Friday, February 09, 2007

Kubrick's "Napoleon" - Part VIII

"Elba, St. Helena, & Beyond."

In the final 20 pages of the script, we see four sequences:
  1. Napoleon’s banishment to the island of Elba.
  2. His return to power.
  3. The world unites against him and defeats him.
  4. He is banished finally to St. Helena where he dies.
The Narrator explains how Napoleon was stripped of his throne and given the “token sovereignty of the tiny island of Elba, with the title of Emperor, a yearly income of 2 million francs, an army of 700, and a navy of 3 ships.”

In a scene designed to be a giant contrast to Napoleon's glory days where he was given grand, triumphal receptions in Italy and France with enthusiastic crowds, banners, flags, and the works, here, we witness Napoleon’s humiliation. Stanley describes it as “a comic opera parody of former grandeur.” Napoleon marches in a pathetic procession with a few city officials down “the main street of Elba.” He’s cheered by the local population. A band of twenty fiddlers -- no brass, no percussion -- marches along playing the Elban national anthem.

We’re treated to a scene in Malmaison involving Josephine and Tsar Alexander I. They have become romantically involved. Alexander promises to keep her financially secure for the rest of her life. Unfortunately, that would be very short lived, as the Narrator tells us that Josephine would die two weeks later of pneumonia.

Back in Elba, Napoleon is devastated by the news of her death. Nobody cared to write him and tell him. He had to read about it in the papers. And now, with his son so very far away, he cries that he has lost everything that is precious to him.

We learn that “Marie-Louise would prove to be a little more than a dull, commonplace, sensual girl, accustomed to obey the dictates of her father, who easily dissuaded her from joining Napoleon, and carefully chose instead as her aide-de-camp, the gallant and dashing General Neipperg, who soon became her lover. They would have two children together before Napoleon's death... Napoleon would never see his son again, and the child would grow up in gilded isolation, melancholy, ignored by his mother, in chronic ill-health and haunted by the legend of this father. He would die at the age of 22.”

Politically, the circumstances were ripe for Napoleon’s comeback. The army and the people of France were ready to rise up against Louis XVIII, a king marked by clumsiness and disdain and who proved that the Bourbon dynasty had learned nothing and forgotten everything.

Napoleon sets sail to France with his 700 men. On a road, he is stopped by a regiment of government troops led by General Cannet. He intends to arrest Napoleon. This is a sequence that I really love. A nervous aide rides up to Napoleon and says, “General Cannet presents his compliments to the Emperor, and requests that he lay down his arms and surrender himself and his men.”

Napoleon replies, “Thank you, Colonel. Please present my compliments to General Cannet, and tell him that I shall come presently and bring the answer myself.”

General Cannet sees Napoleon riding toward him. He tells his troops, “Bonaparte is on his way to attempt to illegally reestablish himself over the legitimate government of our King, Louis XVIII. It is our responsibility, as loyal soldiers of France, to prevent him from doing this, by whatever means are necessary.”

The men quietly dissent.

Napoleon rides up and greets the troops. “Hello, men of the 5th -- do you recognize your Emperor?”

The troops cheer and scream.

“I recognize you -- we are old friends. I know you from Friedland and Borodino. And, you there, Sergeant Monestier, how are you?”

More cheers.

“My good friends, I am told that Marshal Ney has promised the King to bring me back to Paris in an iron cage. I have sent word to my old friend, Marshal Ney, that he can make that a wooden box, if he is able to manage it, but I certainly must refuse an iron cage -- I'm not as young as I used to be, and I can't accept such drafty accommodations!”

Laughter and cheers from the ranks.

“Men of the 5th, your general has invited me to surrender myself and my men, but I come to make you an offer -- Men of the 5th, will you join me?”

Thunderous cheers from the ranks. The men rush forward to Napoleon. Some fling themselves at his feet, kissing his coat and his hands. Napoleon's eyes fill with tears.

And in a great transition, a stark contrast to the previous victorious scene, Napoleon is back in Tuileries Dining Room sitting at a large table – eating alone. In fact, this visual statement illustrates what we hear the Narrator tell us, that all of the allies had quickly patched up their differences and they had all refused to have any diplomatic dealings with Napoleon. They declared him a criminal beyond the protection of the law. All throughout Stanley’s script, we were given scene after scene of seeing one thing but hearing something different, which had undercut the meaning of what we were seeing. However, here, we are given a scene in which we see and hear something that has the same meaning – that Napoleon is utterly alone.

He is bitter and gloomy. A valet enters and tells Napoleon that Madame Avrillon has arrived. She was shown to his bedroom. Napoleon says very coldly, “Please ask her to get undressed, and tell her I'll be along as soon as I can.”

With an animated map and about six pages of battles scenes, we see the world’s armies led by Blucher and Wellington mobilize and descend upon France and Napoleon. We’re given scene after scene illustrating how close Napoleon came to winning certain battles but lost due to calculated tactical errors. Napoleon would become painfully ill. He would rest the decisions of the war on the shoulders of Marshal Ney, whose incompetence would prove to be his undoing. He would “make tactical blunder after blunder, while gallantly rushing around the battlefield like a young subaltern.”

And we would witness the decimation of the French Army.

When the returning monarchy reacquires France’s throne, Ney would be shot for treason for joining Napoleon.

On the deck of a ship, a depressed Napoleon stares at the cliffs of St. Helena, which is a mass of bare volcanic granite rising steeply out of the sea. Napoleon had surrendered to the English, his lifelong enemies. The Narrator tells us “he was sent as a prisoner to the tiny island of St. Helena, in the South Atlantic, a thousand miles from the nearest land. He would live out the last five years of his life there, amid the petty squabbles of his own entourage, and his captors.”

“His house was a hastily rebuilt collection of buildings originally constructed as cattle-sheds. His four constricted rooms were infested with rats. His food and wine, and opened mail were subjects of continuous dispute.”

“His final illness would, until the very end, be dismissed by English doctors as a diplomatic disease.”

In his bedroom, Count Bertrand, “a figure of despair in this dimly-lit room,” keeps a lonely death-watch.

Napoleon stirs.

“Who is there?”

“Bertrand, sire.”

“I have just had the most vivid... dream... about Josephine.”

“Yes, sire?”

“She was sitting there... and it was as if I had last seen her only the night before... She hadn't changed -- she was still the same – still completely devoted to me... and she told me we were going to see each other again and, never again, leave each other... She has promised me. Did you see her?”

“No, sire... I was asleep.”

“I wanted to kiss her, but she didn't want to kiss me... She slipped away, the moment I wanted to take her in my arms.”

And he dies.

Cut to his grave site.

His grave is unmarked. The Narrator tells us, “Napoleon died on May 5, 1821. Hudson Lowe insisted the inscription on the tomb should read ‘Napoleon Bonaparte.’ Montholon and Bertrand refused anything but the Imperial title – ‘Napoleon.’ In the end, it was left nameless.”

And in the final shot, we’re in the bedroom of his mother, Letizia. She is dressed in black. She sits alone, “a study of gloom and lament.”

We move “to an open portmanteau. It is filled with very old children's things -- faded toys, torn picture books, wooden soldiers and the Teddy bear Napoleon slept with as a child.”


GameArs said...

There are few stories in history of someone who climbs so high and sinks as low. The worst part is how Napoleon becomes a self-parody. Sad.

This has been a fantastic series, MM.

bob said...

You know I missed this discussion early on, but why didn't this ever get made, considering Kubricks near obsession with the topic. I echo carl's thought, fantastic analysis MM. I'm a huge believer in the cyclical nature of history, and the amazing capacity of humans to forget the most important lessons about the past, I'm coming to the conclusion that whether I'm successful or not, my goal as a screenwriter is to at least remind myself about these lessons.

Mystery Man said...

Thanks, guys. I'm going to have one more post of final thoughts in which I'm going to talk about poetics in cinema. I've already written it. It's really great. There's a lot of new stuff you haven't heard, particularly "vertical" and "horizontal" drama.

Bob - This would have been expensive, make no mistake. And nobody believed that enough people would go see this film in order to break even. In fact, at the time, there were other films that had come out about Napoleon that were money-losing bombs. People would be more apt to see something like this today so long as a "name actor" was in the lead role, and you had epic, sweeping, computer-generated battle sequences. Had Stanley lived longer, I think he could've made it.

Now, of course, I don't want it to get made. Like Indiana Jones IV, I prefer the legend over the reality.


GameArs said...

"People would be more apt to see something like this today so long as a "name actor" was in the lead role, and you had epic, sweeping, computer-generated battle sequences." - MM

I think someone like James Cameron or Ridley Scott could handle it and do it justice.

Mim said...

I'm with MM. Sometimes it's better to believe in the legend of what could have been, rather than be disappointed AND bloated from too much popcorn.