Ridley Scott’s biopic Napoleon, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the famous French emperor, has landed in cinemas.


The film charts Napoleon’s rise to fame during the French Revolution, dissects his volatile marriage to Empress Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby), and depicts his most famed military battles, including his epic defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

Napoleon is a work of historical fiction, and Scott has made clear he’s not worried about minor historical inaccuracies, arguing in a New Yorker profile piece that those worried about nitpicking should "get a life".

But even if sticking to events exactly as they happened wasn't Scott's primary concern, some viewers may be curious to know just how much this account of the Corsican military commander's life differs from reality – which aspects were embellished and invented?

Read on to find out just how closely the film resembles his true rise and fall – and where the greatest exaggerations lie.

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Napoleon true story: What is fact and fiction in the historical epic?

The simple answer to this question is that, while the film does offer a broadly truthful overview of Napoleon's life, a great degree of artistic license has been taken at almost every stage of the process.

This is clear from the very beginning: the film opens with Napoleon watching on as Marie Antoinette is beheaded, but there is no evidence to suggest he was actually present during this highly significant historical event.

In actual fact, Napoleon was playing a key role at the Siege of Toulon at the time – another event which is dramatised in the film – and so it would have been impossible for him to be in two places at once.

This loose approach to events is taken for much of the film: For example, the scenes in which Napoleon and his men fire at the Pyramids is an invention, the tactic he deploys of luring enemy soldiers onto a frozen lake during the Battle of Austerlitz is largely believed to be based on myth and his face-to-face meeting with the Duke of Wellington is a fabrication.

The film also plays fast and loose with Napoleon's role on the battlefield. While it is undisputed that he was a highly skilled commander and military innovator, he never actually led a cavalry charge as is shown in the film.

As for the precise nature of his personal life and relationship with Joséphine, there's a certain degree to which this will always be a matter of speculation.

While there are several surviving letters detailing the couple's correspondence, and we know some facts about their adultery and inability to conceive, the private nature of their relationship means we can never know for sure what happened behind closed doors - or what their true feelings were towards each other.

But what we do know is that – as is shown in the film – his last words really were: "France, the army, head of the army, Joséphine." And so it is very much apparent that even after their marriage had ended and she had passed away, Joséphine had continued to play a crucial role in his life.

All this considered, Napoleon should be seen not as a historical document but as a fictionalised epic that takes many real events and spins them into an alluring and entertaining cinematic spectacle.

Napoleon is now showing in UK cinemas and comes to Apple TV+ at a later date. Start your seven-day Apple TV+ free trial.

Check out more of our Film coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to find out what's on.


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