The Napoleon Epic: A Holy Grail of Historical Cinema

Painting of Napoleon’s Return from Elba by Charles de Steuben

When it comes to the cinematic landscape of nowadays, one focused on huge budgets, franchises and billion-dollar profits, it is rather hard to think of historical movies that fit the profile. Cinematic masterpieces such as Silence, a passion project of Martin Scorsese focused on Shūsaku Endō’s novel that tells the story of two Portuguese Jesuit priests sailing to Japan in the 17th century and witnessing the brutal rejection and decimation of a Christian Japanese minority by imperial Japanese forces. While it is a dramatisation of historical events it is still an unrecognised masterpiece that I thoroughly enjoyed. It was a 2016 post-Christmas release in the UK where half of the cinema viewers in the same theatre left half-way through the movie (2 Hours and  49 mins). With a reported budget of approximately $ 40 million it only made $ 23,737,523 worldwide (according to The audience reception did not come close to reflecting the craftsmanship, the very complex themes of betrayal and redemption, not to mention the cinematic window into a fascinating 17th century Japanese context.


Another example of a bold project was Justin Kurzel’s 2015 adaptation of Macbeth, with the director reinterpreting the story of the legendary Scottish king through the perspective of his severe PTSD, showing what impact warfare in Medieval Scotland could have even on a king. As with Silence it simply did not perform at the Box Office, with many people deeming it as another rather boring, slow-tempo, too artistic flick as opposed to a creative approach to a quintessential Shakespearean figure apprehended through another lens with a tremendous cast. Interesting comparisons here could be drawn with Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, a mid 90’s action packed blockbuster riddled with historical inaccuracies which became a cult classic. Braveheart had straight-forward action, a hugely popular Mel Gibson and an iconic Scottish character. It encapsulates the ultimate martyrish heroism against all odds. Kurzel’s Macbeth depicts the machinations that erode the mind and soul of an antihero. The scars inflicted by battles, violence, untimely deaths and betrayal are omnipresent and the reckless immoral and maintenance of power obtained through insidious methods fuels the story. Of course ultimately it is based on a more fictionalised and Shakespearean depiction of a real Scottish king. Ultimately this is a movie that forces the audience to think about meaning, symbolism,impacts of war, complex character dynamics. Macbeth demands patience and observation, elements which unfortunately are unappealing to large audiences.


Of course there are some striking exceptions that all seem to revolve around the 20th century and the World Wars. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Joe Right’s Darkest Hour with Gary Oldman, both are 2017 movies focused on WW2, something still very ingrained in recent human memory, arguably the world’s worst catastrophe ever. Whether you are German, British, Italian, American, Japanese, Russian; people who aren’t necessarily cinephiles  you will want to go and watch anything related to the Second World War, even more so if Christopher Nolan, one of the most recognised and acclaimed directors, is at the helm of such a project.

In an increasingly monopolistic and excruciatingly mercantilistic cinema industry (check the top 20 Box Offices from the last 4 years) it is difficult to see directors trying to embark on passion projects focused on historical giants. We are lucky that sometimes independent studios will give brilliant writers and directors such as Armando Iannuci a chance to take a satirical historical approach to events such as The Death of Stalin.


All of this is related to arguably one of the largest, most ambitions historical productions ever to be planned by Stanley Kubrick. That was his Napoleon project that never saw the lens of a camera.

After the resounding success of 2001 A Space Odyssey, a film completed in 1968, it was said that by mid 1969 Kubrick already had a biographical script for a Napoleon movie
(available here) focusing on the Frenchmen’s life, a 180 minute dramatised historical documentary about the rise and fall of someone who had redefined the 19th century, Europe and to a certain extent the world. What is remarkable is the section containing production notes, at the end of the script. The movie would have taken 150 days (+/- 10). Most of the battles and exterior scenes would have been filmed in Yugoslavia, with interior scenes shot in Italy (interesting that nothing would have been filmed in France). Kubrick knew that in order to do justice to a character like Napoleon he required vast epic scenes involving staggering numbers of extras, a great leading actor and a masterpiece of a soundtrack.

Kubrick also gave us an insight of how much a costumed extra cost in different countries. $19,20 in England , $14,28 in Spain , $24 in Italy and unsurprisingly most expensive $24,30 in France. It was remarkable that Kubrick wrote about a bid received from Romania for 30,000 extras at the cost of $2 per person (without costumes), which is even more interesting considering that around that time Sergiu Nicolaescu was making historical movies such as Dacii that required a large number of extras. A similar deal was offered by the Yugoslavian government at a rate of $5 per extra (page 150 of the script). Kubrick had an acute business-like approach in order to try and convince studios to undertake colossal projects such as this, trying to convince producers that those governments from Eastern Europe would be very eager to participate in a cinematic project involving large quantities of U.S. Dollars. He was aware that lavish decorations for sets would cost between $ 3-6 million.

In regards to casting Kubrick was gloriously refreshing saying the following:

As was discussed in our first meetings about ‘Napoleon’,my intention is to use great actors and new faces, and more sensibly put emphasis on the power of the story, the
spectacle of the film, and my own ability to make a film of more than routine interest. (pg.152)

One fault that I would find with Kubrick’s approach was that he wanted to use the same actor for a 27 year old Napoleon when he took command of the army in Italy and for a 45 year old Napoleon at Waterloo. I shall return to this point in a follow-up article explaining that in order to do justice to gargantuan historical figure such as Napoleon and his extraordinary biography a cinematographic adaptation thereof needs to be a tetralogy or a long format miniseries.

What was impressive (for a movie that was never made) was the amount of preparatory work underwent by Kubrick and his staff. This included a collection containing “a picture file of approximately 15,000 Napoleonic subjects” (pg.153) , intensive research of military uniforms of all different nations involved, location research photography, the fact that Professor Felix Markham’s advisorship had been almost secured also with the legal rights of his Napoleon biography. The amount of detail was staggering, including the variation of lenses for filming and photography.

EntePainting of General Bonaparte surrounded by members of the Council of Five Hundred during the Coup of 18 Brumaire, by François Bouchot

Kubrick had read the history, spoken to academics and did outstanding logistical, technical research. Yet it may have not been the time for such an ambitious film to be released in the early 1970’s. This brings us closer to the present. Steven Spielberg always said he was a fan of Kubrick’s script and the idea of a grandiose Napoleon movie. In 2013 he announced his intention of collaborating with the Kubrick family in a project that in 2016 got a green light from HBO to be released as a miniseries with Cary Fukunaga, of True Detective fame, as director. HBO, Spielberg, Fukunaga working with a Kubrick original script. Most likely the series will be released after 2020, more than half a century since Kubrick had drafted the script and plan. What will happen, how the series will be created and afterwards be perceived by the general public? Hard to tell. Yet there is hope, especially for historians and history enthusiasts that Kubrick’s obsession with historical context and detail will be imbued into a series made by a network that generally had made very decent historical drama series, from Cernobyl to Deadwood to Rome. With the budgets HBO usually have, one can hope it that the Holy Grail of a great Napoleon miniseries/ series of short films can be achieved.




Welcome to the Wonderer’s History Podcast WordPress page. Though still in early stages of development it will act as a portal to the podcast for the moment, with plans of publishing full essays in the near future along with audio versions of the episodes. The first season will primarily focus on Early Modern Venetian History, as it has been and still is my focal point of research, with particular emphasis on the 16th century, the perpetual struggle against the Ottomans and problematic hegemony of the Habsburgs.

Access to introductory video here