Photo by Borja B. Hojas/WireImage

The artistic case for historical accuracy

There is no conflict between being truthful and being compelling

Artillery Row

In our age, the historical epic is sorely needed. Grand in its scope and ambition, these kinds of films are difficult to pull off. They are financially burdensome, but they are also challenging in their attempts to capture events for moviegoers — regardless of whether the viewers know much about the facts and myths surrounding the subject.

Napoleon Bonaparte is no stranger to being depicted in cinema, but the latest film, directed by Ridley Scott and featuring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, earned a lot of criticism over its historical depiction of the notorious French emperor. Critics have accused Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa of casually making numerous inaccuracies. They point to the battles in Moscow being shown literally on thin ice, when it didn’t happen that way; as well as the Waterloo battle, which is lacking in terms of soldier command and formation. Napoleon also did not attend the execution of Marie Antoinette — the first thing you see as he is introduced in the film.

Few of the important events of Bonaparte’s life can be depicted within the film’s truncated running time of 163 minutes. As of writing this, the director’s cut that runs for four hours and promises to be more rigorous has yet to be released. Needless to say, this could include further inaccuracies. (According to one historian, Napoleon slaps Josephine in a scene during the director’s cut, which also did not happen).

Every Napoleon film has encountered these pointed critiques. The first cinematic depiction of Bonaparte was released in 1927 and directed by Abel Gance, running for more than eight hours. Historians praised the film for getting the basics about Napoleon right, though critics felt otherwise (Stanley Kubrick, who had expressed interest in making an epic about Napoleon, argued that in terms of story, it is a crude picture). Waterloo was slammed by some historians for depicting the battleground as muddy, when in reality, it was the opposite, playing out in key valleys like Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. A critical difference between those films and the most recent depiction, though, is that Scott doesn’t take his subject seriously.

The goal of historical accuracy is conserving and promoting truth.

So far, the director has dismissed any criticism of cherry-picking. He crudely tells off historians who have corrected him. As someone who has written about movies and art, it’s easy to sympathise with the viewpoint that artistic liberties must come first to make a figure compelling. Historical accuracy is a nebulous term to define, as it is shaped by our own biases and open to a wide range of interpretations. Whilst directors have every right to apply their lens in approaching an event, though, it should not mean that historical integrity ought to be disregarded. It is a crucial aspect of the aesthetic of historical fiction, which aims to put real-life events under a microscope and make them alive for discerning viewers.

Whilst the goal of historical accuracy is not to give the plain facts, it is to highlight those which emphasises the significance of events and personalities. In effect, it is conserving and promoting truth.

As the film critic Scott Tobias wrote, directors need to know why they are approaching their subject in a certain manner and whether it is ultimately the right way to do it. Take Oppenheimer, for example. Whilst the film brushes over important details of Oppenheimer’s involvement with communism, it certainly achieves its objective of demonstrating why he is important and how his invention of the atomic bomb had a significant impact on the new world order. The viewer is both informed and moved by Christopher Nolan’s ability to illustrate his subject’s relevance.

Historical accuracy should encourage artists to weigh the strengths, the weaknesses and ultimately the significance of figures — or in Tobias’ more crude terms, “Find the saint in the asshole. Find the asshole in the saint.” Napoleon Bonaparte was a unique figure. He was a tyrannical emperor, yet also one of the best military commanders in history. Ridley Scott seems to portray him as a dull and merely malicious leader, whose decision-making in the field is largely influenced by his lover Josephine Bonaparte.

It’s part of the director’s aim to lampoon the mythos of Napoleon. Reviews, good and bad, have said there are more comedic than dramatic moments in Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Napoleon. That spin minimises the greatness of the French emperor — only highlighting his incompetence. For some, that might seem courageous and brave, but for everyone else, it is cowardly and distracting.

Films like Amadeus and The Social Network are not close to being wholly true, but they do not seek to diminish their central figures. Those films manage to capture the backdrop of the time and why someone should care about the prodigal genius of Mozart or the prophetic circumstances of Mark Zuckerberg transforming the world with Facebook. These men are larger than life yet also ultimately human — not caricatures.

Artists should be able to take some liberties in painting the backdrop of events, so that viewers and readers can be entertained. The more research an artist does, however, the more it enriches the story. Historical accuracy doesn’t make a film wholly good, but it certainly enhances its inherent qualities.

All of the films I’ve mentioned have been challenged with enamouring audiences whilst also maintaining accuracy. There’s no definitive answer to getting that balance right, but we know that not attempting to do both sets your effort up for failure. The reason for historical accuracy as an artistic choice is simple — you get closer to the truth. Without truth, why not make pure fiction?

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