Premise: A look at the life of the great Napoleon Bonaparte.
About: Kubrick believed nobody had ever made a great historical film and he planned to be the first. But his expensive dream project kept falling apart, even at the height of his popularity. The point of contention seemed to be the budget, which was obviously enormous due to all the battle scenes and extras needed. Had Kubrick lived into this new digital era where the 17 year old who works at the local 7-11 counter can create a 20,000 person digital army on his Dell Laptop in minutes, he surely would’ve made this – probably after Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick’s research on Napoleon is legendary. He believed that Napoleon was the most fascinating person to ever live and wanted to get him right. Therefore he sent an assistant around the world to literally follow in Napoleon’s footsteps (”Wherever Napoleon went, I want you to go,” he told him), even getting him to bring back samples of earth from Waterloo so he could match them for the screen. He read hundreds of books on the man and broke the information down into categories “on everything from his food tastes to the weather on the day of a specific battle”. He gathered together 15,000 location scouting photos and 17,000 slides of Napoleonic imagery. A book has even been written of the efforts called Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made (only a hundred have been printed however – so they’re kind of expensive). You can read more about Kubrick’s obsession over at Viceland.
Writer: Stanley Kubrick
Details: 154 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).
Carson + Biopic = thputthhhh (spitting noise)
That’s usually how it goes at least. And on top of that, I appear to be the one non-Stanley Kubrick fan in the universe. I mean, I respect the guy’s talent and all. But his worldview is way too bleak for me. So when I looked at this 154 page tyrannosaurus, I nearly spontaneously combusted. It was as if someone decided to dump all the elements that I hated into a screenplay cup and forced me to drink it.
Napoleon did have one thing going for it, however, and that’s that I knew very little about the man (no pun intended). I knew he was a great war tactician. I vaguely knew something about his ego leading to his demise. But that was about it. At the very least, I’d be surprised by the story.
Napoleon is a pretty traditional treatment of the biopic genre. We meet Napolean at age 6, and follow his life until his death. His childhood and early adult years are nothing to write home about. He goes to military school at age 16. He’s a good soldier – a good leader. When one of his captains shows an ineptness at handling an approaching mob, Napoleon casually steps in and writes up a tactical maneuver to defeat them. It works without a hitch, and the higher ups note that they may have someone special on their hands.
This begins a series of scenes where Napoleon rapidly rises up the ranks, winning pretty much every battle he’s a part of. And there were a lot of battles. Back in the late 1700s, everybody was at war with each other. The British hated the French. The French hated the British. Russia hated everybody. We may bitch about war now but back then there was so much war that someone may have lived an entire life without ever experiencing peace.
Eventually Napoleon met and fell in love with a beautiful young woman named Josephine. It was a match made in heaven. If heaven were hell! Maybe it was a part of his Napoleon-complex but Napoleon had, like, zero game. He wrote Josephine hundreds of letters smothering her in his love, to the point where she was disgusted by him.
This led to an infamous affair with another French military official of which everyone on the planet seemed to know about except Napoleon, mostly out of denial. When he found out, he became set on divorcing Josephine, but she begged him to stay with her and because Napoleon was secretly a softie, he called off the divorce.
In the meantime, Napoleon was making Genghis Khan look like a pussy. His appetite for war was insatiable. And he was revolutionizing it with every battle. Napoleon stressed mobility over everything else, allowing his armies to move in ways no other armies had moved before. He won so many battles that he basically became a God which eventually allowed him to anoint himself Emperor of France. His success was such that nobody tried to stop him, despite the absurdity of the act.
He soon turned his sites on defeating his arch-nemesis Britain, who France had been warring with for something like 200 years. His plan was to cut them off economically. Napoleon became best buddies with Alexander I, the emperor of Russia, after France defeated them. And his terms for victory were very simple. Don’t trade with Britain anymore. The idea was to weaken the island so that when the time was right, he’d be able to strike. But after awhile, the unpredictable Alexander felt he was losing out from the trade just as much as the Britons, and simply stopped following the terms.
Napoleon realized he had no choice but to take down his old buddy, and marched a huge army into Russia, planning to take over Moscow. Surprisingly, the Russians decided not to fight back and when Napoleon got there, the city was deserted. Napoleon had won without even raising a finger. But there was a problem. Alexander refused to sign the treaty.
I’ve never heard of this tactic before but it turned out to be a good one. You can’t march an army into another country, spending millions of dollars on the campaign, and then just walk back home without a signed treaty. So Napoleon marched on to St. Petersburg to take that city instead. This turned out to be his undoing, of course, as most of his army died during the trek in a relentless Russian winter. Napoleon’s legacy never recovered after that.
First thing I noticed about this – and something I didn’t expect at all (I had never read a Kubrick script) – was just how silky smooth the writing was. Having come off that monstrosity that was “The Cradle Will Rock,” where Orson Welles assaulted me with his minefield style of writing, I just assumed that this is how the old-timers did it. But Kubrick was apparently ahead of his time, keeping everything lean, to the point, and very easy on the eyes. I’m telling you, go read ten pages from each of these screenplays and you’ll see the difference between an easy to read script and an impossible to read one.
But really, the reason why Napoleon works is because Kubrick stresses the micro over the macro. Whenever you tackle a huge subject, it’s really easy to get lost in the bigness of it all, stressing the famous battles or big races or memorable performances or whatever that subject was famous for. But what the audience is going to connect with – the thing that’s going to pull them in – is what happens on the personal front. What happens behind closed doors.
Napoleon’s complicated relationship with a wife who doesn’t love him creates a sympathetic figure out of a man who basically lived for bloodshed. That’s not easy to do. And instead of the focus being on huge battles between France and Russia, Kubrick instead focuses on what happens afterwards, when Napoleon and Alexander became great friends, a likewise complicated relationship that Napoleon similarly misjudged.
And I think that’s a theme Kubrick was going for here and another reason the script worked so well. Napoleon was a master at understanding thousands of people at a time, but incompetent at understanding those same people individually.
Kubrick also made the choice of adding a narrator for the story and really, if you’re writing a period biopic, I don’t know how you can do it any other way. There’s just so much shit that the audience needs to know, and you’re jumping through time so often, that you need that all-knowing booming voice to orient you. So if you’re writing that big period piece, you’re probably going to need a narrator.
I think where Napoleon falters is in the one spot that every biopic falters. You are a slave to history. Despite my celebration of the micro here, when you’re making a movie about a great war figure, you want to end your movie with a major battle. But even though that would’ve been ideal from a story sense, it’s not how history was written. Instead, Napoleon chases an army that refuses to fight him for 20 pages, waits another 10 pages as their leader refuses to sign a treaty, heads off to another city for 10 pages, watches his men die, goes back to Paris which has been taken over, tries to take it back himself, and eventually gets exiled to an island. Instead of getting that big climactic third act, everything just fizzles away. And it’s a real shame. Because it’s built up as these two old friends about to throw all their might at each other in what will be one of the great wars of all time. Then one of them runs away? Try throwing that into your next fictional final battle climax.
So I was a little disappointed in how this script ended. But man, Kubrick is a really good writer, and his love for his subject matter is unparalleled. This isn’t some dyslexic confused romp like Oliver Stone’s 8 versions of Alexander, but a real story about a real man. And one that needs to be made. You don’t even need to rewrite this thing. You could film it as is. What is Hollywood waiting for?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: I gleaned this piece of knowledge from How To Write a Movie In 21 Days. When you write a story, there’s a knack to start that story from far away. But for a story to work, you have to tell the story from up close. Napoleon is a great example of this. When you think of Napoleon, you think of his fame, the huge battles he was a part of, his adoring country. But these aren’t what give us an emotional connection to the story. It’s the man inside those battles. Who he is. His passions, his flaws, his relationships, his idiosyncrasies. Tell your story from “up close” and the “far away” will emerge with more meaning.