Eagle in a Cage (1971)




Director:   Fielder Cook. 

Cast:   John Gielgud (Lord Sissal), Ralph Richardson (Sir Hudson Lowe), Billie Whitelaw (Madame Bertrand), Kenneth Haigh (Napoleon Bonaparte), Moses Gunn (General Gourgaud), Ferdy Mayne (Count Bertrand), Lee Montague (Cipriani), Georgina Hale (Betty Balcombe), Michael Williams (Barry O'Meara), Hugh Armstrong (English soldier), Athol Coates (Sentry).

Napoleon's exile on St. Helena


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

1815.  Island of St. Helena off the African coast. 

Sir Hudson Lowe of His Majesty's Government speaks with Napoleon.  When he or any of his staff go for a walk on the island, they must be accompanied by an English officer.  Napoleon has been assigned a doctor.  He does not like this idea.  He says:  "I don't believe in doctors."  Napoleon is also not enthusiastic about the idea of an English doctor.  The doctor, however, informs the one-time emperor of France that he is Irish and the Irish are rebels by nature.  One unpleasant task for the doctor is that he has to write a daily report on Napoleon.  He emphasizes to Napoleon that he is not a spy. 

Napoleon goes horse riding with Madame Bertrand, the doctor and the escort.  The great man learns that the English are sending regiments just to guard him. 

A servant for Napoleon tells him that the Dutchman will take them on the next voyage.  The plan is to land at Marseilles. 

Napoleon finds a young woman named Betsy hiding in some bushes.  She explains her presence by claiming:  "I'm nosey."   They soon start to become friends.  He shares some gossip with her:  "Count Bertrand wears a corset."  She offers to steal a map of the island for Napoleon.  He accepts. 

Madame Bertrand pays Napoleon a visit.  She says:  "I just heard you're leaving without us."   She, obviously, is referring to his plan to escape to France.  Napoleon and she have had some history together.  She mentions "After you married me off to Bertrand".  They go for a swim in the ocean.  Napoleon regrets that his wife does not answer his letters.  She has changed his son's name and forbidden him to even mention his father.  Madame Bertrand tells Napoleon that she wants another baby. 

Lowe visits Napoleon while the former emperor takes his bath.  He informs Napoleon that he wants him to prepare to move to a new place as soon as possible.  Lowe also complains that General Gourgaud has been spotted in the town and on the ocean shore without an escort.  Napoleon says that the General collects sea shells and that's why he goes down to the town and ocean.  Nevertheless, insists Lowe, you should constrict yourselves to a radius of about 5 miles around the house. 

Napoleon sees Betsy with some whip burns and cuts.  He asks:  "Who is it that beats you?"  She does not say.  He tells her how when he was just ten years old he was sent to France to study. 

Napoleon is to live in Longwood.  The doctor protests that the place is full of rats.  Napoleon tells his doctor that he has been having bouts of dizziness.  While talking together, Napoleon learns that the doctor actually volunteered to be his doctor.  The doctor was curious about a man who fought war after war without calculating the ultimate costs of these conflicts. 

Betsy visits Napoleon again.  This time he is irritable and he tells her that he is very busy.  She will wait.  She wants to know what Josephine was like?  He answers:  "Expensive."  They play a game where they imagine Napoleon picking out proper suitors for Betsy among eligible bachelors.  Then Betsy drops a bomb shell.  She asks:  "Is it true that you poisoned your own men in Syria."

Napoleon confronts the doctor about his telling Betsy that he poisoned his own men.  He explains to the doctor and Betsy that after the Battle of Acre his men were starving.  There were few ships, so they could not take the wounded.  And since the Turks mutilated prisoners, it was a mercy killing of his wounded.  But the doctor tells Napoleon that his whole career stinks of death.  His wars led to the death of two million Frenchmen. 

Betsy wants to see Napoleon.  Madame Bertrand tells her that the man is busy all day.  She adds:  "There's no point in waiting."  But Betsy is stubborn and she waits.  Madame asks her what she talks about with Napoleon when they are alone.

The escape attempt begins.  The servant kills an English guard.  But another guard sees the killing and fires his rifle alerting the camp.  Napoleon and his servant make a run for the ocean.  They are able to reach the short cliffs above the beach.  With the use of a long rope, the servants gets down to the beach, but once there he is grabbed by English soldiers.  While descending, the rope is cut and Napoleon falls to the beach where he is also grabbed.  Lowe tells the two escapees that the servant will be hanged for killing the guard.  The jailer also says that Napoleon will be sent into Longwood this very night, by force if necessary.

At dinner at the new place,  Napoleon dines with his doctor and Count and Mrs. Bertrand.  The doctor compliments Madame Bertrand on her evening gown.  She says she wanted to wear a different gown, but the rats ate it.  Napoleon asks where the roast is and the chief has to tell him that it was not available because it was full of maggots.  After dinner, Napoleon becomes dizzy again. 

Napoleon has sex with Madame Bertrand.  He tells her that he had the impression that she enjoyed herself.  She responds with:  "It sickens me."  This makes Napoleon so mad that he wants to hit her.  Instead, they kiss.  Napoleon begins to feel sick again.  The doctor comes in and the great man tells him that his body is failing him.  He asks the doctor to help him.  The doctors confronts Lowe about the conditions at Longwood.  There is mold on the walls, in addition to the rat and other problems. 

An English warship will take Count Bertrand to London to be tried for war crimes.  Lowe gives Mr. Bertrand a copy of the indictment.  Among other things, he is accused of wanton murder of civilian populations and the torture of prisoners of war. 

Betsy visits Napoleon again.  He reminds her that visitors are forbidden.  He threatens to call the guards and have them escort her home.  Betsy lays on Napoleon's bed.  He tells her to get up.  She kisses him and he calls her "child".  Offended, she says:  "I'm not a child."   Napoleon calls here a "brainless idiot".  He tells her that she makes the mistake of taking compassion for love.  They kiss; he removes her dress. 

An English soldier brings a message to Napoleon.  France is on the brink of revolution.  There are riots against the king and myriads of handbills and posters.  An important Duke was recently assassinated.  In addition, over one thousand people have been arrested for treason. 

Lord Sissal arrives to take command of St. Helena.  He is not happy about the assignment.  He calls the place a cesspool, worse than Africa.  Sissal talks with the doctor.  He tells him that he knows his father, but never liked the man.  He is too puritanical.  Sissal talks with Napoleon while the ex-emperor takes his bath.  He asks Napoleon if it is true that at one time he had four women in bed for an evening.  Yes.  Napoleon asks about the costs of keeping him on St. Helena.  The answer is 320,000 pounds a year. 

Sissal comes to his real point.  There have been troubles in France.  After all, it is not easy to occupy a country.  Sissal makes Napoleon an offer.  They will allow him to escape if he agrees to proceed to France to damp down the revolutionary element there.  He will then attack Prussia, but must stop at the border.  Napoleon says he wants to take Vienna.  Impossible, says Sissal.  So Napoleon tells them to get another man for the job.  But he still thinks about the offer for he tells Sissal:  "Six months isn't enough time." 

Napoleon is feeling very healthy and optimistic.  But his doctor warns him that he must continue to take his medication, for his problems related to the dizziness have certainly not ceased to exist. 

Betsy visits Napoleon to say good-bye.  She is being send to school in London.  She told her father that she is in love with Napoleon and dad figured London would be the safest place for her.  Mrs. Bertrand arrives to chase Betsy away.  Madame asks Napoleon why he accepted the terms offered by Sissal.  She says that he lost, while they won:  So, "How does it feel to be a whore?"   "Damn you!" shouts the enraged Napoleon. 

The doctor runs to see Madame Bertrand.  He asks her about her close relationship with the ex-emperor.  She tells him that she had a need and Napoleon sensed that, just like Napoleon played the role of father to the doctor. 

Sissal, Count and Madame Bertrand and Betsy are leaving to return to England.  Napoleon arrives to see them off.  He gives Sissal a clock owned by Frederick the Great.  But when Napoleon gets on his horse to leave, he faints and falls off.   Sissal is shocked and he asks the doctor if anything can be done for Napoleon.  The answer is "nothing".  Napoleon tells Sissal:  "The arrangement between us still stands."  Sissal responds:  "Of course."

But it's quite clear, as Napoleon is driven home in a carriage, that there will be no return to France for the great emperor. 


A pretty good movie.  A lot of emphasis was on Napoleon's desires and attempts to escape (even at the cost of making a poor deal with the English) and his sexual relations with Madame Bertrand and the young Betsy.  The movie also stresses how difficult it was for Napoleon to be confined without the possibility of returning to the action on the world stage. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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