Monday, October 26, 2015

Napoleon - Stanley Kubrick's 1969 Screenplay

In 1969, Stanley Kubrick completed a script based on French general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The script has since been published online for everyone to have an opportunity to read it. Kubrick himself intended to make a three hour epic out of the 148 page screenplay, starring David Hemmings as the title hero - unfortunately, the producers refused to finance it, and the movie was ultimately never made, depriving cineasts from all around the world of a golden opportunity to perhaps see one of the classics of the cinema. With time, "Napoleon" thus gained an incredible reputation as one of those great movies that were never made, but is its cult reputation justified compared to the original script?

The story kicks off with the 4-year old Napoleon holding a teddy bear in his bedroom in Corsica, while his mother Letizia watches over him. It then switches to the hero, aged 9, attending the Royal Military College at Brienne. Unfortunately, both episodes are too gaunt and too short to justify being there in the first place, since in the latter the only moment that illustrates Napoleon's character is when he responds to teasing by slamming Dufour with a tin cup and fighting with Bremond. Better character development arrives on page 5, when the 16-year old Napoleon reveals a feeling of a pointless life: "Life is a burden for me. Nothing gives me pleasure; I find only sadness in everything around me." There is also an interesting episode with his encounter with a prostitute on the streets of Lyon, showing that Kubrick did not intend to glamourize his life, nor to show it as black-and-white. A decisive setting of the story arrives with the French revolution in 1789, when Napoleon has an entrance on the scene of events in grand style: as Varlac, a revolutionary leader, seems to enjoy the cheers of the crowd on the town square, Napoleon shows up with 25 French troops, and - alone on his horse - cuts through the crowd to talk to Varlac face to face. Napoleon informs him that he is under arrest for killing de Bouchy, his son, and setting his home on fire. This erupts in a tense moment that can go either way. Varlac, obviously, refuses to accept the authority of the King and advises Napoleon to "leave while he can", thinking he has the crowd as his shield. Napoleon, though, remains his cool ("Monsieur Varlac, do not pretend to speak for those good people whom you have mislead and inflamed with violent speech."), draws his gun and gives him five seconds to come with him. Varlac refuses, and Napoleon shoots him there, demonstrating his strong sense for law and order, regardless of the odds.

The Toulon siege, where Paul Barras, the (bisexual) Deputy of the Committee of Public Safety, is introduced, also presents one of Napoleon's finest hours, since his idea and intervention manage to assure the French integrity over the port controlled by the British. Strangely, though, the sole battle is not shown - just an animated map. After the death of Robespierre in 1794, France is once again thrown into chaos, and the Republic seems fragile and threatened. Kubrick inserted a small scene of Barras' music room where three women have sex with three men on the stage, in front of an audience, which could be interpreted ambiguously: either to show decadence of the French society, or to simply show how people were not as conservative back then, since they ironically observe "stage porn". A third great moment follows for Napoleon, when - faced with a 40,000 strong mob of Royalists who threaten the government on the streets of Paris, while he only has a 5,000 strong force at his disposal - decides to use cannons to disperse the crowd: "The numbers are not particularly relevant. You are not up against soldiers - this is a mob, and they will run as soon as things become sufficiently unpleasant". According to the instructions, the cannons firing point blank into the mob would have been filmed in slow-motion, without a sound, with only Napoleon's off-narration.

There are several memorable details here, such as when Napoleon creeps around on hands and knees on top of a very large map of Italy, laid from wall to wall; and when his orderly enters and informs him that he sent away a certain Eugene de Beauharnais who wanted to see him, Napoleon (without looking up) asks: "What did you say his name was?", he orders him to let the lad in - Euegene's mother is Josephine de Beauharnais, and this gives Napoleon a chance to meet - and marry - her. It is interesting to point out that Josephine's and Napoleon's bed scene was to be filmed in semi-dark, only in candle light, with a special F.95 50 mm lens used for Aero Space photography, in order to give the viewers a feeling of authenticity, and that Kubrick tried out this technique anyway six years later in "Barry Lyndon". This segment also highlights Napoleon's disappointment with love ("The day upon which you should say 'I love you less', would be the last day of my love - or the last day of my life", "That the world is beautiful only because you inhabit it"), since Josephine cheats on him secretly.

Pages 37 to 40 demonstrate a great depiction of battles during the Italian campaign: the French army is 100 yards away from the Austrian army. When they are 50 yards away, the Austrians open fire, and a large part of the French fall, but continue marching towards them. Since the Austrians have no time to reload, and the French are 20 yards away, panic sets in and they start to run away - and only from this distance do the French finally open fire. Later, Napoleon narrates: "From that moment on, I foresaw what I might be. Already I felt the earth flee beneath me, as if I were being carried away up to the sky."

Unfortunately, there are two major flaws: the rest of the battles are handled with far less detail, effort or elaborate will. This is followed by the Egyptian campaign, which has only 9 pages - of which seven pages are used for Napoleon finding out Josephine cheats on him from the drunk Junot. Surprisingly, there are very few battles depicted in the script overall (there is no Ulm, nor Jena and Auerstedt, nor Borodino, nor Wagram, nor the Spanish invasion...) and practically all of his generals (Murat, Junot, Davout...) are mere extras and one-dimensional characters. They are all suddenly there. But it was not shown how they got there. Due to this skipping of large amounts of chronicles, the narrative is strained and episodic at times, which is disappointing. It seems Napoleon's life was simply too big to be encompassed for a three hour film, even for Kubrick.

Also, it seems Kubrick did not especially care for the sole essence of the French revolution or the Napoleonic Wars, in general. He mentioned the conflicts, but does not explain why they occur. It needs to be pointed out that Napoleon was, in some way, the forerunner of a fighter for democracy (=the Republic) and a fighter against dictatorship (=European monarchies) - even though, ironically, he later proclaimed himself an emperor (!) - not to mention that he abolished feudalism and applied Code civil (abolishing all the privileges that a minority had due to their birthright), which had an enormous impact on European history. Napoleon may have been defeated - but his ideas of democracy and Republic eventually prevailed and defeated the monarchies in Europe. However, even though it seems that Napoleon "stole" all the character development, his wit and sharpness shines at times ("I found the crown lying in the gutter, and I picked it up"), whereas his love-hate relationship with Josephine was presented with enough emotion. Even though the last third is the weakest by structure, even that part has some highlights - for instance, during the march towards Moscow, 200 Russian soldiers surround 50 French infantry on a hill, while a Goreshist shows up, ordering them to surrender - but the French officer just shoots him, anyway, which is a bravura moment. Also, it seems Napoleon gave at least one quote which influenced Kubrick's views on humanity: "Society is corrupt because man is corrupt - because he is weak, selfish, hypocritical and greedy. And he is not made this way by society, he is born this way - you can see it even in the youngest children. It's no good trying to build a better society on false assumptions - authority's main job is to keep man from being at his worst and, thus, make life tolerable, for the greater number of people." Napoleon was shown adequattely ambiguous: even though he was one of the most famed people in human history, he died alone, in isolation, without the love of his life, whereas his only child died at the age of 22, which sends a bitter message that even myth and fame cannot make a human life more meaningful or better.

Kubrick once said this was going to be "the greatest movie of all time". Judging by the script, he seemed to have exaggerated it a bit. Even if we accept some of his directorial interventions he might have used, some omissions would still be there. Though the movie would have still been a treat, of course. Therefore, hypothetically, "Napoleon" would have been better than the sometimes placid "Barry Lyndon", but still weaker than some of Kubrick's own best films, such as "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Dr. Strangelove".


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