12 Biggest Changes & Historical Inaccuracies

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WARNING: SPOILERS ahead for Napoleon.

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Summary

  • Ridley Scott’s film Napoleon features several historical inaccuracies, including Napoleon riding into battle with his cavalry, which is contested by historians.
  • The scene depicting Napoleon’s horse being shot out from under him during the Siege of Toulon is not historically accurate.
  • The portrayal of a giant frozen lake at the Battle of Austerlitz is fictional, as the battle actually took place near a series of small ponds.

Ridley Scott’s new epic biopic Napoleon features several changes and historical inaccuracies from the real-life legacy of the famous French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. While none of the historical inaccuracies or creative changes really alter the overall portrayal of Napoleon’s impact on the modern world, some are significant enough to bring up for Napoleonic scholars and history buffs alike. Scott’s film about one of the most prominent military leaders who ever lived marks his first reunion with actor Joaquin Phoenix since 2000’s Gladiator and will be his final release before 2024’s Gladiator 2.

Ridley Scott has already hit back at negative reviewers and claims from expert historians of several noticeable inaccuracies, to which he has essentially told them to “Get a life.” Scott has largely stood his ground on his status as a renowned filmmaker to take creative liberties for the sake of entertainment, reminding audiences that he did not make a documentary. Scott’s comments have angered historians by generally disregarding the significance of historical accounts. However, he consulted several experts and Napoleonic biographers when making the film, indicating that he evidently was concerned about painting a fairly accurate picture.

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12 Napoleon Did Not Charge Into Any Battle With His Calvary

Ridley Scott’s Film Depicts Several Instances Of The Emperor In Direct Combat

Napoleon Bonaparte is depicted riding along with his cavalry during several battles, including the famed Battle of Waterloo. Most historians contest this portrayal of the French Emperor as a heroic and battle-ready General who fought alongside his infantrymen in the depths of horrific combat. He was typically stationed behind the actual battles in order to oversee them and was rarely ever in physical danger. Napoleon was, however, incredibly skilled at inspiring his soldiers and preparing them to charge into battle, which he does on several occasions in Scott’s film.

11 Napoleon Was Wounded By British Bayonet During Siege Of Toulon

Historians Also Believe His Horse Survived The Battle

joaquin phoenix as napoleon-1

One of the few instances when Napoleon was in harm’s way was before he was promoted after the Siege of Toulon. Phoenix’s Napoleon says in the film that he led the charge against the British at Toulon but that was not entirely true. Napoleon did come up with the strategy, as depicted in Scott’s film, and was directly involved in combat with British soldiers. Interestingly, Scott’s film left out the part in which Napoleon was stabbed by a British bayonet while on horseback, a wound that could very well have killed him (via Time Out). Some historians also contest that his horse was shot out from under him with a cannonball.

10 There Was No Giant Frozen Lake At The Battle Of Austerlitz

There Were Several Small Ponds & Few Drownings

Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon ordering his army with a hand gesture in Napoleon

The Battle of Austerlitz is credited as one of Napoleon’s finest military achievements. However, it didn’t happen exactly as it was orchestrated in Scott’s film. Napoleon’s Army reportedly did not obtain the high ground and shoot artillery at the Austrian and Russian fleets but actually surprised them by sending his infantry to attack them going uphill (via Dan Snow). The giant frozen lake in which dozens of Austrian and Russian troops drowned was also not a lake at all, but rather a series of small ponds (via HistoryExtra). Napoleon had the small ponds drained and discovered that only a few of the enemy soldiers had drowned.

9 Napoleon & Arthur Wellesley, The Duke Of Wellington, Never Met

The Closest They Ever Got To Meeting Was At The Battle Of Waterloo

Joaquin Phoenix overseeing an army in Napoleon

Although Napoleon is seen meeting Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, in Plymouth, England after the Battle of Waterloo, the two historical figures never met in real life. The closest that the two men would ever get to meeting would have been on the actual battlefield at Waterloo, making the scene in Scott’s film entirely fictional. Napoleon also never set foot on British soil but was given a new ship, the HMS Northumberland, to sail into exile at St. Helena (via Napoleon.org). He was sent there by the British but was not told in a face-to-face meeting with Arthur Wellesley.

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8 Napoleon’s Army Never Attacked The Egyptian Pyramids

Napoleon’s Battles In Egypt Were Miles Away From The Pyramids

joaquin phoenix in napoleon

Arguably the most outrageous inaccuracy in Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is the scene in which Napoleon’s Army fires cannonballs at the Egyptian Pyramids. Several historians have been quick to point out the baseless yet highly entertaining scene, which was certainly intended by Scott to make audiences laugh rather than criticize the blatant historical revision. There is a kernel of truth in the scene, however, since Napoleon’s Army did venture down to Egypt and fought in battles near the Pyramids, but not close enough to cause any damage. There is also the myth that Napoleon’s Army damaged the nose of the Egyptian Sphinx, which is also unsubstantiated.

7 Napoleon Did Not Slap Josephine During Their Divorce

Napoleon Would Never Have Physically Hurt Josephine

napoleon-movie-josephine-vanessa-kirby
Vanessa Kirby in Napoleon.

One of the most inaccurate moments in Napoleon’s relationship with Josephine was when he hit her at their divorce hearing in Scott’s film. According to Michael Broers, who wrote several books on Napoleon and was part of the development process in Ridley Scott’s film, such an act would be extremely out of character for the French Emperor (via TIME). Despite their tumultuous relationship, historians believe that Napoleon adored Josephine too dearly to have ever laid a hand on her in that way.

6 Napoleon Was Not At Marie Antoinette’s Public Execution

Napoleon Did Witness Her Being Thrown Into Jail

Napoleon on a horse

Multiple historians and experts have refuted that Napoleon was present at the public beheading of Marie Antoinette, which occurred in Paris in 1793. Napoleon was actually on garrison duty in southern France as an officer in the French military during that pivotal time at the start of the French Revolution (via Time Out). Ridley’s opening scene combines two critical moments that helped form Napoleon’s sensibilities about the French Revolution, as Napoleon was in Paris to witness both Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI thrown in jail in 1792.

5 Napoleon Was Notoriously Bad At Riding Horses

He Never Completed His Military Riding Training

Joaquin Phoenix on horseback in Napoleon

Napoleon is seen riding horses with great skill and command in Ridley Scott’s movie although, in reality, he was actually pretty terrible at it. Napoleon did not grow up riding horses and didn’t finish his military riding training, which resulted in him looking very awkward and uncoordinated when riding on horseback (via Globetrotting). Napoleon also had a track record of riding smaller breeds of horses such as Arabians and Barbs as opposed to the more traditional thoroughbreds because he could mount those horses without needing assistance.

RELATED:Napoleon Review: Ridley Scott’s Epic Turns Out To Be A Tedious & Grandiose Comedy

4 Napoleon Was Six Years Younger Than Josephine

Joaquin Phoenix Is 14 Years Older Than Vanessa Kirby

Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon placing a crown on Vanessa Kirby as Josephine in Ridley Scott's movie Napoleon

One of the most noticeable inaccuracies in Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is the age gap between Phoenix and Kirby. The real-life Josephine was six years older than Napoleon, a point that was largely overlooked in the biopic as a consideration for why Josephine was unable to bear Napoleon a child. It also greatly changes the dynamic of Josephine and Napoleon’s relationship, as the truth about his immaturity and naïveté in romantic affairs makes more sense considering he was six years her junior. Interestingly, Scott appeared to make no effort to make Kirby’s Josephine appear older than Phoenix’s Napoleon.

3 Napoleon’s Mother Likely Didn’t Stage A Bedding Incident

Napoleon Already Had Several Illegitimate Children

Joaquin Phoenix wearing a crown in Napoleon

Napoleon’s mother Letizia likely did not stage the bedding incident between her son and a young woman to determine whether he was infertile. There would have been no need for such an experiment since Napoleon had already fathered illegitimate children, indicating that Josephine’s inability to get pregnant was likely not because of him. The scene does, however, point to the true sentiments that Napoleon’s family held for Josephine in wanting to replace her and remove her from her status as Empress (via HistoryExtra).

2 Josephine Was Terrified Of Being Divorced From Napoleon

She Would Never Have Suggested It As She Did In Ridley Scott’s Film

One of Josephine’s lines in Ridley Scott’s film was reportedly out of character, according to Broers (via TIME). Josephine was terrified of losing her life as Empress of France and was very against getting a divorce from Napoleon, a reluctance that was accurately hinted at during the divorce scene. However, Josephine would not have suggested that Napoleon divorce her in the first place, according to Broers. She would not have been so direct about the inevitable separation that was to come.

1 Napoleon Did Not Come From Nothing Nor Did He Conquer Everything

Napoleon Was Born Into Minor Corsican Nobility & He Never Invaded England

Joaquin Phoenix covering his ears in Napoleon

Dan Snow was one of the first to point out a bit of misleading marketing in the promotional poster of Napoleon, which featured a large slogan that read, “He came from nothing. He conquered everything.” Snow makes it clear in his viral TikTok that neither of these sentiments is true. Napoleon was born into minor nobility on the Italian island of Corsica, meaning that he had more opportunities than most to make connections and establish a name for himself. While the French Emperor conquered a great deal in Ridley Scott’s Napoleon and in real life, he did not conquer everything, including Russia and Great Britain.

Source: Time Out, Dan Snow, HistoryExtra, Napoleon.org, TIME, Globetrotting

  • Napoleon 2023 Movie Poster

    Napoleon

    Release Date:
    2023-11-22

    Director:
    Ridley Scott

    Cast:
    Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Ben Miles, Ludivine Sagnier, Matthew Needham

    Rating:
    R

    Runtime:
    158 Minutes

    Genres:
    Drama, Epic

    Writers:
    David Scarpa

    Studio(s):
    Apple, Scott Free Productions

    Distributor(s):
    Apple TV+, Columbia Pictures