1977 Ridley Scott movie The Duelists stars Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine as Frenchmen in the early 19th century. Their two characters are military officers, Keitel is a Bonapartist and Carradine is an anti-Bonapartist, and their relationship takes place over a sixteen-year period punctuated by duels during and just after the Napoleonic Wars. The Duelists is mandatory for any student of Scott-as-Author, not only because it is his first feature film, but also because of its alleged connection to his latest work. Even working on a shoestring budget 45 years ago, Scott and his collaborators managed to pull off an acclaimed recreation of Napoleon’s France. What has he accomplished on the much grander canvas of Napoleoncoming out on November 22?
Napoleon, as previously featured here on Open Culture, is also the title of the greatest film ever made by Stanley Kubrick. Judging by its newly released trailerRidley Scott’s film isn’t exactly a stylistic homage to Kubrick, though it’s doubtful that Kubrick’s work was too far from Scott’s mind during the project – as it actually wasn’t in The realisation of The Duelistsheavily influenced by Barry Lyndon.
But as a historical drama, Napoleon seems to have more obviously in common with Scott’s swords and sandals blockbuster Gladiatorwhich included a memorable performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Marcus Aurelius’ power-mad son, Commodus, who kills his father to make himself emperor.
Phoenix plays another imperial role in Napoleon: that of the titular military commander who rose to lead the French Empire for more than a decade. Bringing Napoleon’s story to the screen allowed Scott to stage no less than six battle sequences, including, as Teresa Nowakowski of Smithsonian.com notes, “the Battle of Austerlitz, a military engagement that has gone down in history as one of Napoleon’s greatest successes. The trailer depicts the pivotal moment when Napoleon’s forces fired artillery into the ice on which enemy troops were retreating,” an episode well suited to Scott’s instinct for spectacle. Even though his particular sensibilities may differ from Kubrick’s, it’s easy to see why both directors would be drawn to the subject of Napoleonic ambition.
Based in Seoul, Hake MArshall writes and distributests about cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter books about cities, the book The Stateless City: A Walk Through 21st Century Los Angeles and the video series The city in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmArshall Or on Facebook.