Historical fiction, whether written or filmed, has more than a little in common with the art of translation. Like a translation, it can never be entirely faithful to the original source material. In both cases, artistic license is a necessity, not an option. But the nature and extent of the artistic license can vary enormously. There are translations that cleave as closely as possible to the form, the content, and even the sound of the original. At the other end of the spectrum, there are works like Ezra Pound’s Cathay poems: highly loose versions of Chinese verse that he wrote without any knowledge of Chinese, using the notes of the American Orientalist Ernest Fenollosa.
Of course, historical fiction requires a greater degree of artistic license than translations do. Unlike translators, its creators have to select which elements of the source material to use, determine how to arrange them, and offer an interpretation (much like historians themselves). But there is also pressure to remain faithful, for the same reasons that translators want to remain faithful. The most obvious is the appeal of the source material. Real events and personalities are often more gripping and wondrous and strange than those in works of fiction. The further artists move away from them into worlds of their own invention, the greater the danger that they will slide into banality and mediocrity, just as translators risk cheapening profound originals by moving too far away from them. (Not every translator is Ezra Pound.)
In addition, the constraint of having to stay reasonably faithful to the historical record provides challenges that can drive artists to greater achievement. When Shakespeare wrote Henry V he took considerable artistic license, but he did not shy away from the real Henry’s less admirable traits and actions, such as his order to kill French prisoners at Agincourt. The result was to deepen and render more complex a character who might otherwise have remained a patriotic cipher and cliché. Remaining faithful to history forces artists to confront attitudes and behavior that they may find alien and repellent, and to make them believable. And it assures audiences that these things are not just the product of a warped artistic imagination: they really happened.
When it comes to historical films and fidelity to the source material, two World War II movies from the past twenty years mark the opposite ends of the spectrum. Quentin Tarantino’s revenge fantasy Inglourious Basterds (2009) treated the history of Nazi-occupied France in the loosest way possible, with virtually no concern for verisimilitude: this is a film in which Jews successfully assassinate Adolf Hitler. History essentially provided a stock of cartoonish stories and images for the director to riff on with his trademark mixture of sadism, gore, and black comedy. The film ultimately disappointed, not because of its inaccuracies but because the style had grown stale since Pulp Fiction.
By contrast, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (2004), about the last days of the Third Reich, paid meticulous attention to historical detail, especially in Bruno Ganz’s spookily realistic depiction of Hitler. By deliberately not reducing the German dictator to a cartoon, by portraying him as fully human, Downfall stirred up no small measure of controversy. But precisely because of his fidelity to the source material, Hirschbiegel forced audiences to confront the fact that a creature of flesh and blood and emotion could unleash the nearly unbelievable horrors that finally crashed back down on Germany, with doomed children shooting at Soviet tanks in the streets of Berlin.
Ridley Scott, one of the most prominent film directors at work today, is not a man with much apparent concern for historical accuracy, despite his predilection for history as a subject (The Duellists, 1492, Kingdom of Heaven, The Last Duel). “When I have issues with historians,” he said in a recent interview, “I ask: ‘Excuse me, mate, were you there? No? Well, shut the fuck up then.’” When criticized on social media for inaccuracies in the trailer of his new film, Napoleon, he cracked, “Get a life.”
In the past, this attitude has served Scott well. Gladiator, the most popular and successful of his historical films (although not in the same league as his superb Blade Runner), played fast and loose with the history of the Roman Empire, to the delight of audiences. Legionaries fired what looked like gasoline bombs at hordes of hostile Germans. Gladiators routinely fought to the death. (Historically they didn’t.) And just as in Inglourious Basterds, history was altered so that a dictatorial villain—in this case the Roman emperor Commodus, played by Joaquin Phoenix—could meet a satisfying death at the hands of a vengeful victim of his atrocities. None of the inaccuracy mattered. The Roman setting provided a familiar, colorful background for the fantastical story. Kingdom of Heaven, which hugely distorted the history of the Crusades, not only entertained splendidly but offered a powerful vision of Christian and Muslim figures alike struggling for toleration and understanding in the midst of deadly fanaticism and rapacity.
Throughout most of its two hours and thirty-seven minutes, Napoleon seems designed to follow these examples—and not just because Scott again makes use of Joaquin Phoenix, this time in the title role. The inaccuracies, big and small, piled up faster than I could take notes on them. Napoleon Bonaparte did not personally witness the execution of Marie Antoinette in 1793. He was not the principal commander of the French campaign to relieve the siege of Toulon. Napoleon and Josephine first met a year later than in the film, and she was six years older than him. (Phoenix is fourteen years older than Vanessa Kirby, and looks it.) Napoleon’s cannon fire did not hit the pyramids and the Sphinx. And so on, down to the absurdity of Napoleon—an emperor and commander in chief of a huge army, an artillery officer by training, middle-aged and very much out of shape—personally taking part in a cavalry charge at the Battle of Waterloo.
This is also a supposed biopic that manages to omit most of the central elements of Napoleon’s life and career. Scott makes little of the fact that his subject was Corsican and that until just before the time at which the film begins, he actually dreamed of fighting against France in order to liberate his island homeland. There is no hint that he transformed continental Europe more than any other individual in history, not just through war but through enormously important political reforms, including a vast territorial reorganization of Germany and the promulgation of a hugely influential legal code. The film attributes two of the most consequential decisions of Napoleon’s life—to return to France from Egypt in 1799 and to escape from his first exile on Elba in 1815—entirely to his desire to see Josephine (and, in the first case, to confront her over her infidelities). Yet in 1815 Josephine had been dead for nearly a year. Not only does the film omit many of Napoleon’s most important military campaigns, but it gives no sense of how his talents as a strategist made them successful. Scott presents us with an immature, shallow, petulant Napoleon who ruts with Josephine under the dinner table while the servants watch, and who throws food at her in a snit. The real Napoleon was a workaholic who spent most of his time, when not campaigning, at his desk or in meetings.*
But does any of this matter? It is tempting to say no: that this is just Scott having his fun again, manipulating the historical source material with his usual gusto. Parts of Napoleon, especially the drawn-out and chemistry-free love scenes between Napoleon and an awkward Josephine, are actually quite dull. But the film also has enormously entertaining sections, especially the huge, colorful battle scenes, in which Scott’s virtuosity comes to the fore: tight shots of individual soldiers are woven expertly into sweeping views of the field, as in the confrontation between the Romans and the Germans in Gladiator. These scenes, too, are wildly unfaithful to history. After Napoleon’s brilliant defeat of the Russian and Austrian armies in the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz, he is said to have fired cannonballs into a frozen lake to cut off the enemy’s retreat. An unknown number of Russians may have died—the sources are incomplete and contradictory—but the episode was not central to the battle. Scott puts it front and center, showing the Russian army annihilated on the lake, with astonishing images of cannonballs crashing through the ice and Russian soldiers desperately flailing in water that is turning red with their blood. It’s inaccurate, but one is tempted to say, with Scott: Who cares?
There are three reasons to care. The first is admittedly not Scott’s responsibility. Thanks to today’s standards of historical education, Napoleon will probably constitute most, if not all, of what many of its viewers will ever learn about its subject. And they won’t just think that he won the Battle of Austerlitz by firing cannonballs into a frozen lake. They will think that one of the largest, most destructive, and most consequential series of wars in history occurred solely because of the personal ambitions of a shallow, whiny man who often behaved like a lovesick puppy. And they will learn nothing about anything else he did: the political reforms, the legal code, and also that he callously reimposed slavery where he could in France’s overseas colonies after the Revolution had abolished it. But again, this is the fault of our educational system, not the director.
The second reason is more important. At the very end of the film, Scott entirely undercuts his own position. His last scene presents Napoleon, in exile on Saint Helena, sitting outside in his uniform, watching children play, and then gently falling over and dying while dreaming of Josephine. (In reality, he died in bed, suffering from stomach cancer.) And then the screen goes black and stark numbers appear: the tallies of the dead in each of the film’s battles. The message could not be clearer: this was the horrific human price paid for Napoleon Bonaparte’s selfish and pointless ambition. It is a historical judgment, and it implies that what has come before is historical truth, something more than just a colorful riff. “Excuse me, mate, were you there?” obviously provides no justification for Scott trying to have it both ways, running roughshod over the historical record while also claiming to offer a historical lesson.
The final and most important reason is that in choosing to ignore or twist so much of the historical record, Scott missed a great opportunity. Napoleon Bonaparte lived one of the most unlikely, most dramatic, and most well-documented lives in history. (A book called Napoléon au jour le jour—“Napoleon, Day by Day”—has entries for virtually every day of his adult life.) The historical record would provide material for dozens of films. If he hadn’t existed, no artist would have dared to invent him. And can any invention exceed the drama of the actual story? It is no accident that so many great authors of the nineteenth century—Balzac, Stendhal, Chateaubriand, Hugo, Byron, Walter Scott, Heine, Goethe, Nietzsche, Lermontov, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Emerson—devoted brilliant pages to Napoleon. Hugo, the son of a Napoleonic general, was obsessed with Napoleon, and made him the subject of his single best-known poem, “L’Expiation.” (In that corner of national memory where Americans once kept “Paul Revere’s Ride” and the British “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” the French had “L’Expiation.”)
Many other filmmakers have recognized the power of Napoleon’s life, above all the great French silent film director Abel Gance, whose Napoléon (1927) remains a classic of world cinema. In some of its many versions, it runs over seven hours, and it was just the first of a projected six films that Gance hoped to make about Napoleon. (Unfortunately he lived too early for HBO miniseries.) It has its share of dubious and unsubstantiated facts, but most of them, at least, are taken from contemporary memoirs and retain the sensibility of the period. For instance, a scene in which the schoolboy Napoleon leads classmates to victory in an epic snowball fight was taken straight from the memoir of his schoolmate, friend, and collaborator Louis de Bourrienne.
Gance’s Napoléon is not just a much greater film than Scott’s; it makes an instructive contrast in its treatment of history. Cinematically Gance was enormously inventive, using kaleidoscopic images, intense close-ups, and handheld cameras in constant motion, as well as sequences projected on three separate screens. But historically he remained close to and respectful of the sources. Even the dream sequences, in which Napoleon foresees his destiny, draw from the real Napoleon’s reminiscences in exile, as when he remarked that after the 1796 Battle of Lodi he started to “believe myself to be a superior man, and the ambition came to me of executing the great things which so far had been occupying my thoughts only as a fantastic dream.”
The French actor Albert Dieudonné performs Gance’s title role with particular brilliance. Joaquin Phoenix, round of face and body, and just two years younger than Napoleon was when he died, makes a reasonable middle-aged Napoleon but a very unconvincing young one. Dieudonné, gaunt and beaky, closely resembles portraits of the young general, and he captures, even without sound, the personal intensity that nearly all eyewitness accounts of Napoleon mention, and that Phoenix’s weirdly comic performance entirely lacks.
Gance also places the young Napoleon deeply within the political setting of the French Revolution. For Scott, the Revolution is mostly just a bloody mess: crowds jeering Marie Antoinette as she walks to the guillotine while Napoleon watches; a rival sadistically sticking his finger in Maximilien Robespierre’s self-inflicted bullet wound to make him scream in agony (it didn’t happen). Later in the film Napoleon calls the Revolution “evil,” which is not something the real Napoleon ever did—in fact, he famously declared, “I am the French Revolution.”
Gance saw the chaos and fury of the Revolution as well, and his Napoleon, following from the real one, had a burning desire to bring it to an end and to restore French domestic unity and collective purpose. But Gance also captured the way the Revolution’s new sense of equality and hope inspired ordinary people to unexpected feats of bravery and self-sacrifice. A particularly brilliant scene in his Napoléon highlights the first singing of the “Marseillaise.” It was this patriotic exaltation that helped deliver victory to the armies of General Bonaparte under the revolutionary First Republic, and that Emperor Napoleon managed, through the alembic of his personal charisma, to transform into a personal loyalty that endured, at least in part, through his increasingly disastrous wars. Scott’s film captures none of this and is all the poorer for it.
A film like Gance’s, long and complex, would not do well at the box office today. Scott has said, “I couldn’t get through it, honestly.” But we need films that take history as seriously as Gance did. In the global culture wars of the twenty-first century, history has become a major battleground. Vladimir Putin’s Russia criminalizes criticism of the Red Army, British conservatives defend the legacy of the British Empire, Israelis and Palestinians duel over the events of 1948, American progressives cast 1619 as an alternate national origin story, and everyone squabbles over statuary. Historical films like Scott’s Napoleon make for reasonable entertainment, but they also represent an opportunity lost. Today, more than ever, we could use more translations of the past that engage seriously with it, rather than just riffing on it or reducing it to a colorful but empty spectacle.