The Art of War
I feel like I’m cautiously circling NAPOLEON, nibbling off tiny bits here and there. Like a man with a scary cake.
Kubrick was pretty dismissive of the film in The Film Director as Superstar – “as far as story and performance goes it’s a very crude picture.” He praises the filmmaking more in the Michel Ciment book, but still says it’s disastrous as a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte. It feels like when Kubrick watched films for research he still approached them like an audience member looking to be entertained, not as a filmmaker looking at craft. Arthur C. Clarke got him to watch THINGS TO COME in prep for 2001 and Kubes’ reaction was “I’m never watching a movie you recommend again!” I would have thought the film would have been diverting on technical grounds, at least.
My theory relates to animated maps. Kubrick seems to have been particularly keen on rendering Napoleon’s genius as a strategist, which is why he needed 40,000 extras to play the various armies, but also why he wanted to be able to show figures on a map, large troop movements in a kind of stylised time-lapse. So I can see why he would have been appalled by Abel Gance’s rather different approach.
Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon looks at a map…
And his eyes BLINK ON AND OFF. And we see flashes, diagrams, sums, arcane symbols, superimposed war footage. A sort of blipvert montage of a brainstorm, suggesting that Napoleon is producing cogitations we mere mortals couldn’t possibly hope to understand, and which we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about. This black magic approach seeks to convince us of Bonaparte’s genius by baffling us with bullshit, whereas for Kubrick the whole challenge was to explain, to render comprehensible to us so we can grasp just how clever the Frenchman was.
I can agree that Kubrick’s explicatory approach, if that’s the result you’re after, was superior. But then, he never made the film, did he?