Ridley Scott’s Napoleon film is set to release on November 22. While the film itself may not be school-appropriate (it’s rated R), your students will likely hear some of the buzz about it and be interested in learning about the topic. Why not use this to your advantage and teach a lesson about Napoleon?
Who was Napoleon?
Napoleon Bonaparte was a Corsican citizen who became the Emperor of France. He was brought up in a family of minor Italian nobility – shortly after he was born, Corsica became a part of France. He attended a military academy in France and joined the military after his graduation. At the start of the French revolution, he was busy fighting in Corsica but he eventually made his way back to the mainland. He was recognized as a great military leader, but there were concerns that he had authoritarian tendences.
In 1799, Napoleon became the “First Consul” with power granted to him for a period of 10 years. He began to consolidate his power and fight against other European countries. After several assassination plots were uncovered, he instituted an imperial system where he would serve as emperor. Many people who were weary of the long period of violence that followed the French revolution were content with a strong leader who would take control and he was elected emperor by 99% of the vote. He was crowned – or rather, he claimed the crown – in 1804 at Notre-Dame cathedral.
After his coronation, another war began. The War of the Third Coalition was fought between Great Britain and France. Russia and Austria joined on the side of Great Britain. Napoleon again went into battle and was successful, gaining territories from Austria. European history of the period is just one war after another, with some French victories and some defeats.
In the end, Napoleon was exiled – first to Elba. His supporters helped him to escape and he returned to southern France. He tried to regain power, but the people had turned against him. He surrendered on July 15, 1815 and was exiled to Saint Helena. He died there on May 5, 1821.
How accurate is the Napoleon movie?
The above summary was a VERY abbreviated biography of Napoleon. He just did so many things, it’s impossible to include everything in a short blog post. The movie is 2 hours and 38 minutes long, which tells me they will definitely not be including everything! There is a director’s cut that is 4 and a half hours long, so maybe that will be more complete, but I am sure that it will be a much more niche crowd that will enjoy that.
While many of the main events may be fairly accurate, there are already complaints about liberties taken by the director. The trailer shows Napoleon leading a cavalry charge near the Egyptian pyramids, which did not happen. Posters for the film have the tag line “He came from nothing, he conquered everything.” In reality, Napoleon came from an aristocratic family – hardly nothing. And while he did conquer quite a bit of Europe, he did not conquer Great Britain, one of the most powerful nations in the world.
In short, the movie is likely to be quite entertaining, but it should not be taken as a documentary. At this point, complaints are made based on the trailers as the full movie hasn’t been released. I am sure that once the full movie comes out, historians will be all over it.
Teaching about Napoleon in French classes
The biggest issue when teaching about Napoleon is deciding what to include! His life was full of events, and you could easily spend an entire week talking about him. You would need to choose which part of his life to discuss – his childhood, his life with Josephine, his rise to power, his military expertise, his downfall, his exile? You also have quite a few different campaigns to choose from – his visit to Egypt, his disastrous campaign to Moscow, or his many other battles.
I have a simple comprehensible input lesson on Napoleon that gives a very basic overview of his life. It focuses on repetition and comprehensibility, so obviously you won’t find everything in it! But it may be something your students enjoy if there is a lot of interest in the film. If you enjoy this biography, it is part of a collection of non-fiction CI lessons that are similar.
The Son of Napoleon
I’ve also added a new digital escape game dealing with the life of Napoleon! It’s in English, but could still be used as enrichment in your classes.