Ridley Scott’s latest historical epic Napoleon is a warts-and-all biopic of the much-maligned French emperor, arriving in cinemas on 22 November and then later on streaming service Apple TV+.


Joaquin Phoenix is Napoleon Bonaparte, playing emperor for a second time in a Ridley Scott magnum opus (he also portrayed the Roman emperor Commodus in 2000’s Gladiator) while Vanessa Kirby of The Crown fame takes the role of his first wife, Empress Joséphine.

*Note: this article contains spoilers for Napoleon (dir. Ridley Scott, 2023)*

The film is not short of lynchpin moments. It spans much of Bonaparte’s adult life, rippling from the end of the French Revolution and the execution of Marie Antoinette – when he was but an artillery captain – right through to his death during his second exile on St Helena in 1821.

Perhaps predictably, it rattles through time. Entire campaigns pass in the blink of an eye. You would not know that Napoleon fought some 60 battles, nor that he faced five coalitions of Allied powers during his time as emperor. This is not a faithful retelling of the Napoleonic Wars. This is stretched-thin Napoleonic phwoar, a spectacle of pomp surrounding a man who brought Europe to its knees.

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As such, there are plenty of unanswered questions, the meatiest of which we’ve tackled below. Not seen the film yet? Here is Napoleonic historian Zack White giving his thoughts on what you should expect based on the film’s first trailer.

Is Ridley Scott’s Napoleon a true story?

Broadly, yes – in the sense that Napoleon, and all the major players in the film, are real historic figures, and that events very loosely played out as they do on screen. But as always, the devil is in the detail.

Take the assertion of the film publicity: ‘He came from nothing. He conquered everything’. Neither of these things are true, says Napoleon historian Zack White.

Much is made, both in real-life British propaganda and in the film, of Napoleon being a ‘Corsican ruffian’; a man with a funny way of talking and lacking in refinement.

“Napoleon came from minor nobility on the island of Corsica,” says White. “That meant that he was not a mover and shaker in social society in France before the French Revolution.”

Nonetheless, being of the nobility – however minor – gave Napoleon a crucial leg up. “It meant that he was a somebody, and particularly importantly, it meant his father could send him to military academy to be educated in France,” says White.

“In practical terms, what that meant was that Napoleon had a head start. He had a career that was gifted to him as part of the efforts of the French King to ingratiate the minor nobility and build a section of society that was indebted to the king.”

What happened at the siege of Toulon?

“The idea that Napoleon led the siege of Toulon is something that sees Ridley Scott play on Napoleonic myth – but like all good myths, it has a very significant kernel of truth behind it,” says White.

Toulon, a port city on the French Riviera, had turned against the revolution in favour of the monarchy, and invited the British to take control of the French fleet that was moored there.

“Napoleon always had an eye for terrain, and it didn't take him long to do two significant things. The first was to reorganise the artillery, which he did with staggering speed and the energy that would be so typical of much of his career. But he also managed to identify a key weak spot in the British defences.”

The weak spot was one particular redoubt which, if captured, could dominate the inner harbour. Take the redoubt, and the British position would become untenable. And that is exactly what Napoleon did.

“Napoleon was somebody who, at this point, was inclined to get hands-on, and so he personally led one of the attacks on this redoubt and was wounded in the thigh. Had the bayonet gone a few inches in the opposite direction, Napoleon may very well have died.”

Did Napoleon fire into a crowd during the Vendémiaire Uprising?

When the Napoleon of Ridley Scott’s film agrees to quell the Vendémiaire Uprising – a royalist revolt on the street of Paris in October 1795 – it’s on the condition that it is done his way.

What we then see is a crowd shuffling towards Napoleon’s artillery, which stands between them and the government buildings; a stone-faced Napoleon signals his men to fire straight into them, a moment that has become known as the ‘whiff of grapeshot’.

“The way in which the Vendémiaire Uprising is portrayed in the film is interesting,” says White. “You're having to look at [Napoleon’s] actions and decide whether or not you actually feel okay with that.”

There is a cautionary note to this tale. “It's often said that this was predominantly a crowd of women and children, and that isn't entirely fair. There were a lot of armed royalists – if not trained professional soldiers, certainly a well-armed militia – that were willing to engage in this fight.

“The nature of grapeshot is that it is very effective as an anti-personnel weapon. It does effectively clear the streets, and Napoleon gets rewarded for that.

“It's because of this incident that he's then appointed as commander of the army in Italy, so this whole episode is seen as really key to Napoleon's rise to power.”

What was the nature of Napoleon and Joséphine’s relationship?

Joséphine du Beauharnais cuts a powerful figure throughout the movie, fulfilling a vital role for the tactically brilliant but socially inept Napoleon. But their relationship is fiery, a love story stacked atop neediness, infidelity, and manipulations.

They met in 1795; she was a widower, six years older than Napoleon, and at that time the mistress of Directory member Paul Barras.

“Is my life about to change?” the Joséphine of the film quips. For Napoleon it certainly did.

Vanessa Kirby as Joséphine and Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon
Vanessa Kirby as Joséphine and Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon in Ridley Scott's epic film. (Image by Apple Original Films)

“While the young general was completely besotted, sending her love letter after love letter, Joséphine remained ambivalent,” says historian Laura O’Brien of the real Napoleon. “She eventually agreed to marry him, recognising that he was on the rise and that he might provide security and protection.”

These love letters, notes White, were so agonizingly intense and naïve that they “give an indication of his immaturity when it came to questions of love”.

Yet in many respects, White adds, Joséphine was Napoleon’s rock.

“For all that there were issues with the relationship, and for all the insecurity and infidelity time and again on both sides, there was a really key role that Joséphine could play.

“She was a hugely intelligent, very adept, very shrewd and also very beautiful woman, and she was able to use her many charms in order to help ingratiate herself with people by becoming Empress of France. She was able to move in certain circles and create soft levels of influence.”

She also had more than purely a ceremonial role, White notes, something that viewers won’t see in the film. “When Napoleon went off to invade Russia in 1812, he fundamentally left Joséphine in charge. She was the one who had to sign off on the edicts of the French government.”

Even after their annulment, she remained his lifelong confidant.

Did Napoleon fire on the pyramids?

Fought in 1798 during the Egypt campaign, the Battle of the pyramids was such a shock to the Mamluks that they subsequently abandoned Cairo, allowing Napoleon to enter the city almost unopposed.

Napoleon shows Bonaparte drawing his battle lines under the proverbial shadow of the Great Pyramid of Giza – which he then directly fires upon, sending portions of rock raining down on the Mamluk cavalry.

Joaquin Phoenix's Napoleon during the Egypt campaign
Napoleon's 1798 Battle of the pyramids was such a shock to the Mamluks that they subsequently abandoned Cairo. (Image by Apple Original Films)

That didn’t happen – the pyramids were within view, but no closer.

“The battle itself takes place about seven miles away from the pyramids themselves,” says White, “well outside effective artillery range for the period”.

Some viewers may be disappointed to learn that Napoleon didn’t shoot the nose off the Sphinx, either.

Was Napoleon short?

After the Battle of the pyramids, Napoleon’s men open a pharaoh’s sarcophagus and – wishing to stand face-to-face with the mummy within – he is forced to stand on a box so he can stare into its wizened visage.

It’s a throwaway moment that plays on the age old (some might say tired, others Gillray-esque) joke that the real Bonaparte was shorter than the average fellow.

“It taps into that myth that Napoleon was 5’ 2” and had the so-called ‘Napoleon complex’ as a result,” says White.

“In terms of standard measure – because different nations used different lengths of measurement at this time – Napoleon was a little bit over 5’ 6”, which made him just above the average height of the standard French infantryman during the battle of Waterloo.”

Did Napoleon really crown himself?

At his coronation as Emperor of the French in December 1804, Ridley Scott’s Napoleon shows Bonaparte snatching up the crown and placing it atop his own head, drawing stifled gasps from the onlooking throng.

But did he really do it? You bet he did.

Joaquin Phoenix's Napoleon crowns Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby) as his empress
Joaquin Phoenix's Napoleon crowns Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby) as his empress. (Image by Apple Original Films)

“It's portrayed as a hugely controversial move because it was a hugely controversial move,” says White. “Napoleon knew how to make a statement, and the crowning of himself was the epitome of that kind of statement because the Pope was in attendance.

“He is almost slapping the Pope in the face by saying: ‘You are not the most significant person in the room. My authority is greater because I'm the representative of the French people.’”

Did Napoleon believe himself to be equivalent to Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar?

Certainly, Napoleon likens himself to both Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar in the film, and the real-life Napoleon insisted that neoclassical sculptor Antonia Canova craft a heroic nude of himself as the Roman god Mars.

But unpicking how Napoleon feels about himself and his own place in history is complicated, says White, because Napoleon was a master propagandist.battle of Austerlitz

“He was certainly inclined to position himself as somebody on a par with Alexander or Caesar,” says White. And after his second exile to St Helena, and he was able to cast himself in the guise of such men by having the luxury of telling his own story.

“Despite being the loser, Napoleon is the exception to the rule that history is written by the winners,” says White, “because he was able to dictate [his memoirs] at length, to ruminate and to cast blame and aspersions on those who failed him.”

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Did Napoleon’s mother force him to have an affair?

A surprise presence, absent from any of the publicity, is Napoleon’s mother Letizia Bonaparte.

In Ridley Scott’s film, the inference is that Napoleon retains a strong deference to his mother even after he becomes emperor, alongside a faintly Oedipal whiff that he sees his mother in Joséphine.

But their standout interaction comes when Letizia cajoles a bashful Napoleon into having a one-night stand – already waiting in bed for him at the other end of the corridor – to ‘settle’ the issue of whether his lack of an heir is down to him or Joséphine once and for all.

Did it happen? The bedding incident is most likely a fabrication, and even in the film Napoleon admits to having already had affairs long before this incident. In real-life, these affairs had already resulted in illegitimate offspring.

What is true, writes historian Laura O’Brien, is that the Bonapartes “loathed the ‘old woman’ [as they referred to Joséphine] they felt had stolen him from the clan” and did actively try to turn Napoleon’s eye to other likely prospects – though this tended to be the machinations of his siblings, not his mother.

Did thousands drown at the battle of Austerlitz?

One of Napoleon’s greatest victories is also the scene of one of his greatest myths. The battle of Austerlitz, fought in 1805 against the combined forces of Russian tsar Alexander I and Austrian emperor Francis I, cemented Napoleon’s reputation as a military genius.

Ridley Scott’s film cleaves to popular myth: that Napoleon funnels the Austro-Russian army onto an iced-over lake, something they only realise when the cannonballs start raining down. Thousands drown in what can only be described as a chilling demise.

The trouble is, there was no great lake – only a handful of fishing ponds. “Napoleon knew how many men had been killed in this manner because he ordered them to be drained himself,” says White. “The French found plenty of wagons and plenty of horses in those lakes, and only found two bodies.”

The real Napoleon never intended to trap the Austrian and Russian army on a lake, but this is where the propagandist re-emerges.

“He seized upon that opportunity of a PR and propaganda coup to make it look as though that had always been part of the plan,” says White. “That he was suckering the enemy into being exactly in the position where he wanted them to in order to make them all die in a particularly grizzly and horrendous way.”

Did Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington meet?

The 1815 battle of Waterloo is among the defining moments of the Napoleonic Wars, marking both Napoleon’s final defeat and the last battles of both Napoleon and his British nemesis, the Duke of Wellington.

Wellington and Napoleon are often – both in Ridley Scott’s Napoleon and elsewhere – portrayed as the best of enemies, and here they come face-to-face aboard the HMS Bellerophon shortly before Napoleon is packed off to St Helena.

But it is a meeting that never happened. Nor did it happen anywhere else.

“The reality is that Wellington was a reasonably subsidiary and insignificant figure until much later in the Napoleonic Wars; it's only with his success in Spain and Portugal that Wellington rises to a position where he is respected across Europe.”

“They never came close to meeting. The nearest they ever got, and in fact, the only time they ever fought one another was at the battle of Waterloo,” says White. “In the closing stages they come within about half a mile of one another.”

What happened to Napoleon’s second wife, Marie-Louise of Austria?

Joséphine. Joséphine. Joséphine. In the film she rides roughshod through Napoleon’s mind, even after their marriage is annulled, and it is to her his mind turns as he dies. What then of the woman he sets Joséphine aside for, the Habsburg archduchess Marie-Louise?

In both the film and real-life, Napoleon’s quest for an heir prompts him to seek the hand of another. “There could have been no more desirable marriage candidate,” says historian Deborah Jay of Marie-Louise. “She was related to practically every ruling dynasty in Europe.”

Marie-Louise would both bear Napoleon the son he craved and become his loyal devotee, siding with France even after her father allied with Russia against her husband.

“By March 1814, Marie-Louise stood alone as regent of France, forced to decide whether she should confront her father and his allies – who were poised to march on Paris – or flee to Loire Valley, Centre-Val de Loire, as urged by her husband’s cowardly ministers. Her courage and heroism could not help her.

“Separated from Napoleon, she and her son were forced to return to Vienna as refugees,” writes Jay. “After a hard campaign, Marie-Louise was finally granted the duchies of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla promised her by the allies to secure her husband’s first abdication.”

She set out for Parma in 1816, though her time as duchess would be a precarious one.

How did Napoleon die?

In the film, Napoleon gently keels over in exile on St Helena, after dispensing a final bit of propaganda about who burned down Moscow in 1812 after the battle of Borodino (it wasn’t Napoleon; the Russians did it themselves), but the fate of the emperor might be murkier.

“The day after his death in British custody on 5 May 1821, 16 observers attended the autopsy, seven doctors among them,” writes Siân Rees, author of The Many Deaths of Napoleon Bonaparte. “They were unanimous in their conclusion: Napoleon had died of stomach cancer.”

That has not stopped the doubts and theories that the French emperor might have met an early end – either at the behest of the British or his French rivals – or indeed that Napoleon never arrived on St Helena at all.


Napoleon release date: how to watch the movie

Napoleon arrives in UK and US cinemas on 22 November 2023 in conjunction with Sony Pictures Releasing, before streaming on Apple TV+ at a later date.


Kev LochunDeputy Digital Editor, HistoryExtra

Kev Lochun is Deputy Digital Editor of HistoryExtra.com and previously Deputy Editor of BBC History Revealed. As well as commissioning content from expert historians, he can also be found interviewing them on the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast.