Monday, January 15, 2007

Kubrick’s “Napoleon” - Part IV

Above is a clip from Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antionette.

In Kubrick’s Napoleon, we are treated to a very similar scene. In an exterior shot of Tuileries Palace (similar to the end of Coppola’s scene), we see thousands of people standing around with torches.
Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette are forced out onto the balcony.

Except in Stanley’s script, we are given some blistering commentary from Napoleon:

“Incredible,” he says. “How could he let that rabble into the Palace? If he had ridden out among them on a white horse, they would all have gone home. If he lacked the courage to do that, a whiff of grapeshot -- and they would still be running.”

(A “grapeshot” is a nasty little trick with a cannon. Instead of a cannon ball, a grapeshot is a canvas bag packed with loose metal, chainlinks, shards of glass, rocks, etc. It’s like a cannon-sized shotgun blast into a crowd. On handling civillian uprisings, one is quickly convinced that cannons are the best way to go. Napoleon said, “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.”)

Indeed. Let’s talk war.

I'd like to cover two specific sequences that span twenty pages.

  1. His first Italian campaign, and
  2. His tour through Egypt.
As we watch French troops pillage small Italian towns and take away food and livestock from poor farmers, we’re told by the narrator:

“With the Italian campaign, Napoleon steps onto the stage as a figure of European importance. A dozen victories in as many months would be announced in dramatic and highly colored bulletins. The battles of the revolution had been so far mainly defensive. Now, there was revealed a new kind of offensive warfare such as had not been seen in Europe for centuries.”

Napoleon tells us, “The art of war is a simple art. Everything is in the execution. There is nothing vague in it. It is all common sense. Theory does not enter into it. The simplest moves are always the best.”

We’re given a huge battle sequence between the French and the Austrians. This is one of the battles that Kubrick would have recreated perfectly with his thousands of Yugoslavian and Romanian soldiers. One can imagine that before this movie had been released, there would have been rumors swirling about the cost and number of men Kubrick used to create these battles. And those rumors would have actually given people a reason to see the film. In fact, the battle sequences could have been one of the high points of the film.

Yet, in the script, this battle does not last even two pages. With good reason, because it doesn’t really serve the story. There’s nothing at stake here. We know Napoleon will win. We know he won’t die. We’re not really worrying about anything. This is nothing more than the expansion of the French empire. This is about Napoleon’s techniques and strategies. This is just a short visual indulgence of an expensive battle that, in the great scheme of things, had little meaning beyond satisfying our curiosity. It's about the advancement of a massive number of French troops who keep moving slowly toward their enemies despite the volleys of Austrian fire (and countless French troops dying) until the Austrians are eventually forced to decide whether they are going to run or face the attackers. Panic sets in. The Austrians run.

But knowing Kubrick, once he started exploring this battle on film, he would have latched on to some dramatic visual moments he discovered in the process that would’ve been moving to watch. Then the sequence would have become meaningful about something. Perhaps the fact that this battle has no purpose BECOMES the point? Then the scene turns into how war serves no purpose and look at all these men die for nothing. Or it could have been about the terror of Napoleon's ways. It all depends upon how this scene is shot. I believe Stanley would have discovered some kind of meaning here and found a stylistic approach to making a statement that's not reflected in the script.

And that is what makes Stanley Kubrick fascinating.

Following this battle, we see the “the triumphal entrance of the French army into Milan. Wildly enthusiastic crowds, floral arches, tricolors everywhere, glittering military bands, flags, columns upon columns of French troops, the smart clattering of the cavalry.”

As we watch this triumphant scene, the narrator tells us, “Napoleon would soon arouse the resentment of the Directory in Paris, exceeding his authority, making political decisions and treaties like a Roman Conqueror, enlarging his role to ruler of Italy. Only his tremendous success and ever increasing popularity prevented the Directory from replacing him.”

And then, as if reacting to the narrator, we hear voice over from Napoleon: “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.”

Napoleon and Josephine make love in a Milan palace. We hear Josephine say in a voice over, “My dear Therese, the journey here to Milan was the most difficult and uncomfortable imaginable -- I am bored to death. My husband doesn't love me, he worships me. I fear he will go mad with love. Worse than that, I fear for my poor Hippolyte. We may have been indiscreet on the journey, and I think Joseph and Junot suspect something.”

In the next scene, Napoleon meets Captain Hippolyte Charles. He asks Captain Charles if he had any difficulties escorting his wife to Milan. No, he didn’t, Charles tells him. Napoleon thanks him, and Charles leaves. Then Napoleon pulls out an anonymous letter he had received. He reads it out loud to Joseph, his brother, and Junot, one of his Generals. The letter tells Napoleon that Josephine is having an affair with Captain Hippolyte Charles. Junot and Joseph tell him with carefully measured words that they know nothing about this matter.

From page 43 – 52, we’re given Napoleon’s famous tour through Egypt on a “romantic dream of conquest” following in the footsteps of Alexander’s march into India. They see the Sphinx and the Pyramids. They encounter a few minor skirmishes with the mameluke cavalry.

While a French-Arabian orgy takes place in the Mansion Murad Bey, Napoleon’s hard at work dictating his
memoirs to Bourrienne
. Junot enters. Napoleon had sent for him. We learn that the Bonaparte family is behaving quite coolly toward Josephine. In fact, Joseph refuses to give Josephine money that Napoleon ordered him to give to her. He asks Junot for an explanation. We learn that Junot wrote that anonymous letter, that the Bonaparte family knows about her affair, and they hate her for it.

This scene, probably the weakest portion of the entire script, is full of talk and melodrama and lasts from pages 45-52. Napoleon is almost as naive about the affair as he was the “young street-walker” in Lyon.

Napoleon returns to Paris - yet another huge cinematic shot full of crowds, flags, and Napoleon in an open carriage waving at everyone. Below is an 1810 painting by Jean-Pierre Franque, which was an allegory of the State of France before Napoleon's return from Egypt.


Mim said...

Reading all this makes me wish somebody would make a movie of this screenplay.

Mickey Lee said...

If they ever make this movie, I hope they stretch those battle scenes out just a teensy-weensy bit! Not that an orgy sounds bad, mind you.

GameArs said...

Someone get a Ouija board and tell Kubrick that he can;t use Voice Overs! Didn't he read "Story"?


On a serious note - that script is sounding like a true epic. Lush, lustful and just plain enormous.

Who could have carried the weight of these roles as Kubrick wrote them?

Mystery Man said...

Mim & Mick - I prefer the legend over the reality. I felt that way about Donner's Superman II and Indy IV, too.

Carl - Hehehe... The technique I love and stolen, I mean learned is the way he shows us one thing but we hear something entirely different in a voice over. I think that's brilliant.
I love the way we hear Napoleon's love letters as we watch Josephine's affair. Or the way we hear the narrator praise Napoleon just as the world was praising him at the time, but yet we're watching the French soldiers pillage small Italian towns and take away food and livestock from poor farmers. Just brilliant. I'm dying to use that somewhere. It's in my bag of tricks ready for any good story.


bob said...

Hey MM- That's the exact technique you suggested for me on Father Max's voice over. Max was preaching on the radio but we were seeing the true effect of his words on screen at the same time. It can be a powerful method to show a chasm between perception and reality.

Mim said...

Yes, the only reason voice over is debated so hotly over there on TS is that most people don't know how to use it correctly.