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How Ridley Scott’s Napoleon Stacks Up Against the French Emperor’s Real Story

10 minute read

Ridley Scott’s biopic Napoleon, in which Joaquin Phoenix plays the French emperor, hits theaters on Nov. 22. The film tracks Napoleon’s rise to fame during the French Revolution, delves deep into his lifelong love for his wife Josephine, and depicts his most famous military battles, culminating in his epic defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

The movie is a work of historical fiction, but Scott’s team worked to ensure that at least some details are historically accurate. Michael Broers, an author of several books on Napoleon who attended script meetings for the film, spoke to TIME about what the movie gets right and wrong about the legendary leader and debunks some of the most common misconceptions about him. 

Below, Broers gives the inside scoop on the conversations with Scott about the scene in which Napoleon shoots down the Pyramids, opens up about the one part of the movie he most objects to, and breaks down the accuracy of the “Napoleon complex.”

TIME: You say there wasn't much in the film that was made up. What are the parts that are not quite how it happened in history?

Broers: There were some things where Scott had to kind of play fast and loose with chronology, but it made it much easier for viewers to follow. For example, he had the divorce happen before the meeting with Tsar Alexander, whereas in fact, that happened a few years afterwards. But I don't think most people are going to worry about that.

And obviously the shooting off the top of the pyramid [during a 1798 invasion of Egypt]. Nothing like that happened. But it was quite funny. When we were talking about it, and Scott said that was going to happen, some of us sort of looked at each other and said, “You know what, hang on a minute.” But he turned to me and said, “When I told you we were going to shoot off the top of the pyramid, you laughed, didn’t you?” And I said, “Well, yes.” He said, “It’s staying in then.”

How accurate was the movie’s portrayal of his marriage to Josephine?

After watching the Director's Cut, Scott asked me, “Is there anything you violently object to?” And I said it’s the bit during the divorce scene, where Napoleon slaps Josephine. It did not happen. Secondly, it's out of character. He would never do a thing like that.

Another thing that was inaccurate is when Ridley has Josephine saying to Napoleon, “You're going to have to divorce me. I can never have a child.” She never did anything like that. She did not want to be divorced. She knew what was coming, but that's a different thing. She was frightened of it.

What was Napoleon’s relationship with Josephine really like?

He was really, really in love with her. He was completely besotted by her. He never felt like this about anybody.  She was desperate to be pregnant because she knew herself that's what her position depended on. And he was desperate for her to get pregnant because he didn't want a divorce, he loved her. But then she could not conceive.

She attaches herself to powerful men, and when she sees that somebody is slipping, she will look for the coming man. When Napoleon is defeated in 1814 and sent to Elba, Josephine is trying to ingratiate herself with Tsar Alexander and become his mistress. She actually dies because she's wearing a very skimpy dress on a very cold day when she invites him to tea and gets something like pneumonia. 

When a British historian Dan Snow broke down the inaccuracies in the trailer on social media, Ridley Scott said “get a life.” What’s your reaction to his reaction?

I agree with Ridley Scott.  There's a difference between the documentary and the movie. You want to be entertained with a movie. 

What are the best known milestones in Napoleon’s career?

If you're an ardent Napoleon fan, if you're French, you would choose one of three things: His victory over the Russians and Austrians in Austerlitz, which was probably the greatest single battlefield victory in European history ever; his creation of the Civil Code, which forms the basis of the law in over 40 countries—particularly the code of procedure like how you conduct a trial, how you buy and sell a house, how you get divorced. Or, on the other hand, you might choose the way he responded to his exile in St. Helena, by dictating his memoirs and completely winning over a new generation. When he was at his absolute lowest, he found a way to fight back.

If you're anti-Napoleon, say, if you're British, you would look at the way his navy was defeated by Nelson at Trafalgar, his failure to invade Britain, and the way his empire collapsed very quickly after the Russian campaign. He wasn't very good at making peace.  He wasn't good at keeping the terms of peace treaties, and that really led to his undoing. It was a personal failure. 

Why was Britain at odds with France during Napoleon’s career?

It’s a geopolitical rivalry that goes back at least 100 years before the film, before the French Revolution. Britain and France were the two rising powers in Western Europe. Britain always had the edge in terms of its maritime strength and financial strength. It was much more modern and sophisticated than France. France had a huge population, massive potential resources and they were competing in the new world. The British themselves were terrified by the French Revolution, that it might happen here. Therefore, they saw Napoleon as an extension of the French Revolution.

Was Napoleon popular? How did Napoleon become a household name?

Napoleon's popularity among the French during his own reign is vastly overestimated. Most ordinary French people hated Napoleon because that meant taxation and conscription. But he developed a powerful following among a generation of educated young people. France, under Napoleon, was a European empire, ruling large parts of Italy, Germany, low countries. Young educated men and their wives or their girlfriends saw tremendous job opportunities that they would never have had otherwise. After Napoleon's fall, he developed a tremendous popular following among people in France when the memories of war start to fade. Young generations who have never seen what they think of as glory feel cheated of it.

He had a tremendous propaganda machine himself. He made sure that his image was everywhere, that there were cheap wood cuts of him and all his glorious battles. He was a great one for getting on his horse and going out and touring the country when he had time.

How good a military leader was Napoleon?

He was an exceptional leader of men. There's no question about it. The guy had charisma, the guy could inspire loyalty in his soldiers. He operated best in Western and Central Europe, with good infrastructure and communications, where his troops could live off the land. When he got out of that environment—into Egypt, Spain, Russia—he didn't know how to handle it. And he did not perform well.

What’s the significance of the Battle of Waterloo?

I don't think there was any way that Napoleon could have come out of that campaign victorious. He might have won the Battle of Waterloo itself, but there was no way he was going to win that war. He had to throw everything he had at the British and Prussians in that campaign because his military resources were greatly reduced. 

But there's another significance to Waterloo: the French see it as a glorious defeat and so do a lot of Romantic writers all over Europe. Even in Britain, young people like Walter Scott see Napoleon as the romantic hero who had given it one last shot. The exile to St Helena kind of martyred him and the myth grows from that this is a special guy, it was a glorious defeat. In Britain, we talk a lot about the Dunkirk spirit, that we were driven into the sea, but somehow it didn't matter because it was glorious, we got out of it. Waterloo was the French version of Dunkirk. Waterloo was the last throw of the dice, going down with guns blazing.

When people think of Napoleon, perhaps their first thought is of a leader who was really insecure about his height. Is that the correct reputation and is there any truth to that or not?

We think he was somewhere between five foot five and five foot seven. That's about average, slightly taller than average for people at the time. But he was smaller than Josephine by a good way. He rode a small horse most of the time to make himself look bigger because they were bigger than him. But I don't think he had a particular complex about it most of the time.

A lot of these things about Napoleon being small and having a complex about it were developed by the British cartoonist James Gillray who's a genius and he did a series of Napoleon cartoons very early in his rise to power that show him that way, as this little guy, always being picked on.

What’s “the Napoleon complex,” and how historically accurate is it?

A little man who's determined to be the boss, in a nutshell. There’s the myth that he was small and bullied at school. Napoleon got on very well at boarding school. He starts off in the world before the Revolution, when it's very hard for someone who isn't well-connected to make the most of themselves. And that's what drives him. The fact that he looks around and he thinks, I can do that better than anybody else.

I don't think he was ever worried about being small or being picked on, but there is an element in him that really does not know when to stop. Sometimes it's driven by fear. He was insecure about a lot of things, about the position of France in the world.

As an expert on Napoleon, what’s the biggest myth or misconception on the ruler that you find yourself debunking or setting the record straight on?

There is a misconception of him that he was a misogynist. He was nothing of the kind. He was a tremendous advocate of female education. He made sure his own sisters got a good education very much against the odds. He set up three girls' academies, and he had plans for five more that were going to give girls the same education as boys. He felt that the young women who were going to marry his generals, his ambassadors, his ministers had to be as well educated as their husbands. He gave his two capable sisters incredibly responsible roles as rulers in Italy, and always said that his preferred successor would be Josephine's daughter by her first husband.

Why is Napoleon important in history?

Napoleon is a guy who comes from a very remote part of his country, and by his own efforts, and through good luck and good fortune, he became the emperor of the West. There's never been anyone before like Napoleon in the Western world. The closest person would be Alexander Hamilton—and Hamilton never got to be president. The Founding Fathers—with the exception of Hamilton—were all really well established in the local elite. Never mind countries that never had a revolution. And here is this guy. And he sets an example for the future.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com