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As a big fan of John Carpenter's classic of urban terror Assault on Precinct 13 I always wondered (together with the rest of the characters) why Napoleon Wilson is called that way. It is made clear that this isn't his real name and he is asked repeatedly about it, just to defer the answer with a simple

I'll tell you some time.

Now of course I understand that this might be a delibrate mystery that adds much to the fascination of his character and that there is most probably no in-universe answer by-design.

Yet the even more interesting question would be for the out-of-universe reasons for this unusual name (i.e. what drove Carpenter to call him this way) and if this was inspired by anything or a reference to anything (apart from Napoleon Bonaparte, of course). Knowing that the movie and Carpenter himself was to a large degree influenced by Rio Bravo and Howard Hawks in general (like the other recurring theme of Wilson repeatedly asking for a "smoke", as Wikipedia says), this might be the first place to look for. Yet, not having much knowledge about the works of Howard Hawks, this doesn't help me that much either.

So is there any information what inspired the name of Napoleon Wilson or was it just an arbitrary random decision?

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    I think it's just Carpenter adding suspense and subverting expectations. Another example from TV Tropes "It looks as if Napoleon will reveal why he killed his victims to the overzealous cop accompanying him, but as the siege starts, the cop is killed quickly." – Meat Trademark Jan 27 '14 at 3:20
  • @MeatTrademark Yeah, I see, that's why I am not looking for an in-universe answer, as there just is none. We are never supposed to know why he is called that way or why he killed all those people, that's part of his character. That's why I am after the out-of-universe explanation (if there is one) why Carpenter chose exactly this name, as it is IMHO too unique and gripping to be ignored. – Napoleon Wilson Jan 27 '14 at 10:25
  • Maybe he was just really into lions? ;) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napoleon_and_Samantha#Cast – Walt Jun 18 '14 at 20:38
  • Why do you think "Napoleon Wilson" is exceptionally unusual? To me it just feels like a mash-up of two relatively common names. – Erik Oct 21 '15 at 16:08
  • @Erik I don't know, I never considered Napoleon a very common name (in fact I know like one other guy named that). It just always felt like very unusual name for a character. And in fact, it is considered to be an unusual nickname in-universe anyway, as apparent from the various scenes in the movie. So someone must have thought something when comming up with that name. – Napoleon Wilson Oct 21 '15 at 16:52
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Even though it's impossible to say for sure, there are some strong odds that he got the name from a Disney movie.

There was a movie called Napoleon and Samantha about two young kids who had a pet lion. The movie was released in 1972 and it was broadcast on television in 1975. And the boy, played by Johnny Whitaker, was named Napoleon Wilson.

So it's possible Carpenter heard the name and decided to reuse it.

I know he pulled another character name for Darwin in The Fog from the Dr Phibes movies (he played an unnamed coroner named Dr Phibes as revealed in the credits), so that may well be the answer. Or it might be a running gag between the directors.

Sadly, the only thing the movie gives us is :

"How'd you get the name Napoleon Wilson?"

"I'll have to tell you some time."

So he might intentionally tease us about it. (DVD commentary doesn't give us anything to work with either.)

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There is nothing I've ever seen that specifically indicates why he chose that name. There is nothing on the DVD or Blu-Ray commentary tracks that mentions it either.

Character names are seldom discussed by writers with respect to why a particular name was chosen. So, in that respect it's impossible to know where it came from. Perhaps the name was just arbitrary, like Napoleon Dynamite. Or maybe he found some humor in Napoleon (a famous historical figure) having an un-French surname like Wilson. It could also be as simple as the three shells gag in Demolition Man or the famous "joke without a punchline" from The Breakfast Club; the writer himself never had the answer.

Unfortunately, until Carpenter comes out and says something, no one will ever know.

  • "Impossible to know" - Well, quite a bold statement, too, no? It's as impossible to know if it's really impossible to know, like you even admitted in your last sentence. - "For that matter, why Ethan Bishop?" - Though, I'd regard that name far less unique and unusual, but ok, maybe that is just my own impression. "It could also be as simple as...where the writer himself never had the answer." - Sure, it could and it's unarguable that the movie itself does not give an answer by-design. – Napoleon Wilson Sep 30 '14 at 14:32
  • While presenting some possiblities, it still more or less feels like this could have fit much better as a comment than an actual answer, given the (at least to me) slight lack of arguments. – Napoleon Wilson Sep 30 '14 at 14:45
  • I've updated my answer a bit. The bottom line is, there is no known record of Carpenter ever discussing his character's name or its origin, or at least none that I've ever seen. – Johnny Bones Sep 30 '14 at 15:45
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Wild theory: Maybe this is an obfuscated reference to Woodrow Wilson and his advisor Napoleon Hill. Maybe John Carpenter had something in mind about Wilson's parents naming him after these two men of history.

see also: https://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/15952/did-former-president-woodrow-wilson-extensively-rely-on-napoleon-hills-work-dur

I realize this theory (unless J.C. would confirm it) is thin, but it would give Wilson some background story and depths to his character and upbringing.

And Woodrow Wilson's wife was in fact related to Howard Hawks: https://famouskin.com/famous-kin-chart.php?name=15727+ellen+louise+wilson&kin=36271+howard+hawks&via=20390+john+leonard

.. which would at least make one (although obscure) connection to John Carpenter's influences ...

  • Napoleon Wilson's parents didn't give him the name Napoleon, though. It's highly implied that it's not his real name but rather a nickname. – Napoleon Wilson Nov 7 '16 at 21:38

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