The year is 1815. Napoleon Bonaparte, returned from exile on the island of Elba, once again declares dominion over Europe. Four months later, blinded with overconfidence and faith in his own success, Napoleon was soundly defeated at Waterloo.
Ridley Scott, director of celebrated films such as “Alien,” “Gladiator,” “Hannibal,” and “The Martian,” seems similarly drunk on his own ego. His latest film, titled “Napoleon,” follows the conqueror from his rise through the ranks of the French revolutionary republic’s military to his eventual defeat and exile to the south Atlantic.
Unfortunately for those hoping to see a movie about one of the most influential historical figures of the 19th century, “Napoleon” fumbles at every possible opportunity. The acting, cinematography and score are all mediocre. But where the film suffers the most is its writing and history.
It will probably take a few months for someone to compile an exhaustive list of all the errors in this film. A few historians have made lists of the most egregious ones, but there are so many it would take longer than the movie’s runtime to effectively respond to its issues.
Ridley Scott’s response to historians’ critiques has been dismissive. After Dan Snow, a British historian, released a breakdown of historical inaccuracies in a trailer, Scott responded “Get a life.”
Throughout the film, historical events are twisted beyond recognition. One example can be found in Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt. It lasted more than a year but was given two short scenes. One of these shows his artillery firing upon the Great Pyramids of Giza, an event totally fabricated by the filmmakers.
Speaking with The Times, Scott said that the scene was “a fast way of saying he took Egypt.” That sums up the effort of ensuring historical accuracy for this film. While it portrays itself as a retelling of Napoleon’s story, its creators have little interest in what actually happened. If something looks cool, it does not matter whether or not it happened.
Films can engage in historical fiction. It is a well-trodden genre. The trouble comes when they do not distinguish themselves from history. “Inglourious Basterds” is an excellent example of a historical film that uses WWII to tell its own story. But no one comes out of Tarantino’s film thinking Adolf Hitler was killed in a movie theater by American commandos.
Unfortunately, “Napoleon” does not make that effort. Instead, it attempts to act like a serious retelling of history, while doing none of the legwork to be historically accurate.
Ridley Scott wanted to make a romantic comedy about the eccentric Napoleon and his wife Joséphine. Instead, he made a confused and poorly paced 158-minute disaster full of fiction disguised as a movie about history.
Worse still, he wasted an opportunity to tell a compelling story about one of the most famous historical figures. Like the man who he tried to depict in this film, Ridley Scott is too caught up in his past victories to realize he’s lost his touch.