Frank McNally: The French are right. Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is a travesty

The best thing about the movie is Josephine, as played by Vanessa Kirby

The French are right: Ridley Scott’s Napoleon is a travesty. If not a complete Christmas turkey, the movie certainly enters the spirit of the coming season with scenes bordering on pantomime. At its worst, it could be retitled Carry On up the Tuileries.

Contrary to what some critics have claimed, however, it is not an attempt by Scott to prove the emperor had no clothes. In his version, Napoleon and Josephine keep theirs on at all times, even during sex scenes. No doubt it was too time-consuming to dress and undress back then, with all the buttons and bows.

And anyway, according to the film, the couple’s lovemaking was like Hobbes’s vision of life in general: nasty, brutish, and short.

Speaking of government, there is little of that in Scott’s sex-and-battles blockbuster. Despite a running time of two hours and 38 minutes, the director could not spare even a minute to hint at some of the civic reforms Napoleon oversaw between military adventures, not just in France but in much of the continent.


The film is silent about the Napoleonic Code, for example, or any of the ideas that explain why, today, we live in Napoleon’s Europe rather than Wellington’s.

To be sure, the protagonist was a bit of a monster, as depicted: a man of enormous ego, with a talent for expending vast numbers of lives in the service of his military genius.

But there is very little in the film to suggest why so many voluntarily risked everything to follow him.

And yes, he blew his top occasionally. Even so, you don’t have to be a stickler for historical detail to object to the suggestion that he blew the top off the pyramids too. That, as Le Figaro put it, is “particulierement ridicule”.

The best thing about the movie is Josephine, as played by Vanessa Kirby. Indeed, her characterisation was even better than I realised while watching it.

At first viewing, I thought she and the director had avoided an unfortunate detail about one of history’s most famously desirable women: the fact she had no teeth (a downside of growing up on a sugar plantation).

Au contraire, it turns out. I see that Kirby has explained how she wore a mouthguard for the movie, “but because [Josephine] didn’t smile with her teeth, you don’t really see it.”


It is astonishingly the case that, although he ranks behind Jesus and Adolf Hitler for the number of books written about him, Napoleon leads both – and everyone else in history – in being the subject of films: more than 1,000 for cinema or TV.

Most of those end, logically, with his time on Saint Helena. So does Scott’s, treating it as a short, quiet afterthought. But such was the intrigue surrounding the emperor’s exile, it is itself a subject more than worthy of a complete film.

Protagonists include the Mallow-born Barry O’Meara who, as mentioned here last week, was Napoleon’s doctor for the first three years.

O’Meara initially doubled as a spy for the British, reporting Bonaparte’s private conversations in return for an increase on his medical salary.

But partly because he too fell under Napoleon’s spell, and partly because the patient made him a better offer (an alleged £3,000), he changed sides.

Or at least he began to edit the information fed to the British, while becoming ever more antagonistic to the island Governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, whom he eventually accused of trying to poison the prisoner.

Dismissed from the island post in 1818, O’Meara was then sacked from the navy. But he had the last laugh when in 1822, with his famous patient now dead, he published a memoir of Napoleon’s exile, which sold enormously and, by exposing Lowe’s brutality, brought the ex-governor disgrace and financial ruin.

Among those impressed was Lord Byron, who summed up the Cork doctor’s fall and rise: “The stiff surgeon who maintained his cause/Hath lost his place and gained the world’s applause.”


The influence of Irish physicians on Napoleon’s posthumous reputation goes well beyond O’Meara.

There were no fewer than five doctors from this country on St Helena in those years, all of whom recorded their impressions for posterity.

These were in turn recorded in a fascinating booklet some years ago by the late Denis Wilson (himself a Cork eye surgeon and the father of actress Fiona Shaw), for a copy of which I’m indebted to reader Sheila Beecher.

The others included James Verling from Cobh, who replaced O’Meara (and turned down another £3,000 from the patient, while providing him scrupulous care); and Donegal-born Walter Henry, who interviewed Napoleon in his last months and attended the post mortem.

Then there was George Henry Routledge of Cavan, who touched the emperor’s heart – literally – when placing it a preservative vessel after the autopsy.

And finally, there was Francis Burton, from Tuam, a man responsible for the most literal impression left by the emperor – his death mask. As with so much of Napoleon’s life, even this was the subject of intrigue: to the story of which, having run out of space, I’ll return tomorrow.