Napoleon By Stanley Kubrick

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A commentary on the first eleven pages by J. S. Bernstein
The Napoleon screenplay by Stanley Kubrick appeared online sometime before the year 2000. It has since disappeared from view. But it has recently been announced that the Kubrick estate is preparing to have Napoleon published in book form. Anyone who is familiar with Kubrick will welcome the Napoleon script with great excitement. It is an extraordinarily vivid read, a splendid work of narrative art.
The Napoleon script is one of Kubrick’s unrealized projects, a magnificent “what might have been.” The script is dated September 29, 1969, and while the text has a certain polish and concision, suggesting that much work had already been devoted to each individual scene as well as to the overall structure, the scenes are not numbered, which indicates that this particular version of Napoleon is not a shooting script. The specific draft number, however, is missing from the title page. There is no way of knowing how much more work Kubrick may have wanted to undertake on the way to arriving at a shooting script. That said, the screenplay seems closer to a final draft than to a first draft. Strict structural symmetries that are characteristic of Kubrick’s films from 2001 onward are also evident in the tightly constructed, well wrought Napoleon.
A traditional rule of thumb for screenwriters is that the first ten pages of a screenplay are the most important.1 If the first ten pages fail to properly set up fundamental structural components of the story, the screenplay will be in danger of being received as deficient.

2 Kubrick’s Napoleon is an exemplar of this imperative of proper screenplay structure. The first eleven pages of Napoleon are a well-rounded, unified whole that sets in motion a variety of themes which will be expanded upon as the story progresses. Kubrick communicates a great deal in only eleven pages. The story is told with expert narrative economy.
The fade in to scene 1, and then the fade out at the end of scene 13, indicate that the first thirteen scenes are a structural “block,” a self-enclosed section, a component of the larger framework of the film, which is composed of six blocks, or parts. The block of thirteen scenes comprising the first eleven pages of the script is Part I of Napoleon. Consider the commentary that follows as a coming attraction for the screenplay.
This introductory scene prior to the main titles is a “thesis scene” setting the tone and defining aspects of the main character. Many thematic currents run through this mellow opening moment.
The film, which will involve complex battle scenes and the excitement of world conquest, begins quietly, delicately. Night, candles, comfort, patina of olden times: the soothing familial ambience recalls the gentle atmosphere of Lischen’s home in Barry Lyndon. It is an ordinary household. Scene 1 is a view of the simple pleasures of peaceful domesticity.

While many films begin with a character waking up from a night’s sleep, Napoleon opens with the main character looking drowsy, poised on the cusp of falling asleep. The fouryear-old boy is tucked in bed, sucking his thumb and cradling a teddy bear while his mother reads him a bedtime story. This surprising and unconventional beginning suggests that all of Napoleon’s life to come will be somewhat in the manner of a dream. Fundamental to Napoleon is the theme of “dreams” and the “dreamlike.” In the opening paragraph of the screenplay, the word “dreamily” sticks out as an important word (“dreamily sucks his thumb”); the adverb defines Napoleon’s character.
That his brother Joseph is already asleep beside him suggests, through this cinematic shorthand, that Napoleon and his mother share a bond that is deeper and more significant than her relationship with Joseph.
An omniscient narrator imparts some factual details. Napoleon is presented as a mommy’s boy. This weak, sickly child was smothered with a mother’s love, and grew up as the center of attention in the household. This suggests that Napoleon’s eventual triumphs in the social and political spheres originate from a particular inner personal need. His drive to become the most powerful man in the world is motivated primarily by his (childlike) desire for love and attention. The historical Napoleon has often been described, by critics of his time as well as by subsequent historians, as being a man devoted exclusively to self-glorifying actions. Kubrick, having the freedom of the artist, traces Napoleon’s need for fame and renown back to the comfort he felt when enfolded in his mother’s love. According to the workings of Napoleon’s psychology, world fame would serve as a surrogate for maternal attention.

First Napoleon is the center of his family, later on he becomes the center of the European world. This scene inaugurates the theme of “from humble beginnings came . . .”
In the scene, a mature Napoleon, in voice-over, says of his mother, “She would do anything for me.” This common expression takes on a sort of grandeur when it comes from the mouth of a man who lived on the largest scale, a man who became the most important personage in Europe for a time, a man who, so to speak, “could have done anything.” The idea of “anything,” of being up to the task, of fulfilling the promise, of carrying out amazing deeds, is powerfully resonant, coming from Napoleon.
The narrator’s remark about “St. Helena” is significant (“In middle age, he would write about her [his mother] from St. Helena”). The beginning of Napoleon is already looking toward its end. Indeed—just as in Napoleon’s first scene he is falling asleep, so in his final scene in the film, which takes place on St. Helena, he awakes from a dream. This is a prime example of the multilayered composition of Napoleon which is distinguished by many structural symmetries.
Various themes, techniques, and character moments employed in the Napoleon script will be used in Kubrick films that followed. The technique of the main character’s voice-over reappears in A Clockwork Orange, while the omniscient narrator, relating historical data, returns in Barry Lyndon. As in Barry Lyndon, sometimes the narrator of Napoleon leaps ahead of the story and tells the audience of what is to come, a dramatic technique that adds resonances of “grim implacable fate” and the “tragic irreversibility of time” to certain scenes. A teddy bear and mommy’s boy figure prominently in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.

Themes introduced in scene 1: the feminine, the dreamy, the well-loved child, humble beginnings, the frailty of the body, storytelling.
There is a fundamental reason why storytelling is a prominent theme in the first scene of the film. The historical Napoleon’s great fame resulted from the stories, rumors, and gossip of his martial exploits which spread throughout Europe.
This scene inaugurates themes which will be amplified in scenes to come. A young Napoleon wakes up at the Royal Military College on a “freezing winter morning” and audibly reacts to the discovery that the water in his pitcher had turned to ice during the night; and in the process embarrasses himself in the eyes of his fellow students.
Napoleon, age nine, is presented as an archetypal hick from the sticks. Unused to the cold, he is shivering, still the sensitive boy. That he is described as “sun-tanned” in this wintry environment emphasizes his fish-out-of-water condition.
He starts out as a naive boy from a sheltered environment, knowing nothing of the world. Juxtaposed to the intelligent and shrewd man to come is the raw youth who has never even seen ice in his life. Napoleon’s outburst—“Who has been putting glass in my pitcher?”—reminds us of Barry Lyndon’s “Lad! Can I have a new beaker? This one’s full of grease!” It is an impulsive statement which brings a storm of disrespect down upon him.

Napoleon is presented as someone set apart, alienated from the rest of the boys who show him no kindness. Napoleon is learning that being cruel comes naturally to too many people. There is no motherly love here. He is among people but he feels all alone. This sets the stage for the “self-made man” theme in scenes to come: if Napoleon is going to make it in the world, it is going to have to be under his own steam. That the other children laugh at his ignorance serves to motivate Napoleon to become a superior student, to prevent further mocking laughter and rude jibes. The rest of the screenplay could have been given the subtitle, “The Education of Napoleon.”2
Now comes the introduction of one of the major stylistic techniques of the first eleven pages of Napoleon: dynamic contrasts. Scene 2 takes place in winter. Scene 3 takes place in late summer.
Napoleon is still the dreamy boy, described by Kubrick as “lost in thought” with a “book under his arm.” He is a loner, a thinker. Sitting under a tree, he is set apart from the rest of the boys, who are eating an afternoon meal at a “rough table.”
Describing the sun-drenched location, Kubrick uses such words as “lovely” and “beautifully colored.” That Kubrick seeks to capture the beautiful with his camera lens reminds us of both Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut.
That Napoleon is reading “Caesar’s conquest of Gaul,” as the script has it, is another oftused film technique. In years to come, his childhood dreams will become a reality.

Once more the boys taunt Napoleon, going so far as to allude to his mother in a sarcastic way. They invade his peace and quiet—it is the first invasion of the film. Napoleon has come to learn that the world outside of the comfy family environment is a harsh one. He knows that if he is going to succeed in the world, he will have to push back when people aggravate him.
A class distinction is emphasized here. Bremond and Dufour, his two antagonists, are French noblemen’s sons. Bremond speaks elegantly (“Aren’t we terribly conscientious about our studies?”). Napoleon, however, is not polished like these other boys, and uses earthy language, which emphasizes his distance from the others. The theme of the social hierarchy is significant. Later in the screenplay, Napoleon will move in the highest society and will come to have the polished character of the likes of Bremond and Dufour. He will attain great heights in spite of his humble beginnings. These upper class boys are a glimpse into things to come for Napoleon.
Now comes the first fight in the film. The young Napoleon stands up for himself, unafraid to fight with two boys at once, even though Bremond is older and bigger than him. This comical moment suggests the motif, “from humble beginnings came . . .”
The other boys are presented as adversaries. No childhood friend of Napoleon’s is seen or mentioned. The early scenes of the film emphasize his aloneness.

8 Napoleon gazes into a mirror, regarding himself in his military uniform. This short scene continues the themes of being lost in thought and set apart.
“Dress makes the man.” This simple scene is elegant visual shorthand for Napoleon’s growth and progress. It conveys the passage of time and his growing maturity in the most economical means possible: a single shot (possibly).
That Napoleon is posted to a “crack regiment” (so the narrator imparts to us) implies that he is a superb student.3 This is the first pointed use of the theme of the “self-made man.” A second theme introduced here, one which will be further stressed before the end of Part I, is the concept of “performance,” specifically the theatricality of social roles (adulthood being the phenomenon of the assuming of poses). Napoleon is getting dressed, assuming a role, preparing to act on the world’s stage, already looking the part.
These three scenes are a montage of the teenage Napoleon’s military training. He gains instruction in firing a cannon, firing a musket, and map-reading. Napoleon is presented as part of a group, just one more soldier at this time. The “man apart” has found a niche for himself.
The dynamic contrasts continue. Scene 5 takes place in hot summer, scene 6 in snowy winter, and scene 7 in windy spring.

In scene 7, the Captain and the young soldiers struggle to read a map in windy weather. This is an interesting moment. It sets up a contrast between the coldly rational map and the chaos principle of the natural world. The map is a symbol of reason, while the wind is a random element. This is a significant distinction, because of what comes later— Napoleon’s downfall at Waterloo, when the unexpected overtakes the organized.
The map scene has a further significance. It looks forward to scene 18, in which Napoleon’s big break comes when he addresses a room of high government and military officials while gesturing at a large map of the port of Toulon. His plan to capture Toulon succeeds, and he is promptly promoted to Brigadier General.
Maps, in fact, will recur throughout the film as a visual motif of Napoleon’s warmaking exploits and empire building. The map is a primary symbol of Napoleon.
The study in contrasts continue. The military montage included the loud sounds of artillery and musket fire. Scene 8 is quiet and subdued.
The teenaged Napoleon is alone with his books by candlelight. Once again he is set apart from the other officers, who are outside of Napoleon’s room, producing sounds of revelry. (Kubrick describes them as “less conscientious officers.”)
This is a tableau of a young man educating himself. Napoleon, a sensitive soul, reads poetry and philosophy along with books on military subjects. This conveys that the

mature Napoleon will not be a simpleminded, power-mad warmonger, but a man of intellectual refinement, a man sympathetic to the niceties of aesthetics and science. His educational labors will endow him with an intuitive sense for battlefield geometry. Moreover, this scene looks forward to Napoleon’s time as leader of France, when, in the narrator’s words (in scene 80), he “gave proof of his brilliant legislative, administrative and organizational powers.” All of his reading now will serve him in good stead later. There is a moral lesson encoded in this simple scene: study hard, sharpen your intellect, and you can make your future, you can choose between destinies. Alternatively, party the night away like the less conscientious officers, and you might eventually end up powerless to direct your fate to your best advantage.
The omniscient narrator not only imparts historical data but also speaks of Napoleon’s inner life. Napoleon has “moods” which are “complex and varied.” This implies a feminine aspect to Napoleon’s character.4 The feminine theme will return in a variety of ways. In scene 104, for example, Napoleon refers to his new friend Tsar Alexander in voice-over in this suggestive manner: “If Alexander were a woman, I think I should fall passionately in love with him.” In scene 111, Napoleon dances a waltz with a male associate, Murat.
Through voice-over, Napoleon speaks of his alienation from the rest of the world. His line, “I find only sadness in everything around me” is a significant marker of his inner life. Sadness, because he is feeling sad about himself: he is alone, without close friends, far from his mother’s love. Like so many teenagers, he sees himself as sad and lonely, and is unhappy about not receiving the attention he craves or believes he deserves.
Napoleon doesn’t like the world as it is, so he will be driven to change it.

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Napoleon By Stanley Kubrick