Critics of Napoleon epic have fallen for emperor’s fibs, says film’s military expert | Napoleon Bonaparte

Critics of the “damaging” and “inaccurate” portrayal of Napoleon Bonaparte in Ridley Scott’s new cinematic epic Napoleon are just victims of the French emperor’s enduring propaganda, according to the military adviser behind the film’s vast battle scenes.

Paul Biddiss claims that “Old Boney”, as he was known to the Duke of Wellington’s British troops, was promoted largely because he elaborated on his own successes. Bonaparte’s fibs impressed all France and intimidated his enemies – until, that is, he met his Waterloo in 1815.

“Napoleon was famous for exaggerating his own victories and there were not many ways to verify or to challenge his version,” said Biddiss, the ex-paratrooper who trained the film’s ranks of extras.

“He would write a letter after a sea battle claiming he had taken four ships, when in fact he had taken just one. He was a big bluffer and people believed him, so he got away with it. This is how he made his way up.”

Jacques-Louis David’s 1805 portrait Napoleon Crossing the Alps. Photograph: Pictorial Press/Alamy

Before the film’s UK release last Wednesday, its grand depictions of some of the most renowned battles in European history, including Austerlitz and Waterloo, had already won its British director acclaim. But Scott’s approach has also provoked conflict among historians and experts.

Andrew Roberts, a Napoleon biographer, has attacked key scenes, including a fictitious meeting between the French commander and Wellington at Plymouth.

The military historian Dan Snow has also identified inaccuracies in the $200m production starring Joaquin Phoenix. Snow warned audiences that Napoleon did not fire at the pyramids in Egypt or watch as Marie Antoinette was guillotined. “I love historical epics. I love Ridley Scott. But if you’re watching this movie, it ain’t a documentary,” Snow said.

Biddiss, however, defends the film’s military authenticity, which he ensured by consulting manuals used by Napoleonic generals. “I would like to criticise some of the historians who have criticised this film,” he said. “For a start, many of them are guilty of using the famous painting of Napoleon crossing the Alps on the covers of their books, which is certainly an inaccurate depiction.”

The well-known Jacques-Louis David painting, described by the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones “as the ultimate propaganda image of Napoleon”, shows the general’s uniform billowing out, as his horse Marengo rears up dramatically.

Paul Biddiss standing next to a cannon with extras in period costumes in the background
Military adviser Paul Biddiss on the set of Ridley Scott’s Napoleon. Photograph: Handout

Biddiss wants to set the record straight: “Napoleon was actually riding a mule and wearing a thick coat when he made that journey.”

Understanding the power of this imagery, Biddiss added, was clearly an element of Napoleon’s success, but the flawed man at the heart of Scott’s narrative is an equally valid portrayal.

Roberts has claimed Scott was wrong to depict the French leader as “a dictator who goes mad with hubris” and incorrect to imply Napoleon was defeated in Russia only because of cold weather. “No mention is made of the typhus,” he complained.

And the Napoleonic historian Zack White has gone further, suggesting Scott has swallowed old British propaganda that painted Napoleon as a “Corsican ruffian”.

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But Biddiss and Scott have both earned plaudits for the military tactics displayed in the film. Snow, in particular, praised the defensive square formations of the French troops.

“This gave me sleepless nights,” admitted Biddiss. “The squares were formed in reaction to cavalry charges, because it stopped the horses. I wondered how to get the extras to react in the right way. Then, fantastically, the first time Ridley called for it, they did it right first time and he offered to buy them all a drink.”

Biddiss ran a boot camp in a former Napoleonic barracks for the 500 extras who made the grade and then found himself in a tent at dawn with Phoenix and Scott before filming the Waterloo scenes, planning troop movements like a trio of military commanders.

“We had to use our men to best effect, with skirmishers moving forward with harassing fire,” Biddiss said. “I knew the historic formations, but we also had to think about access for the 10 or 11 cameras Ridley works with.”

Many extras had never held a musket before, others were ex-military and had to quickly unlearn their modern skills. “Joaquin wanted to know a lot about the types of cannon and different munitions. I told him about grapeshot, used at short range as a last defence. I also explained a technique used by the English, who would fire a cannonball low so it bounced, taking off heads as it came up. The momentum goes on and there are examples of soldiers losing a foot by trying to stop one,” said Biddiss.

Most crucial, though, was that the extras were not caught laughing or smiling. “If Ridley had seen anyone smile, we would have to start again. I told them to imagine the other side wanted to kill them and that, if they didn’t do as they were told, a sergeant with a long pike would kill them for deserting. The troops also had to walk towards the enemy until ordered to run, and then keep going, even if the guy in front fell,” he added.

Computer generated imagery replicated the soldiers’ formations, but the cavalry runs and cannon fusillades were all real – although no real ammunition was used.