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?

19 Responses to “The Art of War”

  1. I don’t know if Kubrick’s approach would have been better necessarily…because it essentially depoliticizes Napoleon.

    That’s why I prefer Youssef Chahine’s Adieu Bonaparte. For one thing, Patrice Chereau looks like Napoleon and secondly, it’s critical of his megalomaniacal BS by dealing with the real people trampled for the sake of la gloire.

    I also prefer Herbert Lom in Vidor’s War and Peace…really cold and scary portrayal.

    That’s also why I am glad that Kubrick didn’t make that film…since his own megalomania would not have given him the detachment to deal with L’Empereur.

  2. But it would be interesting to see Kubrick not detached for once.

    Would Jack Nicholson have worked? That was the plan, after SK saw Easy Rider.

    I think Kubrick’s real interest in Napoleon was in his effectiveness as commander, his strategic genius – you could make a film about that without caring about politics. But films which bite off an entire life from birth to death rarely work…

  3. “Things To Come” is exactly the film I’m in the mood for right now. Just bunged it on.
    I love the idea of Kubrick as explainer.
    (Was Napoleon a Frenchman?)

  4. I quite agree about “cradle to grave” biopics. Taking a specific moment from a person’s life is always the best way to go. The actors involved can create a sense of the individual(s) and the audience can be more fully engaged.

    What Kubrick would have done is hard to fathom. There is reportedly a room in his house filled entirely with books about Napoleon. There is also a script others are planning to film as a TV miniseries. If this was going to be all about troop movements he covered that in “Barry Lyndon.”

  5. revelator60 Says:

    Kubrick was also probably being territorial–an equally gifted filmmaker had poached his projected terrain with memorable results, so he dismissed his work. Given the limitations of not being able to treat geopolitics and grand strategy in dialogue, Gance’s story and his film’s performances were not crude.

    Gance treats Napoleon’s early (and less memorable) victories in an impressionistic manner and instead focuses on what was equally important, Napoleon’s charisma and leadership. Perhaps this is what Kubrick found crude, since Gance viewed Napoleon through the romantic lens of writers like Victor Hugo (Paul Cuff’s recent book “A Revolution for the Screen” fully explores this connection), but I doubt Kubrick could have done a better job.

    I’ve read the Taschen book of Kubrick’s Napoleon script, and while it’s unfair to judge what wasn’t a final draft, I found it disappointing. Kubrick seemed more interested in staging an orgy (where Napoleon and Josephine meet cute) than in battle formations and everyone aside from Napoleon came off as a cipher. I’d take Gance’s unmade Napoleon films over Kubrick’s dream project.

  6. Jack Nicholson as Napoleon would have worked in a Anthony Hopkins as Nixon way…looks nothing like the real guy or how we imagine him, but can potentially make us come to understand the man and his motivations.

    The real Napoleon was Corsican and spoke French with a thick Italian accent (the Joke was that the Russian Tsar spoke better and more fluent French than him)…and he was an outsider in France, so you need an actor who gets that duality across.

  7. “The real Napoleon was Corsican and spoke French with a thick Italian accent ”
    In Red Monarch Jack Gold has Stalin and Beria speaking with strong Northern Irish accents to show their outsider status as Georgians. He uses other regional accents – Northern, Glasgow, Welsh etc – to show the diverse origins of the Party members. It’s entertaining that Gance establishes Admiral Hood’s Englishness by having him pour a cup of tea from a silver pot, which just happens to be on hand, before giving the order to withdraw the English [sic] fleet and burn the French ships.

  8. Gance takes care to establish Napoleon’s different accent, even without sound, via intertitles, and Corsica is depicted as a divided land with loyalties variously going to the French, British, Italians…

    I like to think it’s OK to call Napoleon a Frenchman based on him being from “one of the twelve regions of France.”

    I wonder if Nicholson’s Napoleon would have been surrounded by the likes of Leonard Rossiter, Patrick Magee and Philip Stone to make him seem like an outsider?

    Kubrick had his room of Napoleon books, and a room with filing cabinets documenting what Napoleon was up to on every single day of his life. Plus a room full of the Polaroids taken as back-up light readings for every shot of every Kubrick film…

  9. Napoleon was certainly considered French by the people who took Nationalism seriously: The Jacobins (among whom Napoleon counted himself until Robespierre’s downfall). They were after all defining a secular and multi-ethnic vision of France for Jews, Protestants and Black people (which sadly didn’t take and is nowadays seriously endangered by Le Pen). Napoleon courageously sided with the Republic at a time of total civil war, and sacrificed a great deal for that loyalty, and in exchange the Republic rewarded him with a promotion the Kingdom never would have given him. That nationalism would accept Napoleon as he was more or less but later decades either Frenchified him or made him Corsican-Not-French.

    So having Napoleon played and portrayed as a Frenchman largely revolves around…heh…identity politics, can an italian-accented Napoleon be accepted as French by the public. And by public, you have not only the francophone but the global audience. And these days the issue is whether we consider Napoleon French, or Pan-European.

    I actually wonder if Kubrick was interested in that aspect of Napoleon, because identity and exclusion are key parts of his movies, especially Eyes Wide Shut, and Barry Lyndon certainly. And obviously, being Jewish, he understood what that meant on a bone-deep level (and let’s not forget that Napoleon instituted Jewish deghettoization across Europe, his great redeeming action which made him perennially popular among European Jews).

    I mean what is Napoleon if not the greatest social climber who ever lived, and Barry Lyndon is about a social climber. So in a way, I feel that Barry Lyndon is kind of his meta-commentary on Napoleon…and the marriage between Redmond and Lady Lyndon is not unlike Napoleon and Josephine.

  10. Surprised you didn’t mention “Sherlock’s” detectovision: text deductions floating over the clues to show how he’s seeing more that the surface. Best use was his meeting with the enigmatic Irene Adler — he looks at other people in the room to assure himself his powers are working, but she remains annotation-free.

    On accents, recalling an article from way way back by a fellow who translated movies. He described how the German version of “Pygmalion” subbed in a lower-class Berlin accent for Eliza’s Cockney. He also noted that war movies were the easiest to translate, because soldiers appeared to talk much the same in any language, to the point of similar slang.

  11. The difference with Sherlock is that we get to read his clues and make sense of them, whereas Napoleon’s are an impressionistic scurry of images, incomprehensible to all but him.

    Barry Lyndon surely allowed Kubes to get some of his Napoleonic ambitions out of his system. But he never got to make a film about a genius, which seems a shame.

    Frederic Raphael tells us in his Kubrick memoir that SK particularly didn’t want his protagonist in Eyes Wide Shut to be Jewish, as he is in the source story. But I don’t think Raphael asked why, or if he did, either he got no answer or he doesn’t supply it. Raphael thought maybe Kubes was self-hating, but that seems unlikely to me.

  12. Most likely, Kubrick didn’t want to be too self-revealing in EWS and wanted to keep a sense of detachment and that suited him with that film.

    I feel Kubrick was better being detached and slightly apart from the material. It created the distinct tonal sensibility in his films.

    Which is why I think he never managed to make Napoleon, he was not able to detach himself from Napoleon, from the myth of his genius, because that was someone Kubrick can’t portray with that ironic detachment so crucial to his art. That was a certain limitation he came against and failed to overcome.

    That’s why Barry Lyndon worked so well.

  13. “Gance takes care to establish Napoleon’s different accent, even without sound, via intertitles”…the effect of intertitles and silent acting is very different from spoken acting though. I can’t help but think that Nicholson as Bonaparte would go along with Malkovich as Wellington as one of the great miscastings of all time, though.

  14. Prior to Jack, Kubrick considered Oskar Werner and David Hemmings the two leading contenders for the role. Ian Holm was also considered. Werner was later cast in the Hardy Kruger role in Barry Lyndon, before his drinking led to a quick exit.

    (Barry Lyndon largely is Kubrick’s version of Napoleon, btw, the rise and fall of a wandering, eventually outcast outsider, a self-made man never accepted by the class he bullied himself into. And several vignettes from the late 60s Napoleon draft found their way into the Thackeray adaptation instead.)

    Kubrick was also planning a complete rewrite of the screenplay in the early 70s, and in an interview with Ciment (jokingly?) alluded to the possibility of a TV miniseries, dropping the name of Al Pacino. While it’s difficult to imagine Kubrick aiming for the small screen, John le Carre/David Cornwell’s new memoir says he received a call from Kubrick wondering why he hadn’t sold him the rights to A Perfect Spy when he offered; Cornwell (they were friends) said he had never heard of such an offer, a result of Kubrick’s secrecy in pursuing the rights. When Cornwell advised him the BBC had the rights and was prepping a miniseries, Kubrick reportedly offered his services as director! When Cornwell passed this on to BBC execs, they demurred as they didn’t want to go over budget …

    (And, yes, Kubrick apparently had a lifelong ambition to film an orgy, though the one in the late 60s Napoleon script is a stage performance; he also considered inserting one into the ghostly ball in The Shining. He had also planned a sex scene for Josephine and her lover Hippolyte Charles that was described with the entire stage direction of “Maximum erotica.” And he had offered Josephine to Audrey Hepburn!)

    In re: the Gance film, Kubrick also had a more generous appraisal of the technique in an interview with Penelope Houston and Philip Strick while promoting A Clockwork Orange, wherein he admitted that there were technical aspects still considered innovations when tried in the present day. He mostly found fault with it as a historical film, feeling that it didn’t dramatize the times — and he claimed in this very interview that no one, including himself, had succeeded in making a great historical film. (He even, on another occasion, expressed disappointment in his patron saint Ophuls’ Lola Montes.) This put his later praise of Danton (discussed a couple threads ago) into even further relief.

  15. Of course, Spielberg and HBO are now developing a miniseries version of “Kubrick’s Napoleon“, which involves the expansion and likely complete rewrite of his last draft, initially intended for the camera of Baz Luhrman but now for Cary Fukunaga’s.

    My dream casting would be Oscar Isaac and Marion Cotillard, but I’m rather far down the list of people in a position to make such suggestions …

  16. Was Ian Holm considered for Napoleon by Kubrick before or after Time Bandits?

  17. Chereau wanted to make a Pacino. He came out here to L.A. and spoke to the suits. No takers.

  18. “Was Ian Holm considered for Napoleon by Kubrick before or after Time Bandits?”

    Well before, this was in the late 60s, after 2001 when he was trying to set it up at MGM.

  19. Pretty sure Napoleon wasn’t really in active development by the time of Time Bandits. So Gilliam was probably picking up Kubrick’s thought.

    Hemmings seems like a good idea, and bankable in 1969, but Holm would have been fantastic. The main reason the film didn’t happen was the giant loss MGM announced in 1969, leading them to cancel it and Richard Lester’s Flashman, another historical roadshow picture, but a very different one.

    I dig the idea of Pacino, if you got him at the right time of life / level of sobreity.

    And though filming Kubrick’s unfinished scenario strikes me as essentially a con, Cary Fukunaga is a fine director, and he has the added advantage of not being Baz Luhrman.

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