Are there historical inaccuracies in Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon’? This history professor says that’s OK

Screen capture of Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon from the Ridley Scott movie's trailer.
The new trailers for Ridley Scott’s film on the French emperor inflamed some historians due to inaccuracies, but Northeastern London professor Estelle Paranque says these conversations lead people back to the real history. Sony Pictures

In the trailer for his latest epic film, “Napoleon,” director Ridley Scott urges viewers to “witness the rise of an emperor, lover, tyrant and legend.”

What many saw instead were the historical inaccuracies from the timing of the battles to the length of Marie Antoinette’s hair at the time of her execution (It was famously shorn at her death; the trailer shows it long.) The criticisms were enough for Scott to fire back, telling the New Yorker that historians picking the movie apart should “get a life.”

Historian and Northeastern London associate professor Estelle Paranque takes a more lax approach on the trailers for the movie that comes out Nov. 22.

Headshot of Estelle Paranque.
Estelle Paranque, associate professor in early modern history for Northeastern University in London, says historical fiction can perpetuate myths, but also spark people’s interest in history. by Suzanne Plunkett for Northeastern University

“I enjoyed the trailers for what they are,” said Paranque. “People are upset (that) Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t have Napoleon’s dynamism. You weren’t there. None of us were. It is OK for a director or for someone who writes a play or any type of historical fiction to give their own interpretation.”

Paranque is no stranger to historical fiction. She specializes in queenship, royal, and diplomatic studies during the 16th and 17th centuries, meaning she’s studied some of the most fictionalized figures in history, such as French queen Catherine de’ Medici and Queen Elizabeth I of England. She’s contributed to historical documentaries, docudramas and podcasts as well.

Paranque runs a YouTube series that offers her own analysis on the accuracy of historical movies and shows like “Oppenheimer” in order to bridge the gap between fact and fiction.

Despite her critiques, Paranque says historical fiction is beneficial for historians because it’s often the jumping-off point to get people interested in history.

“I think what I like about historical fiction is that with all these movies there are doors and windows to the past,” she said. “I’m hoping people will be more interested to know (more).”

One of the biggest issues Paranque often highlights in her videos is the tendency for creators to lean into the sensational or the stereotypical. Catherine de’ Medici dabbles in black magic in shows like “The Serpent Queen” (which Paranque calls “appalling”) and “Reign.” Anne Boleyn is portrayed as a scheming seductress in “The Other Boleyn Girl” and “The Tudors,” when in reality, historians believe she was very pious and Henry VIII was the one who pursued her.

“There is a danger of historical fiction perpetuating myth because it never goes deep,” Paranque said. “It could improve if it engaged better with the work of historians and … tried to find a way to work with historians to make the (facts) entertaining. The thing with the Tudors or Elizabeth I or Catherine de’Medici is you really don’t have to make things up to make it entertaining. … The downside of historical fiction is it helps perpetuate what historians try so hard to debunk, the myths and dark legends of certain people.”

Despite this, the genre can spark an interest in history. Paranque points to Showtime’s “The Tudors” as an example of this. Based on the reign of Henry VIII, the show succeeded in entertaining viewers for four seasons, but Paranque said it heavily sexualized the female characters, particularly Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife who was also executed after allegedly committing adultery.

“Some of the storylines were completely butchered,” Paranque said. “The complexity of the court was completely butchered. There were a lot of storylines that didn’t make any sense. … At the same time, so many people reach out to me and tell me that ‘The Tudors’ is the reason why they love the Tudors and read all Tudor books now. Historical fiction helps put history into popular interest. Without it, historians would have a smaller audience.”

The same goes for Napoleon. Even when filmmakers and authors, like Scott, try to stick to the real history, it’s impossible to squeeze everything into a two-hour film, Paranque said.

But fictional elements aren’t always a bad thing. In the “Napoleon” trailers, viewers see the emperor crowning himself while making a comment about finding the crown of France in a gutter and claiming it for himself. It’s not something the general ever said in public, Paranque said, but it works so far as creating an accurate idea of Napoleon.

“I like the fact that line made it in,” she said. “Maybe it was not the right place, but I think it works. … He’s tapping into Napoleon being seen as a tyrant and as a legend at the same time,” Paranque said. “Even when we think that these people are doing a disservice to history, we have to (think) twice because by criticizing them, by criticizing what they’ve done, you always end up talking about the real history. And that is quite nice for historians.”

Erin Kayata is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on X/Twitter @erin_kayata.