Ridley’s Scott’s Napoleon trailer: a historian reacts
Napoleonic historian Dr Zack White reacts to the real (and not so real) history in Ridley Scott’s Napoleon trailer, and why it could the story Napoleon himself might have wanted to tell
Please note: this is a transcript of the video above that has been lightly edited for clarity
One of things that has caught the public eye when it comes to the Ridley Scott’s trailer for Napoleon is the visual depictions, the intensity with which this film pops off the screen.
There have been some complaints about particular issues with specific uniforms, but for me, as a historian of the period, I'm okay with the occasional inconsistency when so much time has gone into trying to reflect the broader feel of the period.
The mood of this film feels very accurate. Take Napoleon's arrogance in the closing stages of that trailer: “I'm the first to acknowledge when I make a mistake, I simply never do.” That is so reflective of the acute narcissism that was typical of Napoleon.
Then there is Josephine de Beauhernais. The trailer shows Josephine's disinterest in Napoleon, and their power dynamic. She was not enamoured with Napoleon; he was more in love with her than she was with him.
In actual fact, Josephine sort of gets prodded into marriage with Napoleon. She had previously been the mistress of Paul Barras, who was a significant figure within French government during this period, and Napoleon was Barras’s protégé.
It's a curious little love triangle. Barras picked up a new mistress, decided that he was no longer going to support Josephine, and basically pushed the two of them together. You see that initial disinterest, and that Josephine is not swept off her feet by Napoleon.
She knows that she is as much somebody in that relationship who wears the trousers as Napoleon is. There's a beautiful line from her in the trailer: “You are nothing without me.” That is really reflective of the power dynamic within that relationship.
What kind of man is Napoleon?
What's also curious is that we are forced to confront some difficult moral questions in this trailer. A key example of this is the ‘whiff of grape shot’ scene.
It’s a surprise that this scene is in the trailer, because the historical advisors to this film are some of the best historians of the Napoleonic era, and they will be all too familiar with the fact that actually Napoleon is not as integral to the defeat of the Vendémiaire uprising as Napoleon would have us believe.
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Nonetheless, here the whiff of grape shot is effectively cast as a moment upon which Napoleon orders his artillery to fire upon a crowd to force them to disperse. Now, in reality, this uprising consisted not of women and children, which is what we're seeing in the trailer, but instead of an armed uprising full of royalist sympathisers.
Here we are forced to consider: are we okay with the fact that Napoleon is the sort of person who will fire on women and children if he feels that the circumstances merit it?
Is this Napoleon as he wished to be seen?
This leads us into areas of concern, in the sense of, is Ridley effectively going to tell the version of Napoleon's story that Napoleon himself would want to tell?
Napoleon is the classic exception to the rule that history is written by the winners. Because he spends years in exile on St Helena before his death in 1821, he has the time to dictate his memoirs, dictate his version of history, which has become embedded in the popular perception.
The whiff of grape shot is a key example of that. So too is Austerlitz, not least because a large chunk of the last 30 seconds of the trailer is the supposedly famous incident of the ‘breaking of the ice’, this idea that Napoleon fires on these frozen lakes as his enemies are retreating, and thousands fall through the ice to drown.
Napoleon claims that between 200 and 2,000 people died in that manner at different points. Now in reality, those lakes were in fact ponds, and they were drained shortly after the battle, and only two or three bodies were found.
So what we have there is a Napoleonic myth being put into film. A similar problem arises with the Brumaire coup – the point in which he takes power in 1799.
Napoleon's propaganda machine positions him as the lynchpin of this operation. In actual fact, his speeches, his attempts to disperse the assembly fail, and it's his brother who then calls in the grenadiers positioned outside and clears the chamber, therefore leaving Napoleon de facto in control along with two other consuls.
So there are certain things that are wrong with this trailer that historically are inaccurate, but even as a historian, I'm prepared to accept, partly because we have to acknowledge this is Hollywood. This film is meant to be entertainment above anything else.
It is not a historical documentary, and therefore it's never going to be 100 per cent historically accurate. So Napoleon was not at Marie Antoinette's execution. That scene is being used as a way of demonstrating Napoleon's disdain and almost fear for the mob.
The battle of the Pyramids was actually fought nine miles from the pyramids, so there was no shelling of the Great Pyramid of Giza, but at least we're not being shown Napoleon shooting the nose off the Sphinx, which is another one of those nonsense myths.
The only real concern that I have is about those who won't dig beyond the trailer, because it's important that people don't treat this film as a piece of history. This is not going to be one of those films that you can walk out of and go, ‘that's exactly how it was 200 years ago’. It won't be.
We do have also an indication that some of Napoleon's enemies may have been painted up as almost pantomime villains.
It's very striking that Rupert Everett, as the Duke of Wellington, decries Napoleon's egotism and lack of good manners, as if the big concern for the varying nations of Europe during this period was that Napoleon didn't know which knife to use when the fish course was served at dinner.
I think what we're going to get is a warts and all, deep-dive depiction and appreciation of Napoleon's character, and that excites me.I just hope that his enemies will be shown with an equal depth and attention to detail.
Dr Zack White is a military historian and author specialising in the British Army in the early 19th century
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