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The Duke of Wellington reviews 'Napoleon'

The Duke of Wellington at Waterloo: played by Rupert Everett | Image by: TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo

The Duke of Wellington

3 min read

Gripping and entertaining, Ridley Scott’s film may be strewn with inaccuracies – but it is also a consumingly interesting portrayal of a truly remarkable man

This film is an historical novel, not a history of Napoleon’s life. But it is very enjoyable and continuously entertaining. It has been criticised for being historically inaccurate and it does indeed contain some inaccuracies. For example, it is entirely fictitious that Napoleon and the 1st Duke of Wellington met on board HMS Bellerophon.

It is true that Napoleon, when he left France, boarded the Bellerophon and was taken by Captain Maitland to Plymouth. He had sent a letter to the Prince Regent seeking asylum in the country of his “most powerful, most steadfast and most generous of my foes”.

But it was the British government, Lord Liverpool as prime minister and Lord Castlereagh as foreign secretary, who decided that he should be sent to Saint Helena. Interestingly, Wellington (as major general Sir Arthur Wellesley) had spent over two weeks there in 1805 on his way back from nine years in India. He described the island: “The interior is beautiful and the climate the most healthy I have ever lived in.”

But despite the inaccuracies, the story is supremely gripping. The lead roles of Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix), Joséphine (Vanessa Kirby) and Wellington (Rupert Everett) are all extremely well-acted and convincing. (Although I don’t believe that Wellington was quite as stiff or pompous as that.) 

Napoleon & Josephine
Emperor Napoleon crowns Joséphine: Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby |  Image courtesy of Apple TV 

I had not understood how important to Napoleon was his relationship with his first wife, Joséphine. Although turbulent at times, it was a close marriage. As a result, she was very well treated on her divorce and received a large income from the state and the right to continue to occupy Château de Malmaison. He remained in touch with her and probably would have tried to bring her to Elba after the first abdication. But tragically she died in May 1814, soon after his arrival on the island.

I don’t believe that Wellington was quite as stiff or pompous as that

The story of how, within 12 years of the French Revolution and the chaos and anarchy which followed, Napoleon rose to be First Consul and five years later Emperor of France is fascinating in every way and with hindsight truly remarkable.

Although strewn with inexactitudes, the battles scenes of Austerlitz, Borodino and Waterloo are all full of excellent imagery, allowing the viewer to imagine well the experience on the day.

It is tragic for Napoleon that on the day of Waterloo this brilliant general made a number of fatal mistakes. Although Wellington had a high regard and respect for Napoleon, this was not reciprocated. 

Napoleon seriously underestimated his opposing general and the allied army, only 36 per cent of whom were British and half of whom were German-speaking. 

Napoleon film posterFew battles in history have had such profound consequences. There was total regime change in France, and ever since Britain and France have normally been on the same side. Indeed, I often think that 1815 was the start of a long and enduring period of Anglo-French cooperation and friendship. (How appropriate that the Royal Navy ship HMS Iron Duke was the ship in attendance on the King during his recent state visit to Paris and Bordeaux.)

The film is definitely worth a visit to the cinema. And I defy anyone to fall asleep during such an entertaining and consumingly interesting film.

The 9th Duke of Wellington is a Crossbench peer

Napoleon
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Venue: General cinema release

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