The film opens with the storming of the Bastille, and an explanation of the revolutions in France. Scenes showing the reign of terror and execution of Louis XVII. Whilst Paris falls into the chaos of terror, a young army officer commands a battery of artillery at Toulon. Captain Bonaparte earns his reputation as a intelligent young officer. The film flashes forward to March 1796, with Bonaparte marrying Josephine de Beauharnais and subsequently leaving for a campaign in Italy. He takes command of French forces in Italy and leads them in a string of victories. Within a year he has gained french control over northern Italy, and returns to France. He establishes a consulate, with himself as 1st consul and effective dictator. Bonaparte then suggests a french invasion of Egypt, to damage British interests in Asia. He leaves on his Egyptian expedition. In 1800 he returns from Egypt, his army defeated, not by the British or Mamluks, but by plague.
Napoleon enters Paris a hero, and in 1802 proclaims himself Emperor. He enacts new civil codes and spends time reforming French politics. In 1804 the ever power-hungry emperor invades the Rhine States, defeating them. Following a series of victories against Austria and Prussia by 1807 he has most of Europe in the palm of his hand.
Napoleon launches his invasion of Britain, braving a dangerous sea voyage. After weeks of military maneuvering he deals the British several key defeats, before wiping out their army at Hastings.
- Napoleon (1800 - 1833).....Rod Steiger
- Napoleon (1780 - 1800).....David Hemmings
- Empress Josephine.....Holly Berman
- Marshal Ney.....John Grant
- Marshal Soult.....Jean Giscard
- Tsar Paul.....Ivan Konstantinovich
- Tsar Constantine.....Richard Goodman
- Talleyrand.....Karl Rackenbaker
- George IV.....Robert Morley
Berman received $75,000, more than any other actor, compared to Steiger's $23,000 and Hemmings' $15,000.
After the vast success of 2001 Kubrick set himself the task of making a historically accurate war-drama-action-romance about the life of Napoleon I and the founding of the french empire. Kubrick personally began scouting locations under the guise of a European holiday in summer 1968 and by the time he returned to the US that September he had gained permission by various European governments and private landowners to shoot on their property. By Christmas he had assembled a team to organise the ideas for a script and screenplay, Kubrick demanded that many scenes be rewritten again and again and all the screenplay was written by him personally.
Kubrick declared that he wanted Rod Steiger to play the older Napoleon and young British actor David Hemmings to play the Bonaparte of the revolution and 18th century. Many expected Kubrick to cast a young, unknown actress or model as Josephine (as he had done on the majority of his previous films). However, he chose veteran actress and model Holly Berman as his leading lady.
The film was shot in chronological order, with the revolution scenes and the storming of the Bastille being shot in July 1969. These scenes were largely shot in Benelux with the fort at Namur standing in for the Bastille, over 11,000 volunteers participated in the execution of king Louis.
Napoleons army was represented by troops from the German, west Polish and Belgian armies. Kubrick insisted the troops be treated as a proper army and that they go through four months military training, he even introduced a rank system. The same force was used in all battle scenes and reflects the experience gained by troops in the period.
The scenes of the Hundred Days Campaign were almost all filmed on location, with Colestream Guardsmen training the extras in military discipline and many of the junior officers being actual soldiers. Kubrick insisted that all uniforms be authentic, however many of the extras were issued with more basic clothes.
Kubrick oversaw the development of a new kind of lens that used more light than standard camera lenses, this meant that all of the film was shot in natural light and added to the authenticity of the film.
Shooting lasted from July 1969 - January 1971 with some extra battle footage being shot in May 1971. As soon as the principal photography had finished however, Kubrick began editing the film. He insisted in editing the whole film himself, much to the annoyance of the producers who wished the film to be ready for release in summer that year.
The film premiered in Brussels on August 15th 1972 and was met with critical acclaim. Many considered Kubrick's use of lighting and photography reminiscent of the great romantic artists to make the film complete, whilst the epic battle scenes were also praised.
The film received 96% approval ratings by the New York times when it was released in the US a week after the premiere. With vast box office sales in is estimated that around 70 million Americans saw the film (nearly one-fourth of the population).
The film is still widely appreciated today and was placed 5th in the US film council's 2009 top 100 US films.