Bonnie And Clyde, Napoleon, and the problem with historical accuracy

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Rarely one to mince words, Ridley Scott has annoyed every historian on the internet with his Napoleon comments. But does historical accuracy really matter?

In 1934, following growing public outrage at the ‘public enemies’ throttling depression-era America, bank robbery became a federal crime in the United States for the first time. This is relevant to a film, I promise.

Thirty-three years later, a film about some of the people responsible for the previous bit of legalise arrived in a few unsuspecting US theatres. In the real world, the film’s leads were responsible for the deaths of 12 people, nine of them lawmen. They had robbed funeral homes and gas stations; held up banks and kidnapped civilians. In 1967’s Bonnie And Clyde, however, they were heroes.

Critical reactions at the time were mixed, not least because of the historical liberties the romantic romp took. Time called it “a strange and purposeless mingling of fact and claptrap”. Variety complained it “depicted these real-life characters as inept, bumbling, moronic types, and if this had been true they would have been erased in their first try.”

The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther gave the film the biggest kicking. He said it was “a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in Thoroughly Modern Millie”.

But accuracy be damned, the film was a hit. It ended the year as the fifth highest-grossing film in the United States, inadvertently kicking off the entire New Hollywood movement which would grip studios for the next decade. Bosley Crowther, having started a campaign against on-screen violence in response to the film, was fired by the New York Times when he proved to be so out of touch with popular opinion. He was replaced by the now legendary critic Pauline Kael – the one Quentin Tarantino isn’t making a movie about. She loved Bonnie And Clyde.

Why bring this up now? Well, as you might have seen in a few excellent headlines, Ridley Scott has a new movie out – a biopic of Napoleon called, helpfully, Napoleon. The debate that’s sprung up around it looks pretty similar to the one in 1967: is it all a load of bollocks?

Taking to TikTok with a video dissecting the film’s trailer, historian Dan Snow seems to think so. “Well actually”-ing everything from ‘did Napoleon fire a cannon at the pyramids’ to ‘how long was Marie Antionette’s hair’, he also, in his defence, says the film looks very fun and he wants to see it – it just doesn’t look like it’ll be transcribed into any textbooks in the near future.

Read more: Napoleon review | A chilly skewering of great man history

Basing a work of entertainment on historical events has been a staple of film, TV and theatre since some Greek fellow invented the form a few thousand years ago. As it turns out, the two go together like a pair of deeply damaged outlaws. Not only does the instant name recognition make people more likely to understand your story going in, but the thrill of knowing all this stuff, broadly, actually happened turns out to be pretty intoxicating. In short – audiences bloody love history.

Unfortunately, to paraphrase Neil Gaiman for a second, history isn’t film shaped. In order to cram the facts of a situation into a three-act structure, dramaturgs are granted a certain degree of ‘creative license’ to make their film, broadly, whatever the hell they like.

When it comes to film and TV in particular, this throws up a bit of a contradiction, and it’s here that a lot of disagreement tends to crop up. Where screenwriters are often forced to take liberties with the source material to make the story work, other aspects of production – set design, costumes, hair and makeup, etc – often take pride in hewing close to the historical rock. In interviews, too, it often serves creatives well to bat for their project’s historical accuracy because, if nothing else, it shows they were paying attention when they made it. These elements also serve to make the story more effective – it’s far harder to keep an audience invested in the characters if Henry VIII is drinking out of a Costa cup.

Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon in Ridley Scott's Napoleon.

This can all get a little confusing. On Napoleon’s press tour, for example, Ridley Scott can wax lyrical about his hero’s real-life folly into the Russian winter one moment, then defend having him blow up a pyramid in the next. Like all historical fiction, the finished film is a blend of the truth and bits-they-made-up-because-they-look-cool. If you’re looking for a concise summary of the life of the most famous general who ever lived, this isn’t really it. It is bloody entertaining though.

In the current era of fake news and what I’ll generously call ‘global unfortunateness’, people have, understandably, got a bit angsty about this distortion of the truth. Napoleon isn’t the only piece of media to spark this debate, either. Later seasons of Netflix’s The Crown have resulted in calls for historical disclaimers at the start of episodes. A quick look on the search engine of your choice will find at least a dozen Oppenheimer articles dedicated to separating the factual wheat from the fictional chafe. In fact, whenever a large new piece of historical media emerges, publications from The Guardian to National Geographic are quick to jump on the ‘is blank based on a true story’ train.

The resulting clamour, especially in this day and age, actually makes it rather tricky for films and other media to pull the historical wool over our eyes. When anyone interested enough to seek out a Napoleon biopic is, at all times, no more than a singular Google away from a one-sentence summary of the debates around its accuracy, it’s hard to imagine anyone going into Ridley Scott’s new film entirely unaware of its context. After all, the most important piece of context is evident the second you walk past the popcorn stand – this is a cinema, and you are watching a film.

At the risk of sounding a bit patronising, there’s a great deal of difference between a Napoleon biopic and a documentary. In a world where Braveheart exists, the majority of people are aware going into these films that not everything they see is going to be 100 percent accurate. They also don’t see these films in a vacuum – discussing any film or show with others afterwards, one of the first questions on anyone’s lips is usually along the lines of ‘did that bit really happen?’ We are, in other words, predisposed to questioning whether the filmmakers simply made the whole thing up.

When it comes to works of historical fiction, historians (understandably, given what they’re paid to talk about) tend to focus much more on the ‘historical’ than the ‘fiction’. Evidently for some of them, a new film about Napoleon is just that – a film about Napoleon. But I don’t think that’s how everyone else sees it, and that’s not why (I hope) Ridley Scott’s new film will make absolute gangbusters when it debuts in the UK this week.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, for most viewers, Napoleon won’t be about Napoleon at all. They’re not spending an evening at the pictures for the ‘historical’ – they’re doing it for the ‘fiction’. Napoleon becomes a film not about a real man, but a film about power, lust and the dangers of ambition. The authentic costumes, lavish sets and the name on the poster are really just window dressing. At the end of two-and-half hours, few people, I would imagine, would think differently of Napoleon the historical figure were it not for a single, cold-iron truth etched onto the screen – his campaigns killed more than three million people. The rest of the film, seen through the Hollywood glaze of Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby, the facts are all to play for. When the screen goes black and stats appear over an orchestral score, though, people recognise that they are not.

Films like Napoleon are often, I think, judged a little unfairly in this regard. Their purpose, however lavishly researched, is never really to educate an audience so much as provoke interest. If Scott’s new film makes just one person buy an actual history book who might not have done, it has done its job. I don’t think it will persuade many that Napoleon blew up the pyramids.

Today, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway endure as their doppelgangers in a way few figures from history ever manage. Say Bonnie and Clyde to the average punter and chances are they won’t think of the murder of innocent civilians – they’ll think of a couple in love, robbing banks and sticking it to the man. A recent attempt to retell the same story from the lawmakers’ perspective – 2019’s The Highwaymen – has disappeared without a trace.

But then the Bonnie And Clyde in the public imagination really have very little to do with the couple who held up gas stations in the Great Depression. They’ve become, as newspapers at the time corroborate, folk heroes, a byword for romantic revolt at an unfair economic situation. The 1967 film didn’t make two murderers heroes – it made new heroes out of a story of murderers. The public, it’s tempting to say, don’t want the facts. They want the fiction. After all – isn’t that what the movies are for?

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