The true story of Napoleon is but an epic framework on which to build the greatest fireworks display you’ve ever laid your eyes on. This is a movie that wants to do one thing, primarily, which is to give us lots of big, spectacular battles, with digitally reproduced hordes of extras being blown to bits by cannons, or skewered on the end of cutlasses. It’s going to give us stylish slo-mo shots of Napoleon gazing sternly over the battlefield, unmoved by the endless fields of limbless extras writhing in the frosty mud. It’s going to give us many, many horses. So many goddamn horses.
If you want to know the cold, hard historical facts, consult a book. Or even a well-made documentary. (As for Napoleon himself, there are thousands of antiquity-obsessed Guys for that, like Connor Roy.) This is essentially to echo star Joaquin Phoenix who, asked about the historical accuracy of Napoleon by Empire magazine over the summer, said: “If you want to really understand Napoleon, then you should probably do your own studying and readying. Because if you see this film, it’s this experience told through Ridley’s eyes.”
Besides, it’s not as though Scott and the team behind Napoleon haven’t put in the research. According to Variety, in the five days spent recreating the Battle of Waterloo, they went so far as to replicate the way British soldiers trained to wield their bayonets, waving them at the French to scare them off (which is, surprisingly, not a euphemism). So this isn’t a question of eschewing history for the sake of it. It’s about elevating entertainment — finger-pinching, handwaving-like-an-excited-Italian cinema! — over dusty biography, as historical epics traditionally have. Hardly anyone will line up for Napoleon in hopes of watching a true-to-life biopic so much as a spectacular battle-fest, in the same way that barely anyone bought tickets for Gladiator expecting reverence for the historical record. They wanted to see Russell Crowe scrap with a tiger.
The adage is old for a reason: don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. Which is why, when Napoleon‘s Sphinx is battered into oblivion by cannonballs, I will stand and applaud.