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Hatari! is essentially about a group of men with a job to do, which makes it a perfect vehicle for John Wayne and Howard Hawks. Hawks reveled in stories about professional people who take their job  seriously, and more often than not, Wayne played a character who was the best man for the job. As in their other collaborations — two Westerns before and two after — this film highlights what these two can best bring to the cinematic table. While Hatari! mostly falls into the action/adventure category (though throughout its 157-minute runtime, relatively little is concentrated on extensive action), it ends up being an entertaining and amusing character study, something perhaps more in line with Hawks than Wayne.

This was Leigh Brackett’s third screenplay for Hawks (with two more to follow) and as usual, she expertly captures the banter and behavior of a masculine assembly with a common goal. Having only heard her name and not seen it written, many at the time assumed she was a man herself. That may well be a compliment to her writing. Behind the camera was Russell Harlan, cinematographer on no less than six Hawks features. His work here would be the film’s sole Academy Award nomination (quite understandably, he lost to Freddie Young for Lawrence of Arabia). There was a good deal for Hawks and Harlan to work with in this tropical Tanzania locale. The east African landscape is quite beautiful, and the vast expanse of barren terrain where the film’s hunting sequences take place functions as a desolate arena for the clashes between the wild animals and our protagonists. Musically, Hatari! benefits immensely from a terrific score by Henry Mancini.

Newly out on Blu-ray, however, the imagery and sound, while impressive as far as the film is concerned, are not as well treated in this format as they should be. The video quality especially leaves much to be desired. It’s not awful, but it should be better (see, by contrast, Warner Brothers’ Blu-ray of El Dorado, also released last week).

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Wayne, as Sean Mercer, leads the way. The men hunt down and round up animals to be sold to zoos. Fortunately, killing only seems to be done when absolutely necessary, so the audience is spared any severely harsh cruelty. Joining Mercer is Kurt Muller (Hardy Krüger), Pockets (Red Buttons, the comic relief), Bill “Indian” Vaughn (Bruce Cabot), who is injured early on and is largely out of commission for the duration, and Charles “Chips” Maurey (Gérard Blain), a brash newcomer who fills Indian’s spot. (In the film’s initial phases of development, Clark Gable was to co-star, but his salary was deemed to high when combined with Wayne’s. As it happened, Gable tragically died 12 days before shooting started.)

The film was designed with “little plot and more characterization,” according to Hawks. It would take, he said, the episodic form of a hunting season, from beginning to end. Improvisation was also key, with much being created on location. Besides, as Hawks put it, “You can’t sit in an office and write what a rhino or any other animal is going to do.” Summing up, Buttons noted, “There was never a script, only pages.” While there is the ostensible narrative motivation of these men meeting their required number of animals trapped, and that much is given ample screen time and attention, the film’s real drama happens when Anna Maria “Dallas” D’Allesandro enters the picture. Perhaps as a nod to Brackett’s own name confusion, the men, for some reason, assume that a letter signed “A.M.” was from a man. They are quite surprised when the photographer, played by Elsa Martinelli, shows up; no one more so than Sean, as he first meets her when she’s sleeping in his bed. There is also Brandy de la Court (Michèle Girardon), daughter of their former boss. When Sean reluctantly begins to fall for Dallas, and when the other men realize that little Brandy is all grown up, love, more than wildlife, threatens their camp. Sean thinks women are trouble. “Well,” admits Dallas, “they are.”

While there are the trapping sequences, and they are among the most prolonged and thrilling moments of action in Hawks’ career, in this basic set-up, the true tension arises in the form of the men and their relationship with their jobs, the women, and themselves. In other words, it’s quintessential Howard Hawks. As a result of their loyalty to her deceased father, the men give Brandy their paternal respect (they even call her “boss”); to start, they don’t think of her as an adult, more as a girl who comes with the territory, someone they’ve known since she was young, someone they have to take care of. Dallas, on the other hand, is seen for what she is right away: a beautiful woman whose inexperience in the field could spell disaster. While she may be a professional in her line of work, she’s not cut out for their occupation.

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It’s clear, though, that sex is a concern much more so than apparent naivete. While this causes some amusing unrest and awkwardness, it also plays into some rather condescending cliches. During an expedition early on, Dallas is relentlessly tossed around while riding in the back of one of the jeeps. She gets bruised and battered and shrieks incessantly, affirming Sean’s reservations about her abilities and quickly dismantling any sense of sturdy independence she may have hoped to convey. And later, it seems that her primary roles with the group are as Sean’s love interest and the caretaker to some elephants — the dutiful wife and mother. As for Brandy, she is the female center of a love triangle to start, with Kurt and Chips volleying for her affection, but she ultimately falls for the relatively unlikely suitor, Pockets. This leaves Kurt and Chips stuck with each other, a more ambiguous relationship that has been oddly contentious and complicated since they first met. (At the end of the film, Kurt tells Sean he’s going to Paris with Chips. “We found out we both know a girl there.” “One girl for the two of you?” asks Sean. “We’ll go halves.”) Though Sean is clearly smitten with Dallas, he maintains a distance for a good portion of the film. It’s revealed that this is largely due to a bad past relationship, one where his then-mate tried to get him away from his work, obviously a no-no. When Dallas seems to accept his lifestyle, all is seemingly well, and even the ultra-masculine and typically stoic Duke isn’t immune to loving affection.

While the women manage to get everyone in a tizzy for one reason or another, there is still adequate emphasis on the prominent Hawks theme of men and their profession. Much talk is based around their work, its difficulty, its methodology, and the specialized knowledge and skill they each possess. Brandy, born around this type of work, recognizes its inherent danger: “You all take chances,” she says. “That’s part of the job.” Danger is the norm to these men. It goes with the territory. (“Hatari” means “danger” in Swahili.) They may acknowledge it, but it’s mostly an afterthought when there’s a job to do, and this is quite a difficult job to do. To their credit, the actors apparently did their own stunt work, which is remarkable given the physicality of their repeated efforts. There’s also the initial testing phase for Chips, where, like in so many Westerns, the new man is required to prove his skill via a shooting match. Successful, he is accepted, but not before he punches Kurt in retaliation for Kurt’s own attack on him earlier in the film — this is how men bond.

Hatari!’s loose narrative is not one of the film’s strongest points. It plods along during certain sequences (more than 2 1/2 hours is somewhat excessive for a film like this), and the basic goal of animal attaining comes across at times as nothing more than a pretense upon which to intermittently hang the various points of contention and drama, interspersed with moments of broad comedy. There’s some local culture brought in to give the film a nominal sense of regional authenticity, mostly through tribal singing and customs and explanations of the inhabitants’ traditional ways, but the picture isn’t really concerned with documentary. The hunting sequences are exciting enough for what they are, with reasonable detail emphasizing the procedural tactics, but it’s a thorny enjoyment; the scenes are fast-paced, creatively shot, and the animals themselves are a sight to behold, but the creatures are ultimately roped, violently apprehended, and hauled away in constrictive makeshift cages. In any event, when not rhino wrangling or deploying a rocket-propelled monkey net, the characters are more interesting back at the camp anyway.

“Directed and produced” by Howard Hawks (Peter Bogdanovich has noted that the credit order is indicative of which role Hawks felt was more important), Hatari! is an enjoyable film, with engaging characters — all crucially adept at what they do — wonderful scenery, and a generally effective balance of drama, comedy, action, and romance. The leisurely pace, when not victim to the aforementioned stalling, gives considerable time for the characters to interact, joke, and enjoy each other’s company, much as the audience does. The shoot was described by some as being like a vacation: a group of people hanging out together, doing stuff outside, drinking, taking their time. Though not one of their greatest efforts (together or otherwise), Hatari! has much of what one would want in a John Wayne/Howard Hawks film. It’s casual, friendly, and sincerely straightforward. And it does all come across as having been extremely fun to make.

‘El Dorado’

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When El Dorado was first shown in 1966, the Western in its classical form was beginning to disappear from American cinema. John Ford, synonymous with the genre, released his last feature that year, and El Dorado would be the second-to-last film by its own legendary director, Howard Hawks. The Western was evolving and its old masters were giving way to modern innovators. The stylishly self-conscious films of Sergio Leone first signaled the shift (the films of his “Dollars Trilogy” came out in 1964-1966), and it was certified by the critical, ominous, and violent The Wild Bunch, directed by Sam Peckinpah in 1969. Hawks decried the slow-motion bloodletting of Peckinpah. He argued that he could kill four men, get them to the morgue, and bury them before this newcomer could get one on the ground.

With this as the context of its gestation, it’s little wonder that El Dorado feels nostalgic, like a fond farewell to a familiar style and story that once was. Hawks would still make one more Western — Rio Lobo, in 1970 — but with this film, there is a strong sense of treading well-worn territory in an effort to preserve a type of film he and his generation had created and now saw slipping away. After the failure of his Red Line 7000 the year before, Hawks was eager to get back to what he knew, even if it meant replicating an earlier success, in this case his masterful Rio Bravo. Seasoned writer and frequent collaborator Leigh Brackett did the screenplay, very loosely adapted from Harry Brown’s novel, “The Stars in Their Courses” — in fact, it’s hardly even close. Brackett also wrote Rio Bravo, but her final draft of El Dorado was, she said, the best script she had ever done. However, Hawks refashioned her script and the result, according to Brackett, derisively, was “The Son of Rio Bravo Rides Again.” Hawks would deny an outright remake, but he did unashamedly acknowledge a relative similarity: “If a director has a story that he likes and he tells it, very often he looks at the picture and says, ‘I could do that better if I did it again,’ so I’d do it again….I’m not a damn bit interested in whether somebody thinks this is a copy of it, because the copy made more money than the original, and I was very pleased with it.” Indeed, El Dorado was a fairly substantial commercial success.

Rio Bravo wasn’t the only cinematic point of reference, though. Todd McCarthy, who, with Richard Schickel and Ed Asner, provides one commentary track on the newly released Blu-ray, mentions others in his superb biography, “Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood.” El Dorado also alludes to prior Hawks features like Red River, A Girl in Every Port, and The Big Sleep. Hawks even worked again with the venerable cinematographer Hal Rosson, who first manned the camera for the director in 1929, on Trent’s Last Case. (Rosson’s meticulous lighting in El Dorado looks stunning on this disc.) Peter Bogdanovich, who discusses Hawks and the film on another commentary track, sums it up by calling El Dorado an “omnibus” or “anthology of things Hawks did in other pictures.”

The basic characters for El Dorado certainly bear some similarity to those in Rio Bravo. To start, there is the pairing of the sheriff, J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum), and his longtime friend, Cole Thornton (John Wayne). This time, the sheriff is the drunk (Dean Martin’s role in the earlier picture). There’s young gun Mississippi, played by James Caan (it was Colorado in Rio Bravo, played by Ricky Nelson). Instead of the ace sharpshooter, though, this time, the youngster can’t hit the broad side of a barn. In the beginning of El Dorado, however, there are notable differences, in terms of initial location and narrative motivation. The film is opened up more than the previous picture. For at least the first third of the film, much is shot outdoors in the desert, providing a contrast to the confines of the Old Tucson set that becomes significant later.

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Plot-wise, the stage is set with a feud over water. Bart Jason (Asner) has been suspiciously expanding his landownings throughout the area. This includes into property already claimed by the MacDonald family, headed by father Kevin (R. G. Armstrong). Cole is brought in to do some work for Jason, but he’s not sure what; he just knows that he pays well. Harrah warns his friend about Jason’s violent intentions, and Cole returns the money and turns down the offer. Riding back into town, Cole is fired upon by a MacDonald son, Luke (Johnny Crawford), who had dozed off, is abruptly woken, and haphazardly shoots in his direction, assuming Cole is someone from Jason’s crew. Cole, who also expects an attack from Jason, instinctively fires back, hitting the boy in the stomach. The pain is too much for the boy to bear and he kills himself. Cole is devastated by the unintended circumstances and returns the body to the MacDonald ranch. They believe his story and he is more or less forgiven. The less being from daughter Joey (the striking Michele Carey); she shoots Cole and the bullet becomes lodged next to his spine, not an immediate concern, apparently (he is John Wayne after all), but something he should probably get checked out at some point. Cole feels guilty over the boy’s death and rides south to move on. Months later, he meets two other central characters, Nelse Macleod (played with intriguing likability by Christopher George), a top gunslinger hired by Jason for the slot Cole vacated, and Alan Bourdillon Traherne, otherwise known as Mississippi. Hearing that Harrah has become a worthless drunk and that the MacDonalds need help, Cole, with Mississippi in tow, hurries back to El Dorado, hoping to sober up the sheriff and pay penance to the MacDonalds.

In town, and once Jason is arrested, El Dorado begins to most fully resemble Rio Bravo. There’s Wayne as essentially the same type of character, there’s the drunk, the young man, the imprisoned bad-guy boss, and an old timer, here the bugle-toting Bull, played by Arthur Hunnicutt, a less kooky variation of Walter Brennan’s Stumpy from the earlier film. Far less significant than Angie Dickinson’s Feathers in Rio Bravo, Charlene Holt is Maudie, the woman who this time courts both the Wayne and Mitchum character. With everyone settled back in El Dorado, things play out basically as before, with only minor differences, and it still remains hugely entertaining. There is exceptionally witty dialogue (“I’m looking at a tin star with a drunk pinned on it,” Cole says to the inebriated Harrah); there’s abrupt, economical, typically Hawksian action; and there’s plenty of masculine camaraderie and notions of “professional courtesy.”

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El Dorado even manages to approach some of the same self-reflexive subject matter that the Peckinpah films and similar Westerns were also dealing with during this time, particularly ideas of violence and aging. Luke’s death is not only a traumatic event for those involved, but it also points to the casualness of Western brutality. So many Western characters are brazenly quick to shoot, for one reason or another, and El Dorado questions this social condition, acknowledging that frequently this violence is tragically unnecessary. Such is the level of paranoia in these Wild West days that Luke and Cole naturally assume they’re under attack and fire first and ask questions later. The lawlessness that is part and parcel in the Western is out of control, claiming innocent victims as a result of the world that has been created. Related to this and also weighing on the characters, Cole and Harrah especially, is the inevitability of old age and the fragility of the human body. Wayne more than Mitchum shows his age here (understandably, as Wayne had just undergone the removal of a cancerous lung), but by the end of the film, both characters enter the final battle as cripples; no less capable, it should be noted. Western heroes are growing more vulnerable. Their time, like the genre’s classical form, is nearing an end.

Wayne in El Dorado is as one would expect. One brief bonus feature on the disc has former Paramount executive A.C. Lyles recalling his impressions of the Duke. Always a solid actor, he was really more of a presence. It’s truly a testament to his star status that he was able to maintain such a likable and consistent onscreen persona. Mitchum, who agreed to do the film on the basis of the most minimal of proposals (“There is no story, just you and Duke,” Hawks told him), is also in prime form, conveying a sense of effortless performance that by all accounts required considerable effort. Of the film’s main trio, Caan is the only weak note; it’s not necessarily a bad performance, just an underwhelming one. If one were to compare his version of the young-man complement to Wayne’s seasoned professional with earlier incarnations, he doesn’t have the appealing charm of Montgomery Clift in Red River or the casual coolness of Nelson in Rio Bravo.

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Additional features on the new Blu-ray include a documentary, Ride, Boldly Ride: The Journey to El Dorado, which goes into fascinating detail about how this film was made, drawing parallels between Hawks and John Ford and their relationship with Wayne, as well as noting how El Dorado resembled and deviated from other classic Hawks pictures. There is also a short featurette about Olaf Wieghorst, the artist whose paintings are seen during the film’s opening credits.

Howard Hawks was a master at every genre he encountered, and he seemed to encounter them all. While he would only make four Westerns, they were among the very best. Against the revisionist Westerns that would soon be in vogue, or the plethora of Western television series that were on air at the time, El Dorado is a refreshing genre classic, at once suggesting topical concerns while conserving an enduring arena for its Hollywood icons to do what they do best. It incorporates much of what distinguished Howard Hawks’ cinema: his uniform themes, style, and tone. As Bogdanovich states, “If you’re a Hawks fan, it’s pretty irresistible.”

Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Napoleon’ – What Might Have Been

    “It’s impossible to tell you what I’m going to do except to say that I expect to make the best movie ever made.” – Stanley Kubrick, Oct. 20, 1971.

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There are few unrealized projects in the history of cinema more tantalizingly fascinating than Stanley Kubrick’s planned feature about Napoleon. Even in 1967, at the time of its initial pre-production (the first time around), it seemed like a potentially great idea. But now, looking back with Kubrick’s entire body of work as a reference point, it truly does stand as a project this legendary filmmaker should have been destined to make. Thanks to a mammoth and comprehensive collection of materials fashioned into Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made, edited by Alison Castle and published by Taschen, we can for the first time see how Kubrick prepared for the film and what he had in mind for its ultimate big-screen presentation. Stylistic and thematic features now synonymous with Kubrick are evident, as are particular characterizations, set pieces, action sequences, and recurring visual motifs. 

Kubrick first began discussing the project around the time of 2001: A Space Odyssey; a notebook on the proposed film dates back to as early as July 1, 1967. He was never satisfied with previous depictions of the life of the great leader, even going so far as to criticize Abel Gance’s masterful Napoleon, from 1927. “I found it really terrible,” he said. It was “technically ahead of his time and [Gance] introduced inventive new film techniques … but as far as story and performance goes it’s a very crude picture.” Sergey Bondarchuk’s 1966 War and Peace was “a cut above the others, and did have some very good scenes,” but, he added, he wasn’t overly impressed. With Paths of Glory and Spartacus under his belt, a large-scale epic would have been reasonable for the then-39-year-old filmmaker; with Lolita and Dr. Strangelove most recently completed, he also had a degree of influence and had made a name for himself as a gifted, if provocative, director. Though 2001 had not yet been released when Kubrick first started contemplating the Napoleon project, it too would have further indicated his visual prowess and technical proficiency.

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Kubrick expected to keep costs down on Napoleon by utilizing the same sort of front projection technique he had for 2001. Super-fast lenses and specially engineered film stock would enable him to shoot in real interiors with relatively little light (by just candlelight he suggested at one point, as he would eventually do with Barry Lyndon). Camera tests were also done using a “new kind of tear-resistant paper which could be printed to look like an actual military uniform from a certain distance.” Always with the bottom line under consideration, Kubrick, as indicated in the documentation included in the Taschen set, was meticulous about the financial aspects of this large-scale production. He knew that keeping under budget, as he regularly did, helped to ensure his creative freedom and limit studio interference. 

Kubrick estimated that the film would run about 180 minutes. Shooting would be done largely in France, Italy, and Sweden, and Romania and Yugoslavia had agreed to supply up to 30,000 troops as extras. According to biographer Vincent LoBrutto, “Production for the exterior location work was planned for the winter of 1969. Kubrick estimated he would complete the location filming in two to three months and another three to four months for the studio work.” 

Despite a pre-production memo that at one time stated “no stars” — presumably to keep costs down — to play the emperor, Kubrick had considered David Hemmings, fresh off his success in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, as well as Oskar Werner, Al Pacino, and, briefly, Ian Holm. Jack Nicholson was also a strong candidate, indeed the primary candidate into the 1970s; Kubrick was immensely impressed with the young co-star of the recently released Easy Rider. Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, and Jean-Paul Belmondo were also rumored to star in unspecified roles. As for leading ladies, Kubrick had noted Julie Andrews and Vanessa Redgrave as possibilities. Audrey Hepburn was Kubrick’s top choice for Josephine, but apparently, the sexual nature of the planned film, certainly daring for its time, steered her away and she declined outright. (On the sexual nature of the film’s subject, Kubrick contended that Napoleon had a “sex life worthy of Arthur Schnitzler,” author of, among other things, the novella Traumnovelle,” on which Eyes Wide Shut was based.)

Through the years that followed, the film hopped from studio to studio. Financing would seem secure and then suddenly dissipate. The proposed cast would change, possible locations would change, the storyline would change, and so on and so on. Alas, no film was to be made. The disastrous failure of other large-scale epics, particularly a similarly Napoleonic film like Waterloo in 1970, seemed to sideline the film for good. (“Waterloo was such a silly film,” wrote Kubrick not long after it came out. “It will not make things any easier but in the end I am sure we will get it done.”)

Yet even after A Clockwork Orange in 1971, Kubrick told an interviewer, “I plan to do ‘Napoleon’ next,” and in 1972, “A Clockwork Orange” author Anthony Burgess told the Village Voice that he was working on a novel about the life of Napoleon: “I’m writing it in the shape of a Beethoven symphony. Kubrick is going to make it into a movie.” And during the making of Barry Lyndon in 1975, rumor had it that Kubrick was simultaneously shooting battle scenes for “Napoleon.” By the next decade, though, the project had more or less vanished from his radar. In 1980, he gave the following response regarding the film: “I haven’t seriously though about [the] Napoleon film for years … [I]nflation would put the film in the neighborhood of $50 to $60 million, and I’m not sure that it can be done in under three hours’ playing time.” The idea of a Napoleon film was not totally dead for Jack Nicholson, though. As late as 1986, he was still talking abut the possibility of a Napoleon movie; in 1983, when asked who he would like to direct him in such a film, he responded, “Stanley Kubrick — I feel obligated to give it to him first. After all, he got me ‘Napoleonized’ in the first place.”

The frequent half-starts on the film through the years are perhaps largely due to how Kubrick viewed Napoleon’s life and times, insofar as they could be representative of any current period. The occurrences and the basic ideas that would manifest themselves in Kubrick’s Napoleon would have relevance no matter when the film would ultimately be made. Kubrick said, “I find that all the issues with which [Napoleon, the potential film] concerns itself are oddly contemporary — the responsibilities and abuses of power, the dynamics of social revolution, the relationship of the individual to the state, war, militarism, etc.” (Shades of Strangelove and Paths of Glory, to be sure.)

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Included in the Taschen collection are a book of images taken by location scouts, photographs of costume tests, samples of note cards detailing what was happening every day of Napoleon’s life, and 17,000 slides of Napoleonic imagery. Aside from representing a fascinating collection for the Kubrick admirer, this assortment further stresses the meticulousness and drive toward total control that Kubrick brought to most of his productions. An extended conversation with professor and adviser Felix Markham gives remarkable insight into Kubrick’s queries regarding Napoleon’s life; alas, we can only speculate about their possible uses. Napoleon is also an exemplary case study of Kubrick’s attention to detail and obsession with collecting all of the facts, knowing all that there is to know about his given subject, and thus having the utmost control over his production. He was a filmmaker, as this collection can attest to, who wanted to see it all, understand it all, and know, better than anyone else, how to most successfully and authentically bring said details to filmic life. According to Eva-Maria Magel, “The material left behind by Kubrick is possibly the largest of all private archives on Napoleon … [comprising] a range of material, including his subject’s political testament, the memoirs of associates and opponents, academic studies, and popular histories. Numbering at one point at about 500 volumes …”

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Also part of the set is a 1969 screenplay draft. From this alone, one is able to glean a decent idea of what Kubrick had in mind for the film. Of course, Kubrick’s cinematic eye was a singular one, and it would be egregious to presuppose what he would ultimately do. It is, nevertheless, not hard to imagine a reasonably accurate picture of the scenes described in the script, had they been shot, especially given the period in which the screenplay was written and at times considered for production, and taking into account the relative proximity of time periods covered in this story and Barry Lyndon. The imagery would have most likely taken on roughly the same detailed and carefully composed shape as the 1975 picture. As noted by Magel, “Barry Lyndon benefited enormously from the research, the pre-filming work and the technical insights of ‘Napoleon.’” Unquestionably, more than any other Kubrick film, Barry Lyndon can function as a sort of visual gauge with which to envision what is only described in the screenplay.

In a graphic pattern common to most of Kubrick’s work featuring wartime sequences, the script calls for scenes and shots depicting orderly assemblies of men on the battlefield; the mise-en-scene strongly indicates an illustration emphasizing symmetry and regimented formation, particularly as they are relevant to, and illustrative of, violent and militaristic exchanges. He wanted to stage the battles in “a vast tableau where the formations moved in an almost choreographic fashion.” And indeed, the screenplay descriptions do indicate what could have been immense panoramas of methodically orchestrated and executed carnage.

Throughout the screenplay, these sweeping vistas are juxtaposed with scenes of more constricted interiors, notably the scenes of strategic and bureaucratic conferencing and the scenes of sexual intimacy. In the case of the latter, if the violence proposed for “Napoleon” resembles Barry Lyndon and to a certain extent Paths of Glory, the sexuality is akin to Eyes Wide Shut. “Maxima erotica” is simply how Kubrick describes one scene, and Napoleon’s first encounter with Josephine is at a sexual performance of sorts, not unlike the haunting orgy in Kubrick’s final masterpiece. 

Relying on a good deal of commentary, the screenplay gives a voiceover to an unseen narrator as well as Napoleon himself, and at times Josephine and Tsar Alexander also chime in with their thoughts and observations. The voiceover belonging to the all-seeing narrator is similar to not only Barry Lyndon but also The Killing, in which the audience is afforded knowledge not necessarily granted to the characters involved. In Napoleon, it also gives considerable historical context, certainly helpful for a film so densely packed with names, years, military campaigns, countries, and so forth.

The structure of Napoleon similarly resembles Barry Lyndon in its rise-and-fall projection. With Napoleon, though, even more biographical area is covered. Kubrick manages to include a vast array of pertinent moments from the emperor’s life, starting as far back as his childhood, where we see that his military career essentially started at age 9. To maintain so much exposition and chronological information, Kubrick’s screenplay is remarkably swift. In fact, one wonders how, if filmed, Kubrick would have managed the pace. Starting with Napoleon as a small child, he is 20 years old by page 9, and from there on, it’s one scene after another highlighting crucial personal and professional events, all the way up to his death, and all in a 186-page script.

It’s clear that Kubrick cared a great deal about Napoleon. “I don’t claim he is the best and most honorable man in history – only the most interesting,” he said. And much of what is striking about Napoleon’s characterization in the screenplay is the larger-than-life persona he embodies. While this may indeed be historically accurate, one can’t help but also draw comparisons with the fictional Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Napoleon exhibits this same sort of independence, self-absorption, and social gall. “I am not a man like any other,” he declares at one point. By the end of the script, even if one knew nothing about the real figure, it would be hard to disagree with such a statement.

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Also like Alex, Napoleon in Kubrick’s screenplay has a distinct love for authority, that is, his own. One of the most notable themes in all of Kubrick’s work is a depiction and analysis of organization, control, order, and authority, and this is unquestionably one of the primarily elements that continually arise in Napoleon. Though Kubrick’s project was never brought to eventual fruition, the materials that do exist on the film express perhaps better than any other Kubrick film notions of control and authority, in war sequences (pre-, during, and post-) in particular, but also in realms beyond. It’s little wonder that the topic so fascinated the filmmaker. As Geoffrey Ellis notes in “A Historian’s Critique of the Screenplay,” “I can understand why Kubrick’s fascination in Napoleon’s career lay chiefly in the nature of power itself: how it was gained, how it was ultimately lost.” And as LoBrutto rightly acknowledges, “Napoleon was an ideal subject for Kubrick: it embraced the director’s passion for control, power, obsession, strategy and the military.” A passage underlined by Kubrick in J. Christopher Herold’s “The Mind of Napoleon” clearly indicates how the filmmaker and his subject could be considered kindred spirits: “My power is dependent on my glory, and my glory on my victories. My power would fail if I did not base it on still more glory and still more victories.” Next to this, Kubrick wrote, “A task without an end.”

There are numerous scenes outlined in the script that illustrate these ideas. For example, Scene 21 reads: “ANIMATED MAP: Napoleon’s plan for the capture of Toulon. Explaining with narration how, rather than trying to capture the town by storm, it is, instead, only necessary to capture Fort Eguillette, a promontory of land from which French batteries would command the inner and outer harbours of the port, making them untenable to the English fleet, and quickly leading to the fall of the city.” Here, as seen in Fear and Desire, Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, and Full Metal Jacket, is a familiar image of one in control (or, at least, one trying to be in control), consulting a map as it stands as a tangible object conveying order and understanding. Along those lines, Scene 31 details: “INT- NAPOLEON’S PARIS HQ – DAY: Pencil between his teeth, dividers in one hand, [Napoleon] creeps around on hands and knees on top of a very large map of Italy, laid out from wall to wall. Other large maps cover the table, the couch and any other available space.” Still with the actual and symbolic significations of maps, this sequence epitomizes a man obsessed with control, with securing the details of his endeavors. Could there be a more telling image in a Kubrick film than this when it comes to showing one’s pursuit and craving for absolute control? This picture of the great general (with ranking an indication of authority) crawling around on all fours going over, no doubt to the last detail, his next move?

Also like in much of Kubrick’s work, there are sprinklings of humor in “Napoleon.” Kubrick often infuses some comedy, however dark, into a majority of his movies, and in Napoleon, there are moments of obvious comedic banter done simply to amuse, but there are also sequences of subtle, emotionally affecting comedy that has more resounding resonance. In the first case, one scene has Napoleon discussing the cold with Tsar Alexander. Napoleon inquires about whether or not the Tsar wears long-sleeved and long-legged underwear. “You can never conjure up brilliances with a cold bottom,” says the emperor, causing both men to laugh, concluding the scene. In the other case, however, the scene of the divorce proceedings for Napoleon and Josephine is tragically amusing in its superficial unspoken falseness; she agrees to the separation because she has been unable to bear him a child, not, of course, because neither one has ever been faithful.

Stanley Kubrick’s uncompleted Napoleon project is an engrossing entry in the great filmmaker’s career, and any admirer of his is certainly grateful for the breadth of material he left behind. Few of film history’s nonexistent potential classics have this much to work with and to explore. We’ll obviously never be able to know exactly what Kubrick intended to create. (This will remain true even if Steven Spielberg’s attempt to adapt Kubrick’s outline to a TV miniseries comes to fruition.) However, we should consider ourselves fortunate that he was so distinctive in his formal tendencies and narrative concerns; with these consistencies, combined with what is available, at least we can partially analyze Napoleon, or at least what might have been.


Tess 2

Roman Polanski revealed an exceptional eye for gripping visual design in his earliest films. In those works, like Knife in the Water, Cul-de-sac, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and, somewhat later, The Tenant, most of this pictorial construction was derivative of themes, and subsequent depictions of, confinement, claustrophobic paranoia, and severely taut antagonism. In terms of visual and narrative scope, Chinatown opened things up somewhat, but it was with Tess, his 1979 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” that Polanski significantly broadened his canvas to encompass the sweeping tale of the Victorian era loves and conflicts of this eponymous peasant girl.

Polanski speaks to this distinction during an interview in the newly released Criterion Collection Blu-ray/DVD of Tess. In discussing the film for the French TV program Cine regards, the director acknowledges that many of his prior films, and indeed modern life itself, tended toward the absurd and surreal. With this film, he hoped to venture into a world for those, apparently like himself, who wished, “to return to things that are more realistic, more essential, more human … like love, loyalty, betrayal, shame, the intolerance and cruelty of society.” In terms of Tess’ style, Polanski was also striving to visually extricate himself from restrained settings and condensed situations. With Tess, he wanted the camera to remain outside, objective, as opposed to the subjective camera positioning of Chinatown for example, where he says much of what we see is influenced by the inclinations and movements of Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes character. Tess would stay back, in most cases, holding to carefully composed tableaux of detached yet nonetheless powerfully evocative beauty.


The imagery of Tess is what strikes first and leaves the greatest impression, and it was undoubtedly with this in mind that Criterion pulled out all the stops with this release. The 4K digital restoration, done under Polanski’s supervision, is spectacular. While Polanski admits that he always admired films set indoors, hence the abundance of interior settings in the aforementioned early features, Tess is at its sumptuous best when outside. From the dusk-tinged luminosity highlighting the first half of the picture, to the bucolic mud and muck that emotionally inflects the latter half, Tess gloriously illustrates the ethereal impact of its pastoral setting. The delicate play of light in the beginning and, by contrast, the stark absence of any sense of warmth that dampens the concluding scenes, are both fully realized and gloriously presented. In some ways like a Terrence Malick picture, it’s easy with Tess to disengage from the plot and characters, getting swept up instead by the breathtaking visuals. This takes nothing away from the film (Polanski’s or Malick’s); fortunately, the pacing is leisurely enough that to simply watch for a while never once leaves the audience scrambling to catch up. In fact, some specific shots in Tess seem explicitly designed for their beauty rather than their narrative significance. It’s little wonder that Tess received Academy Awards for Best Cinematography (shared by its two DPs, Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet, the former posthumously) and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Pierre Guffroy, Jack Stephens), as well as Best Costume Design (Anthony Powell).

Criterion also went above and beyond with its supplemental features. This is particularly beneficial for a film like this, which, despite numerous accolades upon its release, including the Oscar wins (there were also three other nominations: Best Picture, Director, and Original Score), it is nevertheless among Polanski’s least discussed works. Perhaps this is because it deviated from what one thinks of as a “typical” Polanski film. Or perhaps it is because so much of its production was overshadowed by Polanski’s personal troubles at the time (despite being set in England, filming had to done in France, where he wouldn’t face extradition to America). Whatever the case, this Criterion release is a welcome one. Interviews with on-set footage and documentaries about the production give considerable insight about the movie and those involved. With so many extras, some of the material gets a little repetitive, but it’s nevertheless highly enlightening. We are able to see Polanski at work, setting up these astonishing shots. The behind-the-scenes material goes a long way to convey the difficulties of this type of filmmaking; Polanski is often shown to be meticulous in his directorial choices and is understandably impatient with talking and laughing onlookers.

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Polanski dedicated Tess to his late wife Sharon Tate, who, while pregnant, was brutally murdered by members of the Manson family 10 years prior. It was Tate who first gave her husband Hardy’s novel.  Adapted by Polanski and frequent collaborators Gérard Brach and John Brownjohn, Tess follows the source rather faithfully, with the radiant 18-year-old Nastassja Kinski starring in the title role. In an episode of The South Bank Show included here, Polanski says Kinski simply had a “face for the movies,” and he recognized that, when photographing her, she had “no bad sides.”  In the Cine regards segment, he also likens her to a young Audrey Hepburn or Vivien Leigh: “When men see her on screen, they want to protect her. It’s an essential quality for a woman on the screen.”

The film begins as John Durbeyfield (John Collin) first hears that his family is supposedly descended from the prestigious d’Urberville aristocracy. He becomes infatuated with the notion and sets off his oldest daughter, Tess, to seek employment and residence at the nearest household where a remaining d’Urberville is thought to live. With a little luck, she will reclaim their rightful lineage and the Durbeyfields will attain their proper social status. There, she meets her possible cousin, Alec (Leigh Lawson), who appears instantly devious. Tess is bewildered by the whole arrangement and rather leery of her newfound heritage and relative, while her family, particularly her father, remains oblivious to the suspicious nature of the situation. Tess’ misgivings prove to be well-founded when it’s revealed that Alec only “bought” the d’Urberville name and is, indeed, a morally reprehensible scoundrel. He takes advantage of Tess’ fragility and rapes her. Following the violation (but not immediately), she leaves Alec and sets off on her own.

In these initial sequences, Polanski’s previously seen penchant for conveying an undercurrent of lurking danger is more apparent than anywhere else in the film. Clearly sensing that Alec is not who he claims to be, the potential for sexual violence is intense; his gaze is often chilling and the camera lingers on he and Tess just long enough to stress an unspoken, latent threat. This is especially disconcerting in the way that it contrasts with the lushness of the settings. For the first part of the film, the dazzling scenery remains a constant, acting as a complement and counterpoint to the drama that unfolds. When Tess’ life is going well and romance later blooms, the natural beauty that surrounds her ecstatically reflects her emotions. However, in these times of peril and abuse, the background doesn’t change; it ironically envelops scenes of dread in the same natural warmth.

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Tess, to start, was a good-natured young girl, innocent and naïve. But it doesn’t take long for her to become soured by life’s injustices and disappointments. It’s revealed that she became pregnant from the altercation(s?) with Alec, and her emotional state is further battered when she loses the sickly child. Tess moves to a dairy farm and there meets Angel Clare (Peter Firth), the dashing apple of every young girl’s eye. In direct opposition to the first impression from Alec, Angel is charming and decent, and he and Tess share a physical and spiritual bond. They discuss their inward fears and mutually recognize that “life’s a puzzle,” neither one necessarily meeting the expectations thrust upon them by others. One of the film’s most delightfully romantic scenes comes in this portion of the picture, when Angel carries three other girls over a large puddle only so he could eventually hold Tess. “I’ve gone through three quarters of this trouble for your sake alone,” he tells her as he sweeps her into his arms.

Angel and Tess fall instantly and joyously in love and soon wed, but her scandalous past, however blameless for it she may have been, plagues their relationship. Angel is unforgiving and dismisses her (despite his own illicit dalliances prior to their marriage). Tess now takes a darker tone, and likewise shifts to a more somber color palette further underscored by a seasonal change of cold, rain, and grey skies. Tess reencounters Alec, but now, with her family in dire financial straits, the prospect of being with him has some disconcerting appeal. And when Angel again enters the picture and expresses his regret at having scorned Tess, she is subsequently torn between her true love and a love of necessity, neither of which has treated her well. Proud and resilient, Tess remains a headstrong girl, for better or worse, and by the end, her passionately enacted decisions have grave consequences for all involved.

“[Polanski] begins his projects by assembling his materials, including a perfectly crafted script … and then trains on them an eye that knows better than that of any other filmmaker how to frame a scene,” states Colin MacCabe in a predictably incisive essay included with the Criterion disc. This essentially is what makes Tess, as well as most of Polanski’s work, so great, this ability to have a discernable style that is illustrative and engrossing, and yet to have it, first and foremost, at the service of a well-told story. With Tess, there is unquestionably this balance. It is a stunning film to behold and it is a tale that has emotionally captivated readers since its 1891 publication.