Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Kubrick's "Napoleon" - Part VII

“The Defeat”


“The Thousand Mile March into Oblivion.”

Despite the pleading of the French diplomat, Tsar Alexander completely reneges on his treaty with Napoleon, who we see in the next scene cheerfully asking Barbier, “I would like to have all the books that are best worth consulting, on the topography of Russia…”

He enters Austria first and visits the royal family, the last time he would ever do so as emperor. This is also one of the last occurrences in which Stanley uses that clever technique of showing us one thing but making us hear words that undercut what we are seeing. As we SEE Napoleon embrace warmly the Emperor of Austria and his wife and King Frederich Wilhelm, we HEAR the narrator tell us that they sent letters declaring their secret allegiance to Russia.

Napoleon leads his “Grand Army” of 400,000 into the heart of Russia. He calculated all the probabilities and he had concluded that in every scenario he would win. The Russians are so outnumbered, they don’t even bother to fight. They simply retreat.

Napoleon's horse collapses. He stands to his feet and tells his entourage, “Well, this is an ill-omen, indeed. Caesar would probably turn back.” There is uneasy laughter.

Napoleon continues leading his army into Moscow… where they find it deserted. “…not a chimney sends up smoke, not a man appears on the battlements or at the gates. All is silence.”

Napoleon says, “It was all very well for Alexander to do more damage to his country than I could possibly do, but he could not destroy Moscow. This is the prize that will end the war. You will see. We will have peace offerings from him within a few days.”

Alexander is, indeed, ready to surrender the city.

But another man steps in, the Mayor of Moscow, Rostopchin. He has very different ideas.

Early one morning, while sleeping inside the Kremlin palace, Napoleon wakes to some strange light in his bedroom. He leaps out of bed and rushes to the window.

All of Moscow is in flames.

Incendiaries, under the orders of the Russian Secret Police, run through the streets and set fires to buildings. There are skirmishes between looting French soldiers and the Russian Secret Police. Napoleon says to Duroc, “to start a fire like this in five hours -- how is it possible? It would take a carefully organized plan, tons of combustibles and hundreds of people.”

He is told, “There are hundreds of agents, all over the city. The combustibles seem to have been carefully placed beforehand, and all the fire-engines have been removed from the city.”

A Russian General plants an idea in the ear of Alexander – lead Napoleon on to believe that they WILL sign a peace treaty until winter comes and then hide. Napoleon will be forced to retreat with nothing. “Can he afford to stay away from Paris for what will amount to a year by the time he commences his campaign again in the spring? Will he then be willing to remain, completely out of touch with Paris -- for a year? The French are like women. You cannot stay away from them for too long… Can Napoleon afford to abandon Moscow without signing even the preliminaries of a peace treaty with you?”

Napoleon does, indeed, wait. The narrator tells us, that “lulled by events and by realities he could not face, Napoleon seemed to fall into a dream in Moscow.”

He watches a theatrical performance in a Kremlin salon. He spends time discussing the merits of some new verses he had received. Or he discusses the regulations for the Comedie Francaise in Paris which took him three evenings to prepare.

They eventually withdraw from Moscow.

As the Russian cavalry moves through the debris scattered along the roads -- dead men and horses, overturned wagons containing the booty taken from Moscow, gold candlesticks, porcelain vases, paintings, beautifully bound books, silverware, priceless furniture, etc, the Narrator tells us: “It was not until October 20, that Napoleon withdrew the Grand Army from Moscow to begin their thousand mile march into oblivion.”

They were almost completely wiped out by the devastating winter weather. The narrator tells us that “by November 5, the temperature was down to 30-degrees of frost, and 30,000 French horses were dead. They were not bred to endure such cold and, not being properly shod for ice, had no chance to survive in these conditions.”

A French trooper soothes and strokes his dying horse, gives him a bit of sugar, and then he shoots him. The shot draws the attention of some ragged soldiers who rush up for a meal. They are kept at bay by the angry trooper and his pistol.

A dozen French soldiers sit around a small fire cooking bits of horse-flesh and a saucepan full of blood while four or five others fire at a small party of Cossacks to keep them at a distance. The men who are cooking could care less about the fighting.

In a Russian village, we see a posting house crammed with so many officers and men and horses that when a fire breaks out, no one can get out. They all die. The noise and flames attract other men who have been huddled outside in the open. Since they can do nothing, they crowd as close as they can to the flames to warm themselves or cook bits of horse flesh on the points of their swords.

Following their return to Paris, we learn that France has been invaded by all of the combined forces of England, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. There are broad cinematic strokes illustrating the loss to France, such as a shot of a mass of French refugees walking away from their burning village. French townspeople gather around a courier reading war dispatches. And we also see Napoleon in his office in Tulieres burning private papers and playing with his 3-year old son. Outside, he kisses Marie-Louise and son for the last time. They leave in a carriage with an escort in tow. He will never see them again.

And in blow after blow, despite his brilliance strategies, which really bedeviled his enemies, he would lose Paris. A treaty would be signed without his knowledge or approval. Napoleon would lose everything.

And in a visual stroke that's pointedly similar to the first appearance of Tsar Alexander I, Napoleon would sit down by the side of the road and hold his head.

The Narrator would tell us:

“In defeat, Napoleon would be punished by the Kings of Europe, according to a standard which they would not have applied to each other. He might marry the niece of Marie Antoinette, and call himself an Emperor, but that did not make him one.”


GameArs said...

It's amazing what a human being will do for fame, glory and pride.

Imagine if that kind of effort were put forth in peaceful endeavors.

I can see this part of the movie with a glorious James Horner or John Williams score over it. Just huge and dark and sweeping.

Mickey Lee said...


Take it back, Carl, take it back!

I know you really meant to say Howard Shore, right? :)

superstar said...

good picture

Matthew Spira said...

Good stuff. Since I am working on an epic biopic, I find myself looking at the script and MM's analysis on a regular basis.

Schmucks with Underwoods said...

Good stuff. I watched the made for TV series with Malkovich on Napolean and a documentary on DVD. Where did you download the script from?

Mim said...

The burning of Moscow could be visually reminiscent of the burning of Atlanta.

I love films where the themes and elements are tied together and become leitmotifs for a grand symphony. This script has all the makings of a great one.

Mystery Man said...

Carl, Stanley probably would have gone with classical pieces. Some classical music is already referenced in the script. However, if I had to pick a living composer, I might lean toward Alexandre Desplat. His score for the movie Birth sounds very Kubrickian to me. I always listen to it while I read Napoleon. In fact, Birth's "Prologue" is, in my mind, the Napoleon theme.

Mr. Underwood, I believe his script is still available here. Hope that helps. If not, send me an email.

On my first read, I thought Napoleon was really dry. But there were sequences I loved and I kept going back to it. Now I realize that, while there are weaknesses and imperfections, it is the foundation to a masterpiece. Not only that, I think it's a good illustration of poetics in cinema, particularly the technique of seeing one thing but hearing something quite different.

Just two more posts, and I'll be done. I'll have one final post with links to everything.


bob said...

Thanks for doing all this MM- I've learned alot from it!

GameArs said...

I'v e enjoyed many of Horner's scores. Especially Krull!

Yay, Krull!