Less a fact-based recitation of historical events and more a poetic meditation on power, Eagle in a Cage explores the final phase of Napoleon Bonaparte’s extraordinary life. Granted asylum by the British Empire following his legendary defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon was exiled to the small island of St. Helena, where he died six years later. Millard Lampell’s script, a version of which was first produced for television in 1965 with Trevor Howard starring, condenses the early days of the St. Helena incarceration into a tight drama filled with political machinations and sexual intrigue. Lampell’s version of Napoleon is not a man resigned to ignominy, bur rather a virile conqueror scheming to reclaim his position as Emperor of France. Among the many liberties that Lampell takes is suggesting that Napoleon made a brazen escape attempt, even though history indicates that Napoleon suffered debilitating health problems throughout his time on St. Helena.
Its relationship to the truth notwithstanding, Eagle in a Cage bursts with energy, ideas, and lofty language. Furthermore, UK actor Kenneth Haigh gives a lusty performance in the leading role, imbuing Napoleon with ego, lyricism, and malice. (The fact that Haigh doesn’t even attempt a French accent is distracting, and so is the unexplained casting of African-American actor Moses Gunn as Napoleon’s principal aide.)
Much of the story concerns Napoleon’s friction with Sir Hudson Lowe (Ralph Richardson), the haughty soldier charged with supervising Napoleon’s incarceration. Emboldened by the opportunity to humiliate a legendary figure, Lowe represents the effect that proximity to greatness has on weak people. Conversely, Lord Sissal (John Gielgud), the British aristocrat who arrives late in the story to tempt Napoleon with the offer of a return to limited power, represents the sadistic application of leverage, since he’s a callous snob. Shown in contrast to these two characters, Napoleon occupies complicated middle ground. He evaluates everyone he meets on merit, belittling the craven and embracing the bold, and yet he succumbs to avarice whenever the promise of reclaiming lost glory appears.
Haigh captures all of those nuances well, even when Lampell’s script wanders into such discursive bits as long scenes involving Madame Bertrand (Billie Whitelaw), a companion of Napoleon’s whose relationship with the deposed monarch is never clearly articulated. Scenes with Betty Balcombe (Georgina Hale), essentially a groupie infatuated by Napoleon’s charisma, are more pointed. Ultimately, Eagle in a Cage is an odd sort of a picture, because it has the iffy production values and jumpy editing of a low-budget production even though it also has the grown-up subject matter and sophisticated dialogue of a prestige film. One can’t help but wonder if plans to recruit a leading actor of greater notoriety, perhaps Richard Burton or someone of his ilk, ran aground. Whatever the backstory, Eagle in a Cage is consistently intelligent and thoughtful, a mannered study on the afterglow of conquest, with the specter of death never far away.
Eagle in a Cage: GROOVY