Vive la emperor! 12 things you need to know about Napoleon

So there’s this guy. He was a soldier at 16; a general at just 24; and emperor at 35, his empire sprawling over half a million square miles. He won 38 battles and got exiled from France—twice!—and now, most impressively of all, he’s soon gonna get his own gnarly biopic, starring the Joker.

Sir Ridley Scott tackles one of the most well-known, powerful, and deeply controversial historical figures of all time with Napoleon, a period epic that’s set to land on Apple TV+ shortly after its cinematic release. Here’s everything we know about the big, brutal Bonaparte movie, from casting switch-ups to just how Scott and his star Joaquin Phoenix nailed those battle sequences.

1. Joaquin Phoenix plays the Emperor—without a French accent, mind you.

We’re sure Phoenix could pull off a showy French accent to play one of the country’s most significant figures—or even that generic British accent folks often adopt to play old-timey European characters in biopics. But, à la Amadeus, Phoenix is going with his natural accent in Napoleon, perhaps giving his performance a more grounded effect. Also, fun fact: while Napoleon is often mocked in present day for being a perceived short king, the real guy stood at 1.68 centimetres. Only five centimetres shorter than Phoenix himself! His nickname of “The Little Corporal” was due not to his height, but for the affection his soldiers had for him, apparently.

2. Vanessa Kirby plays Empress Joséphine…

You’ll recognise Kirby from her villainous role in the last few Mission: Impossible movies, or perhaps as a young Princess Margaret on The Crown. In the trailers and promo material for Napoleon, her performance as the social-climbing Empress Joséphine Bonaparte makes just as much impact as Phoenix’s commanding title role: “You want to be great, but you are nothing without me”, she sneers at her husband.

We can’t wait to see whether Kirby plays the Empress as a complicit Lady Macbeth figure, manipulating her man from the shadows, or whether she’ll turn out to be more sympathetic, perhaps following in the steps of Jodie Comer’s complex role as a medieval bride in The Last Duel. Hey, speaking of which…

3. …but Jodie Comer was apparently Scott’s first pick for the role.

Napoleon began filming in February of 2022, and right up until January, it seemed Scott would be working with Killing Eve star Comer once again. The director’s first choice was seemingly stoked to be confirmed for the role, saying that she “jumped at the chance to work with Ridley and his team again…the idea of working with Joaquin, who’s someone who I hugely admire…I’m so excited to delve into that world.” Scheduling conflicts got in the way, however, and on January 4 of 2022, Comer revealed her departure from production, with Kirby being announced in the part that same day.

4. Characters include Alexander I, Marie Antoinette, and the executioner who guillotined the last French king

Édouard Philipponnat plays Alexander I, Tsar of Russia; Catherine Walker gets an appearance in the trailer above as a doomed Marie Antoinette; Ian McNeice plays Louis XVIII, the King of France during Napoleon’s exile to Elba, and Rupert Everett stops by as the Duke of Wellington. We even get a look at ‘The Bourreau’—the man who chopped off Louis XVI’s noggin—as played by Phil Cornwell, but Tahar Rahim has a more central role as revolutionary politician Paul Barras. A libertine and influential adviser, Barras had, well, “intimate relations” with the future Empress Josephine, and then facilitated her marriage to Napoleon. He got promoted to commanding the Italian army for this nice gift.

5. It’s Scott and Phoenix’s first film together since Gladiator, 23 years ago

Back in 2000, a 24-year-old Joaquin Phoenix stole some scenes as the power-hungry Roman emperor Commodus—and stole his way to his first ever Oscar nom, too, for Best Supporting Actor. Two decades and some change later, he’s back on a Scott set playing another ruthless emperor, now in the leading role. The director reportedly considered Phoenix for this huge role after witnessing his Oscar-winning performance in Joker. Joaquin used to think his life was a tragedy…but now he realises it’s a big-budget historical epic.

6. Sir Ridley Scott announced the film on the same day his medieval movie The Last Duel wrapped

Always a busy bloke, Scott released two whole-ass movies in 2021: House of Gucci, which really has nothing to do with what we’re talking about here, and The Last Duel, which seems like an obvious source of creative momentum leading into the director’s next historical drama. Along with Jodie Comer’s (planned) involvement, historian Lorris Chevalier returns from his work on The Last Duel to act as an advisor on the film’s fictionalisation of true events. “Napoleon is the master of tactics”, Chevalier said from the film’s battle set: “the British were really scared of him. They called him the God of War.”

Scott has revealed that he’s “always been fascinated by” Bonaparte’s story, drawing parallels between the emperor’s war efforts the “romantic war” he was simultaneously waging with his adulterous wife. “He conquered the world to try to win her love, and when he couldn’t, he conquered it to destroy her, and destroyed himself in the process.” Relatable stuff.

7. The film will feature six major battle sequences

There’s been a heap of movies made about Bonaparte’s battles, but most are sensible enough to focus in on just one pivotal battle—like 1970’s Waterloo, which honed in on the story of ABBA winning the violent Eurovision Song Contest (jk jk). Collider has learned, however, that Scott’s Napoleon staged up to six elaborate war scenes, using a bunch of cameras to capture the action as effectively as possible.

Scott said the tactic will pay off for his next period blockbuster as well: “By having 11 to 14 cameras, we shot Napoleon in 62 days. I’m doing Gladiator 2 now in 54 days, because I’m not doing 50 takes with one camera, on one shot, and then turning around. This normal fight that could take anything up to a month, I’ll take six days.”

8. The costumes include low necklines, red ribbons, and “the maddest hats”

In a promotional video touting Empress Joséphine as a timeless “fashion queen”, star Vanessa Kirby describes the costume journey of Napoleon as “amazing”. We’re not surprised, considering costume designer Janty Yates is responsible: she’s worked on plenty of other Scott projects, from Gladiator to The Last Duel. Yates and Kirby highlight that post-Revolution, French fashion took on a scandalous new sensibility, with more skin being exposed and red neck ribbons being worn as a dark reminder of the guillotine’s bite. No single garment from the film might be more important, however, than Napoleon’s iconic bicorne à la française hat. What a serve.

9. The film was originally titled ‘Kitbag’

Napoleon is based on a script from All The Money In The World screenwriter David Scarpa, and its original title comes from the following sage saying: “There is a general’s staff hidden in every soldier’s kitbag.” The idiom nicely captures our protagonist’s ambition and rise to power, but is it really more exciting to picture, um, a random old bag? Rather than the striking, iconic name “Napoleon“?

We’re happy with the understandable title change, but that central idea of opportunity and ascension will still be pivotal to the film’s plot. The official synopsis tells us to expect “a spectacle-filled action epic that details the checkered rise and fall of the iconic French Emperor”, capturing “Bonaparte’s relentless journey to power through the prism of his addictive, volatile relationship with his one true love, Joséphine, showcasing his visionary military and political tactics against some of the most dynamic practical battle sequences ever filmed.”

10. A four-and-a-half hour director’s cut will drop on Apple TV+

Scott is no stranger to seeing his movies botched for the purposes of commercial, cinema-friendly appeal: he’s infamously said that he hates the theatrical cut of his masterpiece Blade Runner, and has vouched for the original, elongated versions of plenty of his less-successful features. When you see Napoleon in theatres, its runtime plays out to about two hours and 40 minutes—157 minutes in total—making it Scott’s second-longest film ever when compared to American Gangster‘s two hours and 56 minutes. Still, there’s more to see if you stream the film on Apple TV+, where Scott will include more revelatory details and deleted scenes, such as deeper insight to Joséphine’s tumultuous inner life.

11. Oops: Steven Spielberg might also be making a Napoleon project

A harmless case of parallel thinking, or a new creative rivalry? Collider has reported that Spielberg expressed his interest in reviving a legendary unfinished project at 2023’s Berlinale: Stanley Kubrick’s thwarted script for his own Napoleon film, now to be developed as an HBO miniseries.

Back in the 1970s, Kubrick gave up on his wildly elaborate and expensive Bonaparte project, despite Jack Nicholson and Audrey Hepburn being tapped to play the Emperor and Empress. We have no clue who might star in Spielberg’s seven-part series, but it would seem that Joaquin and Vanessa are probably off the table…

12. We have mixed feelings about that Black Sabbath tune in the Napoleon trailer

The latest trailer for Napoleon shows Phoenix standing in an instantly-recognisable military costume before a wintery landscape of soldiers. He stares past us, voiceover promising that he’s “not built like other men.” Then a strange noise swells on the soundtrack: Ozzy Osbourne, crying “generals gather in their masseeEEEss…

“War Pigs” is a pretty damn obvious song choice—tacky, even, if we’re feeling particularly ungenerous. But hey, adding some anachronistic hard rock into the trailer for your respectable prestige epic must be a shortcut to cinema hype. It does hit a bit harder than that weird Imagine Dragons needledrop in the trailer for Murder on the Orient Express.