fb-pixelRidley Scott's ‘Napoleon’ isn’t accurate, but does it really matter? Skip to main content
OPINION

‘Napoleon’ isn’t accurate? Excuse me, mate, were you there?

Though, yes, there is a howler or two.

British and US movie director Ridley Scott posed for a photo-call of the movie Napoleon, in Madrid, on Nov. 20.OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP via Getty Images

Historians have been crawling out from under their toadstools to trash Ridley Scott’s sweeping new biopic, “Napoleon.” Apparently the storied director of “Alien: Covenant” and “The Martian” has allowed a few historical boo-boos to besmirch his “true” tale of the Little Corporal from Corsica, as Napoleon’s enemies called him.

Yes, there is a howler or two. Megastar Joaquin Phoenix is considerably taller than “Little Boney,” who, it has been speculated (see: “Napoleon complex”), may have conquered most of Europe and beyond because he was sensitive about his height. Furthermore, director Scott places Napoleon at the beheading of the French queen Marie Antoinette, when in fact he was laying siege to Toulon, about 500 miles away.

Advertisement



In the movie, Napoleon trains his cannon on the Egyptian pyramids, which A) never happened and B) is a glaring lapse, since Napoleon was an Egyptologist avant la lettre who drafted 150 scholars to accompany his invasion force, resulting in numerous important linguistic and archaeological discoveries.

British critics seem to like “Napoleon” — The London Times called it “a spectacular historical epic” — and Scott reserved a few choice words for the spitballers from the faculty lounge. He rationalized the shelling of the pyramids because “it was a fast way of saying [Napoleon] took Egypt.” His standard reply to the historians has become: “Excuse me, mate, were you there? No? Well, shut the [bad word expunged here] up then.’”

We’ve seen this movie before. Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film, “Lincoln,” took a few liberties with the historical record. For example, no one knows if radical anti-slavery Representative Thaddeus Stevens slept with his African American housekeeper, but Tommy Lee Jones as Stevens and S. Epatha Merkerson as Lydia Smith are depicted as lovers in the movie.

This kind of thing used to concern me, and now it doesn’t. I suspect that most high school students’ knowledge of Abraham Lincoln will derive from the Spielberg movie that teachers will offer up instead of textbooks, and that’s fine with me. A 90 percent accurate portrait of Lincoln more than suffices, and Spielberg’s narrative talent, backstopped by the co-credited writers Tony Kushner and Doris Kearns Goodwin, is such that his movie has probably awakened tens of thousands of viewers to the depth and richness of the Lincoln story.

Advertisement



Who knows? Curious students might even pick up a book, such as Goodwin’s eminently readable “Team of Rivals,” or Fawn Brodie’s famous biography, “Thaddeus Stevens: Scourge of the South.” If a trip to the cineplex is the gateway drug to further knowledge, then by all means blast away at the pyramids!

There is a certain supercilious vanity to claiming knowledge about what “really” happened hundreds of years ago. I often row past the Norumbega Tower on the Charles River in Weston, which purports to memorialize a Norse village, “Norvega,” established a thousand years ago. You may have seen the equally fanciful Leif Erikson plaque near Mt. Auburn Hospital, where the legendary explorer supposedly built a home.

This was once considered history. Now it’s considered nonsense.

I remember sitting in a lecture hall in 1977 when a Stanford professor explained that we know three things about Jesus Christ: the dates of his birth and his death, recorded by the Romans, and the fact than an eclipse occurred around the time of his crucifixion, because astronomers can date eclipses precisely.

Advertisement



And the rest of the story? The loaves, the fishes, the walking on water, well, we weren’t there, were we, mate? Maybe those will be scenes in Ridley Scott’s next megapic. Then the bishops and the theologians can unload on him, as he snickers on his way to the bank.


Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.