The other day I saw the film 'Napoleon', directed by Ridley Scott. Worth seeing on the big screen for the spectacle, the battles being both impressive and gruesome. I wasn't sure I would buy Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon, because he doesn't look much like him, but he becomes more believable in the role as it goes along.
I would say I had a reasonable but not extensive amount of knowledge about Napoleon before seeing this film, which is probably the ideal, as it is enough to be able to understand what is going on, without getting too finickity about the historical inaccuracies. I also had mixed feelings about the historical Napoleon, and didn't mind him being depicted as a bit of a brat at times. (I'm not sure if the film wants the viewer to like or admire Napoleon. It ends with a tally of the death toll of his various battles, without making it quite clear whether it blames him exclusively for all that).
The film covers the entirety of Napoleon's career so clearly has to skip over quite a lot. Much focus is given to Napoleon's marital relations with Josephine (played by Vanessa Kirby). There is little time for Napoleon's civic achievements, restoring stability and prosperity in the wake of Revolutionary chaos, which I would rate among the more laudable aspects of his legacy- things like the church settlement, the inviting back of emigres, the improvement of state infrastructure, education and the legal system.
Regarding the military campaigns, Italy is barely mentioned. (The Peninsular War is also ignored, nor is there any mention of Nelson, the Battle of the Nile...). In Egypt we see Napoleon shooting at the pyramids (which he didn't do) and putting his hat on a mummy. The Acre expedition is also skipped, which is probably just as well... We were already treated to a glimpse of Napoleon's less savoury deeds with the ruthless suppression of the royalist uprising, where artillery fire was unleashed against the disgruntled Parisians. The scene is brief but pulls no punches.
Other gruesome scenes include Napoleon's horse being hit by a canon ball at Toulon. At Austerlitz we are treated to the sight of Austrian troops and horses drowning in the water under ice that has been smashed up by French canon fire, the water stained red with blood. (Recalling the plagues of Egypt as depicted in 'Exodus: Gods and Kings'.)
The Battle of Waterloo is shown in condensed form (no sign of Hougoumont or La Haye Sainte), albeit that there is time to invent a scene where Napoleon takes part in a cavalry charge. (Ridley Scott also likes to include plenty of flags in his battle scenes, and rather surpasses himself here- the British like looks like the Last Night of the Proms). At least he has the redcoats form squares to receive cavalry, albeit at the last minute.
Another invented scene is a meeting between Napoleon and Wellington aboard HMS Bellerophon, after Waterloo, and before his second exile. I'm not sure why that was necessary as all Wellington does is tell Napoleon about the destination for his second banishment.
A lot of the filming was done at locations in the UK. The throne room scene in Moscow was filmed in Westminster Cathedral, by the looks, though the exterior scenes were done at Blenheim Palace, with onion domes digitally added. The mansion used for where Josephine was packed off to (after the divorce) was West Wycombe Park, (I visited West Wycombe earlier in the year, it is an interesting place, formerly the home of Sir Francis Dashwood, notorious leader of the Hellfire Club, and host to such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin). West Wycombe also had a digital makeover, they added a higher roof on it in post-production (presumably) to make it look more French. Someone in the graphics department had the tricky job of inserting the roofline behind Josephine's moving head, in a couple of scenes. Lincoln Cathedral stood in for Notre Dame de Paris, for the coronation scene, and HMS Victory was used as the Bellerophon, and the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich was also used for some Parisian street scenes. Pentworth House was also used for some grand interiors. Other filming was done in Malta, which stood in for Egypt and Elba, among other places. Napoleon's actual conquest of Malta (depriving the Knights of St John of ownership, which he did while on his way to Egypt) was among the bits of history that were left out.
Stott has a record for changing history to suit his films. In 'Kingdom of Heaven', he made Balian of Ibelin into a blacksmith in France, and who had an affair with Queen Sibylla of Jerusalem, when he was actually a nobleman born in the Latin East, who was married to Sibylla's step-mother. In 'Exodus', Scott made Ramesses II fight the battle of Kadesh while Seti I was still alive, and had him wearing a lady's Nekhbet headdress while he was doing it. There is nothing quite as egregious as that in 'Napoleon', though (as I almost forgot) it does teleport Napoleon into the crowds at Marie Antoinette's execution, in the opening scene.