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Did Napoleon really shoot a pyramid? Ridley Scott says sure, why not

Joaquin Phoenix is a very trigger-happy Bonaparte in the trailer for Scott’s Apple movie

Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

Martin Scorsese isn’t the only legendary, octogenarian movie director with an expensive, period-piece passion project bankrolled by Apple coming out this fall. Ridley Scott — who celebrated his 85th birthday in 2022, and has knocked out seven feature films in the last decade — will bring his life of the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to theaters in November. Going by its first trailer, it’s got all the horse-based warfare, dodgy accents, and (checks notes) Radiohead trailercore you could want from a Ridley Scott historical epic.

It also has two things in particular abundance. The first is Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix), history’s foremost short king, being negged Vanessa Kirby’s Josephine (“You are just a tiny little brute that is nothing without me”). He seems to like it. The second is Napoleon blowing stuff up with cannons. The first thing he shoots with a cannon, bloodily, is an unruly mob of plebs. Then he blows up some warships — probably British ones, although the trailer doesn’t specify. Then he shoots up one of the great pyramids of Giza. Then he shoots up a frozen lake with an opposing army on it... but wait, hang on. Did Napoleon really just shoot a pyramid?

How much liberty is being taken here by Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa? (Scarpa worked with Scott on All the Money in the World, and will re-team with him on next year’s Gladiator 2.) Well, Napoleon did invade Egypt, and he fought a major battle within sight of the pyramids in 1798. It does seem that he visited the pyramids in person, although my Googling has turned up no records of him having shot them with a cannon. Also, it’s reasonable to assume that in the course of the last 225 years, someone would have noticed that the top of one of pyramids had been blown off.

The top of one of the great pyramids explodes under cannon fire with an army ranged before it in Ridley Scott’s Napoleon
Image: Sony Pictures/Apple

Going by this charming demystification of Napoleon’s time in Egypt by historical novelist Shannon Selin, Scott and Scarpa are conflating the real Battle of the Pyramids with a myth that Napoleon’s troops shot off the Sphinx’s nose during target practice. According to Selin’s research, what actually happened when Napoleon visited this wonder of the world was less destructive, and almost adorably nerdy. Bonaparte challenged some of his party to climb a pyramid; the winner was a mathematician called Gaspard Monge, who shared a sip of brandy with his rivals as they reached the summit. Then Napoleon calculated that the stones of the pyramids could be used to build a 10-foot wall around all of France, a calculation that Monge supposedly verified. But he’d had a bit of brandy by then.

It might have been nice to see that on screen, too. But Scott knows a bombastic visual metaphor when he sees one, and with these scenes showing Napoleon graduating from using his phallic weapons to vaporize revolutionaries to using them to assault the embodiment of history itself, he’s certainly making his point.

Also, it looks sick. Napoleon hits theaters on Nov. 22.

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