By Vince DiFonzo, Opinions Editor & Lead Copy Editor
The award-winning Sir Ridley Scott, known for directing classics including “Gladiator” and “Alien,” most recently directed a historical epic depicting the life of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Napoleon Bonaparte is a figure that needs no introduction. The French emperor took the European order by surprise in the early nineteenth century, conquering much of the continent and establishing an empire. Historians have debated the intricacies of Napoleon’s personality for centuries, but the figure depicted in Scott’s film, according to many critics, mischaracterized this.
From manipulating facts of Napoleon’s relationship with his wife Josephine to creating fictional events that never occurred, Scott took a plethora of creative liberties that at best exaggerate the truth, and at worst distort historical truth.
Critics of Scott’s newest release, simply titled “Napoleon,” are quick to point to the historical inaccuracies littered throughout the movie. Historian Dan Snow picked out inaccuracies spotted in the trailer on TikTok back in July.
Instead of acknowledging criticism, Scott actively dismisses all opposing voices, including from historians. When asked in an interview to respond to historians who are critical of the movie, Scott suggested the fact-checkers “get a life.” Further, he stated “When I have issues with historians, I ask: ‘Excuse me, mate, were you there? No? Well, shut the [expletive] up, then.’”
No, no living historian personally met Napoleon Bonaparte. But they have extensively studied accounts of his life, primary sources from the time, his own writings, personal accounts of his character from those who knew him and much more. Historians know what they are talking about and should not be dismissed when making historical content. When filmmakers like Ridley Scott ignore historians when creating historical material, they are acting both lazily towards their work and irresponsibly towards history. This creates a significantly worse final product.
While Scott’s main goal is not to educate, but to entertain, it is vital that media about historical events and figures is faithful to history. Scott should have consulted with and actively listened to experts on the French Revolution, the life of Napoleon and the Napoleonic Wars throughout the filmmaking process. The real life of Napoleon was more than dramatic enough—why mischaracterize, exaggerate and even fabricate for dramatic effect?
I don’t believe that every historical movie needs to be completely accurate in every small detail. What is important is that the history is characterized accurately, and that historians are consulted and followed in the writing and filming processes. It’s okay if, for example, an actor is a few years too old to play a certain historical figure, or if characters speak English while depicting people that would have never spoken a word of the language. However, when films completely fabricate events, mischaracterize people, their personalities and their actions and fail to consult historians, they are actively lying to their audience.
Many other historical films are riddled with historical inaccuracies that misrepresent historical events and leave the viewer with a false impression of the past. “Apocalypto” is a 2005 Mel Gibson film that greatly confuses Mayan and Aztec cultures and depicts Mayans as bloodthirsty savages. Gibson’s “Braveheart,” which won an Academy Award and was widely praised by audiences, intentionally portrays William Wallace as a larger-than-life hero rather than the real person he was. It is also filled with inaccuracies that can only be described as lazy, such as a very incorrect timeline.
“The Patriot,” once again starring my favorite filmmaker Mel Gibson, is another movie that gets the story completely wrong. This American Revolutionary War film characterizes every British character as comically evil. Viewers get the impression that the Americans were freedom-fighting patriots, while the British were the bad guys with no real motivation. This is not how history should be done.
Luckily, many films get the history right. When the experts are consulted, filmmakers create better movies that entertain audiences while also leaving them with a better sense of the past.
Ronald Maxwell’s “Gettysburg,” released in 1993, is a prime example of an accurate film that remains faithful to the history. The film has been praised for its objective, accurate depiction of the battle. Actors accurately characterize most important figures, while the movie was also filmed on-location here in Gettysburg. “Gettysburg” is an example of how history can be portrayed right when filmmakers make the effort.
“12 Years a Slave,” released in 2013, is another example of historical film done right. Historians were actively consulted throughout the writing and filming processes. On release, this led to praise from other historians, one of which commented that she’d “never seen a film represent slavery so accurately.”
Other incredible historical movies I recommend that are faithful to the history include “Master & Commander,” “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.”
Filmmakers are obligated to stay true to the history when they choose historical subjects. In “Napoleon,” Ridley Scott clearly failed to consult and listen to the proper historians, and this reflects heavily in the final product, despite his explosive dismissal of critics who actually care about history.