Napoleon flunk History 101? Despite wave of criticism, the on-set expert defends film's accuracy

Scott, for his part, has hit back by saying at one point to historians: "Were you there? No? Well, shut the f*** up then”, something that has drawn the ire of those whose job it is to understand and talk about these historical events.

One such person is Louis Sarkozy, a historian and author whose forthcoming book, Napoleon’s Library: The Emperor, His Books and Their Influence on the Napoleonic Era, examines the emperor in closer detail. Sarkozy, who is also the son of the former president of the French Republic Nicholas Sarkozy, speaks with Yahoo UK about Scott's film and how the director got it wrong.

The depiction of Napoleon

Napoleon (Apple TV+)
Napoleon historian Louis Sarkozy called out several elements of the biopic, namely the portrayal of the monarch as a 'brute'. (Apple TV+)

One thing critics of Scott's biopic have called out is the way in which the film chooses to show Napoleon as an odd-ball character with little to no charisma or a strong sense of military strategy.

Reflecting on the matter Sarkozy says the film's take is "atrocious", adding: "Napoleon is portrayed as being a brute – with little to no wits. In the movie, he is vain, ignorant, boring, predictable and stupid. Needless to say, he was none of those things.

"Napoleon was an extremely strange man. He was a fanatic worker and a detailed, obsessed general and monarch. He immersed himself in every aspect of his reign. One need only see the 40,000+ surviving letters compiled and published by the Fondation Napoleon to understand this.

"On some occasions he averaged over 19 letters a day. Mundane details – such as his army’s coat buttons or boots, make up hundreds of letters. Before the Austerlitz campaign, he implemented one of the most stunning movements in military history. Orchestrating – to perfection – the movement of over 80,000 men from the channel coast to central Europe. He created and supervised what is no less than a logistical miracle.

"He was also an electric individual. His energy, passion and charisma seduced thousands. He fascinated his contemporaries, even those that hated him. There is no doubt that he benefited from an extraordinary amount of luck. But most of all his success was due to his genius, work ethic, and skill at finding the right collaborators."

Napoleon (Apple TV+)
Louis Sarkozy said how in the movie Napoleon 'is vain, ignorant, boring, predictable and stupid. Needless to say, he was none of those things'. (Apple TV+)

Phoenix's performance has received mixed reviews, with some calling out its comedic nature and others commending the actor for his unique take on the monarch, but Sarkozy felt "displeased" by "how inaccurately" Phoenix played him.

Read more: Napoleon review: Joaquin Phoenix plays for laughs in Ridley Scott's brutal epic

"He is unrecognisable," Sarkozy says. "Nothing of his energy, genius, charm of charisma seeps through. Phoenix plays him as cruel, dull and stupid. Napoleon was a Mediterranean – wearing his emotions on his sleeve.

"The movie shows him cold as a Parisian in winter. Seeing the movie, one wonders why Josephine was so enamoured with him, why Talleyrand [played by Paul Rhys] wanted him to make him king; and why so many soldiers were ready to die for him."

On Josephine and Napoleon's marriage

Napoleon (Apple TV+)
Louis Sarkozy shares that he found the relationship 'very awkward' onscreen. (Apple TV+)

Napoleon's romance and marriage to Josephine is a key part of the Apple TV+ film, it can even be said to be the emotional heart of it. But what has been noticed by critics is the way in which Phoenix and Kirby play off each other, showing a marriage that is devoid of chemistry and love despite how long it lasted.

Sarkozy shares that he found the relationship "very awkward" onscreen, saying of the real romance: "It is true that in the beginning of their marriage, Josephine cared little for him. She goes on to take a lover – which the film points out – and pays little attention to the letters of her husband while on campaign. On occasion she even read the more extravagant ones aloud, to her bewildered and much amused friends.

"Napoleon’s letters are a testament to his passion – full of romantic and Rousseauan allegories, they make for colorful reading. However, when Napoleon learns of her infidelity, he is heartbroken. This seems to have disappointed him beyond repair. They have a momentous fight at Malmaison upon his return from Egypt, and he decides to forgive her. But he then goes on to have dozens of mistresses of his own.

Napoleon (Apple TV+)
Napoleon had an 'all-consuming passion for politics' and didn't think his marriage was as important as it is depicted in the movie, Louis Sarkozy said. (Apple TV+)

"Historians count around 22 or 23 mistresses throughout the reign. These included the extravagant Pauline Foures and the famously beautiful Marie Walewska. So clearly, something was broken between them after Egypt.

Read more: Ridley Scott Blasts French Critics Over Negative “Napoleon” Reviews: 'The French Don't Even Like Themselves' (People, 3-min read)a

"He had tremendous affection for her, but nowhere near the amount of importance portrayed in the movie. He did not return from either Egypt or Elba because of her. If there is one thing to understand about Napoleon Bonaparte, it is his all-consuming passion for politics. That is what mattered to him more than anything else. The affairs of state always mattered more. It was his true love and only religion."

Napoleon's military campaigns

Napoleon (Apple TV+)
Napoleon's battle scenes are what have been the most criticised by historians. (Apple TV+)

The film, by virtue of being set over multiple periods, depicts several important battles from Napoleon's life including wars fought in Toulon, Russia, Egypt, and, of course, at Waterloo. It's these moments in the film that have been called out the most, with historian Dan Snow criticising Scott for showing Napoleon as firing a canon into the pyramids.

Sarkozy called the battle scenes "dreadfully inaccurate" and "bordering on the unrecognisable" because of the amount of key moments missed by Scott in his portrayal of the different fights.

He explains: "Out of the three Toulon is the least atrocious – both historically and cinematographically. It is true that the fort of Aiguilette was stormed and had to be taken to threaten the ships in the harbor. It is also true Napoleon was in the heart of the fighting – even being bayoneted in the thigh by a British soldier. Why the movie does not show this is another mystery.

"The battle of Borodino – probably the most dreadful of them all – is barely depicted. Austerlitz is a historian’s worst nightmare. What was a brilliant tactical gambit is portrayed as a vulgar ambush. Nothing about the Pratzen heights, nothing of the charge of the Russian guard cavalry, nothing of the weak right wing, nothing of the austro-russian army being split in two, nothing of the pursuit.

Napoleon (Apple TV+)
Louis Sarkozy called the battle scenes 'dreadfully inaccurate' and 'bordering on the unrecognisable' because of the amount of key moments missed. (Apple TV+)

"The icy lake episode – in reality an anecdote which occurred long after the battle was already won and killed two dozen men – is portrayed as if the defining moment. Likewise, Waterloo is tough to watch. Somebody has yet to explain to me why Ridley Scott saw it fit to introduce trenches in 1815!"

He goes on, "For all three battles, cavalry charges are an important mishap. Nothing was grandeur than witnessing a cavalry charge. The packed mass of horsemen, charging as one (and not in 'loose' formation, as is shown in the movie) was a sight to behold. The sources even speak of soldiers experiencing heart attacks from fear. The earth trembled, the screams ripped through the air – in short, a cinematographer’s dream. One of the greatest cavalry charges of history, Murat’s 10,000 strong charge in Eylau, is not even shown. This I will never understand."

Sarkozy also shared his thoughts on the battle set in Egypt, saying similarly to Snow that the fight took place far away from the pyramids in real life.

"In reality the pyramids were situated nine miles from the battle. His canons, on the other hand, had an effective range of about 1800 yards. So no, Napoleon did not shoot at the pyramids, or at the sphinx’s nose, as one legend goes," Sarkozy says.

Napoleon (Apple TV+)
Louis Sarkozy said the Battle of Waterloo 'is tough to watch' because of its inaccuracies. (Apple TV+)

"The battle was short and decisive. The Mameluke force was made up primarily of horsemen. All they could do was charge the French lines. The problem was that European armies had a very effective way of dealing with mass cavalry attacks – the square formation.

"By forming massing divisional squares, and placing his baggage and artillery in the center of them, Napoleon essentially turned the battle into a turkey shoot. This is because for a cavalry charge to be effective, horses must punch through infantry lines and wreak havoc. But the square disallows this.

"This reflects a simple but poignant fact of equine psychology. As any rider knows, a horse will never charge into a wall. Whether that wall is made of bricks or of men and bayonets makes no difference. Thus, the Mamluks were forced to circle the French squares impotently, all the while being shot down. The French lost about 300 men. The Mamelukes over 10,000. The majority of the French casualties were due to friendly fire. In short, a crushing victory."

Napoleon is out in cinemas now.

Watch the trailer for Napoleon: