Hollywood’s Waterloo: where are the great Napoleon films?

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Hollywood seems able to make a film about any historical subject imaginable, with one major exception: the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. It almost seems cursed. The latest development has seen Kitbag, Ridley Scott’s big-budget film about the emperor, lose its Empress Josephine just as filming was due to begin. Jodie Comer, who was to have played the role opposite Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon, has pulled out citing Covid-induced scheduling conflicts; Scott swiftly cast the excellent Vanessa Kirby in the role instead. 

Yet screen accounts of Napoleon’s exploits seem as problematic as his ill-fated 1812 advance into Russia. After the first, triumphant filmed version of his early life, simply entitled Napoleon and directed by Abel Gance in 1927, there have been numerous attempts to bring the emperor’s story to cinemas. All have either failed commercially or floundered within pre-production hell. Most of his appearances in film have either been in comic cameo roles, such as in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Time Bandits, or in bit parts in other stories such as War and Peace or the Marquis de Sade drama Quills. He exists mostly in cinema as an iconic caricature, bicorne hat firmly in place. 

The only major film made about his life in the past half-century was Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo, an epic Italian-USSR co-production that starred the American actor Rod Steiger as Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as his nemesis the Duke of Wellington. As the title suggests, the film dealt almost exclusively with the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and cost a massive £12 million (around £120 million today), making it one of the most expensive films ever made. Not only did it attract scathing reviews criticising its incoherence and lack of human interest (Roger Ebert wrote that “the leading characters turn out scarcely more human than [the] extras”), but it was a massive box office failure, making only £1 million. 

The man who was most irritated by its disastrous reception was the great Stanley Kubrick, fresh from his success with 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film had been a significant financial hit for MGM Studios, and so Kubrick had approached them with his plans for a film about Napoleon’s life, which would have been the first major picture since Gance’s. Unfortunately, while the previous head of MGM, Robert O’Brien, had admired Kubrick’s visionary work, his successor Louis F Polk Jr was a more financially minded figure who began cancelling the production of any films that might not be guaranteed smash hits. 

According to Kubrick’s biographer Filippo Ulivieri, author of the forthcoming book Kubrick Unmade, the director despaired at the changing of the guard. As he put it: “The lights went out in Hollywood.” But his films were usually profitable, and so he was able to agree a deal with United Artists at the  beginning of 1969. He faced several rival projects, including Bondarchuk’s Waterloo, but also a more romantically-focused film provisionally entitled Napoleon and Josephine, to be directed by Bryan Forbes and produced by Warner Brothers. As Ulivieri notes: “Despite Kubrick’s name, his film was not perceived as unique, which may have had an impact in the management decisions.” 

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