Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Napoleon’ – What Might Have Been

Stanley Kubrick Month

    “It’s impossible to tell you what I’m going to do except to say that I expect to make the best movie ever made.” – Stanley Kubrick, Oct. 20, 1971.

N 6There are few unrealized projects in the history of cinema more tantalizingly fascinating than Stanley Kubrick’s planned feature about Napoleon. Even in 1967, at the time of its initial pre-production (the first time around), it seemed like a potentially great idea. But now, looking back with Kubrick’s entire body of work as a reference point, it truly does stand as a project this legendary filmmaker should have been destined to make. Thanks to a mammoth and comprehensive collection of materials fashioned into Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made, edited by Alison Castle and published by Taschen, we can for the first time see how Kubrick prepared for the film and what he had in mind for its ultimate big-screen presentation. Stylistic and thematic features now synonymous with Kubrick are evident, as are particular characterizations, set pieces, action sequences, and recurring visual motifs. 

Kubrick first began discussing the project around the time of 2001: A Space Odyssey; a notebook on the proposed film dates back to as early as July 1, 1967. He was never satisfied with previous depictions of the life of the great leader, even going so far as to criticize Abel Gance’s masterful Napoleon, from 1927. “I found it really terrible,” he said. It was “technically ahead of his time and [Gance] introduced inventive new film techniques … but as far as story and performance goes it’s a very crude picture.” Sergey Bondarchuk’s 1966 War and Peace was “a cut above the others, and did have some very good scenes,” but, he added, he wasn’t overly impressed. With Paths of Glory and Spartacus under his belt, a large-scale epic would have been reasonable for the then-39-year-old filmmaker; with Lolita and Dr. Strangelove most recently completed, he also had a degree of influence and had made a name for himself as a gifted, if provocative, director. Though 2001 had not yet been released when Kubrick first started contemplating the Napoleon project, it too would have further indicated his visual prowess and technical proficiency.

N 3Kubrick expected to keep costs down on Napoleon by utilizing the same sort of front projection technique he had for 2001. Super-fast lenses and specially engineered film stock would enable him to shoot in real interiors with relatively little light (by just candlelight he suggested at one point, as he would eventually do with Barry Lyndon). Camera tests were also done using a “new kind of tear-resistant paper which could be printed to look like an actual military uniform from a certain distance.” Always with the bottom line under consideration, Kubrick, as indicated in the documentation included in the Taschen set, was meticulous about the financial aspects of this large-scale production. He knew that keeping under budget, as he regularly did, helped to ensure his creative freedom and limit studio interference. 

Kubrick estimated that the film would run about 180 minutes. Shooting would be done largely in France, Italy, and Sweden, and Romania and Yugoslavia had agreed to supply up to 30,000 troops as extras. According to biographer Vincent LoBrutto, “Production for the exterior location work was planned for the winter of 1969. Kubrick estimated he would complete the location filming in two to three months and another three to four months for the studio work.” 

Despite a pre-production memo that at one time stated “no stars” — presumably to keep costs down — to play the emperor, Kubrick had considered David Hemmings, fresh off his success in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up, as well as Oskar Werner, Al Pacino, and, briefly, Ian Holm. Jack Nicholson was also a strong candidate, indeed the primary candidate into the 1970s; Kubrick was immensely impressed with the young co-star of the recently released Easy Rider. Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, and Jean-Paul Belmondo were also rumored to star in unspecified roles. As for leading ladies, Kubrick had noted Julie Andrews and Vanessa Redgrave as possibilities. Audrey Hepburn was Kubrick’s top choice for Josephine, but apparently, the sexual nature of the planned film, certainly daring for its time, steered her away and she declined outright. (On the sexual nature of the film’s subject, Kubrick contended that Napoleon had a “sex life worthy of Arthur Schnitzler,” author of, among other things, the novella Traumnovelle,” on which Eyes Wide Shut was based.)

Through the years that followed, the film hopped from studio to studio. Financing would seem secure and then suddenly dissipate. The proposed cast would change, possible locations would change, the storyline would change, and so on and so on. Alas, no film was to be made. The disastrous failure of other large-scale epics, particularly a similarly Napoleonic film like Waterloo in 1970, seemed to sideline the film for good. (“Waterloo was such a silly film,” wrote Kubrick not long after it came out. “It will not make things any easier but in the end I am sure we will get it done.”)

Yet even after A Clockwork Orange in 1971, Kubrick told an interviewer, “I plan to do ‘Napoleon’ next,” and in 1972, “A Clockwork Orange” author Anthony Burgess told the Village Voice that he was working on a novel about the life of Napoleon: “I’m writing it in the shape of a Beethoven symphony. Kubrick is going to make it into a movie.” And during the making of Barry Lyndon in 1975, rumor had it that Kubrick was simultaneously shooting battle scenes for “Napoleon.” By the next decade, though, the project had more or less vanished from his radar. In 1980, he gave the following response regarding the film: “I haven’t seriously though about [the] Napoleon film for years … [I]nflation would put the film in the neighborhood of $50 to $60 million, and I’m not sure that it can be done in under three hours’ playing time.” The idea of a Napoleon film was not totally dead for Jack Nicholson, though. As late as 1986, he was still talking abut the possibility of a Napoleon movie; in 1983, when asked who he would like to direct him in such a film, he responded, “Stanley Kubrick — I feel obligated to give it to him first. After all, he got me ‘Napoleonized’ in the first place.”

The frequent half-starts on the film through the years are perhaps largely due to how Kubrick viewed Napoleon’s life and times, insofar as they could be representative of any current period. The occurrences and the basic ideas that would manifest themselves in Kubrick’s Napoleon would have relevance no matter when the film would ultimately be made. Kubrick said, “I find that all the issues with which [Napoleon, the potential film] concerns itself are oddly contemporary — the responsibilities and abuses of power, the dynamics of social revolution, the relationship of the individual to the state, war, militarism, etc.” (Shades of Strangelove and Paths of Glory, to be sure.)

N 5Included in the Taschen collection are a book of images taken by location scouts, photographs of costume tests, samples of note cards detailing what was happening every day of Napoleon’s life, and 17,000 slides of Napoleonic imagery. Aside from representing a fascinating collection for the Kubrick admirer, this assortment further stresses the meticulousness and drive toward total control that Kubrick brought to most of his productions. An extended conversation with professor and adviser Felix Markham gives remarkable insight into Kubrick’s queries regarding Napoleon’s life; alas, we can only speculate about their possible uses. Napoleon is also an exemplary case study of Kubrick’s attention to detail and obsession with collecting all of the facts, knowing all that there is to know about his given subject, and thus having the utmost control over his production. He was a filmmaker, as this collection can attest to, who wanted to see it all, understand it all, and know, better than anyone else, how to most successfully and authentically bring said details to filmic life. According to Eva-Maria Magel, “The material left behind by Kubrick is possibly the largest of all private archives on Napoleon … [comprising] a range of material, including his subject’s political testament, the memoirs of associates and opponents, academic studies, and popular histories. Numbering at one point at about 500 volumes …”

N 1Also part of the set is a 1969 screenplay draft. From this alone, one is able to glean a decent idea of what Kubrick had in mind for the film. Of course, Kubrick’s cinematic eye was a singular one, and it would be egregious to presuppose what he would ultimately do. It is, nevertheless, not hard to imagine a reasonably accurate picture of the scenes described in the script, had they been shot, especially given the period in which the screenplay was written and at times considered for production, and taking into account the relative proximity of time periods covered in this story and Barry Lyndon. The imagery would have most likely taken on roughly the same detailed and carefully composed shape as the 1975 picture. As noted by Magel, “Barry Lyndon benefited enormously from the research, the pre-filming work and the technical insights of ‘Napoleon.’” Unquestionably, more than any other Kubrick film, Barry Lyndon can function as a sort of visual gauge with which to envision what is only described in the screenplay.

In a graphic pattern common to most of Kubrick’s work featuring wartime sequences, the script calls for scenes and shots depicting orderly assemblies of men on the battlefield; the mise-en-scene strongly indicates an illustration emphasizing symmetry and regimented formation, particularly as they are relevant to, and illustrative of, violent and militaristic exchanges. He wanted to stage the battles in “a vast tableau where the formations moved in an almost choreographic fashion.” And indeed, the screenplay descriptions do indicate what could have been immense panoramas of methodically orchestrated and executed carnage.

Throughout the screenplay, these sweeping vistas are juxtaposed with scenes of more constricted interiors, notably the scenes of strategic and bureaucratic conferencing and the scenes of sexual intimacy. In the case of the latter, if the violence proposed for “Napoleon” resembles Barry Lyndon and to a certain extent Paths of Glory, the sexuality is akin to Eyes Wide Shut. “Maxima erotica” is simply how Kubrick describes one scene, and Napoleon’s first encounter with Josephine is at a sexual performance of sorts, not unlike the haunting orgy in Kubrick’s final masterpiece. 

Relying on a good deal of commentary, the screenplay gives a voiceover to an unseen narrator as well as Napoleon himself, and at times Josephine and Tsar Alexander also chime in with their thoughts and observations. The voiceover belonging to the all-seeing narrator is similar to not only Barry Lyndon but also The Killing, in which the audience is afforded knowledge not necessarily granted to the characters involved. In Napoleon, it also gives considerable historical context, certainly helpful for a film so densely packed with names, years, military campaigns, countries, and so forth.

The structure of Napoleon similarly resembles Barry Lyndon in its rise-and-fall projection. With Napoleon, though, even more biographical area is covered. Kubrick manages to include a vast array of pertinent moments from the emperor’s life, starting as far back as his childhood, where we see that his military career essentially started at age 9. To maintain so much exposition and chronological information, Kubrick’s screenplay is remarkably swift. In fact, one wonders how, if filmed, Kubrick would have managed the pace. Starting with Napoleon as a small child, he is 20 years old by page 9, and from there on, it’s one scene after another highlighting crucial personal and professional events, all the way up to his death, and all in a 186-page script.

It’s clear that Kubrick cared a great deal about Napoleon. “I don’t claim he is the best and most honorable man in history – only the most interesting,” he said. And much of what is striking about Napoleon’s characterization in the screenplay is the larger-than-life persona he embodies. While this may indeed be historically accurate, one can’t help but also draw comparisons with the fictional Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Napoleon exhibits this same sort of independence, self-absorption, and social gall. “I am not a man like any other,” he declares at one point. By the end of the script, even if one knew nothing about the real figure, it would be hard to disagree with such a statement.

N 2Also like Alex, Napoleon in Kubrick’s screenplay has a distinct love for authority, that is, his own. One of the most notable themes in all of Kubrick’s work is a depiction and analysis of organization, control, order, and authority, and this is unquestionably one of the primarily elements that continually arise in Napoleon. Though Kubrick’s project was never brought to eventual fruition, the materials that do exist on the film express perhaps better than any other Kubrick film notions of control and authority, in war sequences (pre-, during, and post-) in particular, but also in realms beyond. It’s little wonder that the topic so fascinated the filmmaker. As Geoffrey Ellis notes in “A Historian’s Critique of the Screenplay,” “I can understand why Kubrick’s fascination in Napoleon’s career lay chiefly in the nature of power itself: how it was gained, how it was ultimately lost.” And as LoBrutto rightly acknowledges, “Napoleon was an ideal subject for Kubrick: it embraced the director’s passion for control, power, obsession, strategy and the military.” A passage underlined by Kubrick in J. Christopher Herold’s “The Mind of Napoleon” clearly indicates how the filmmaker and his subject could be considered kindred spirits: “My power is dependent on my glory, and my glory on my victories. My power would fail if I did not base it on still more glory and still more victories.” Next to this, Kubrick wrote, “A task without an end.”

There are numerous scenes outlined in the script that illustrate these ideas. For example, Scene 21 reads: “ANIMATED MAP: Napoleon’s plan for the capture of Toulon. Explaining with narration how, rather than trying to capture the town by storm, it is, instead, only necessary to capture Fort Eguillette, a promontory of land from which French batteries would command the inner and outer harbours of the port, making them untenable to the English fleet, and quickly leading to the fall of the city.” Here, as seen in Fear and Desire, Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, and Full Metal Jacket, is a familiar image of one in control (or, at least, one trying to be in control), consulting a map as it stands as a tangible object conveying order and understanding. Along those lines, Scene 31 details: “INT- NAPOLEON’S PARIS HQ – DAY: Pencil between his teeth, dividers in one hand, [Napoleon] creeps around on hands and knees on top of a very large map of Italy, laid out from wall to wall. Other large maps cover the table, the couch and any other available space.” Still with the actual and symbolic significations of maps, this sequence epitomizes a man obsessed with control, with securing the details of his endeavors. Could there be a more telling image in a Kubrick film than this when it comes to showing one’s pursuit and craving for absolute control? This picture of the great general (with ranking an indication of authority) crawling around on all fours going over, no doubt to the last detail, his next move?

Also like in much of Kubrick’s work, there are sprinklings of humor in “Napoleon.” Kubrick often infuses some comedy, however dark, into a majority of his movies, and in Napoleon, there are moments of obvious comedic banter done simply to amuse, but there are also sequences of subtle, emotionally affecting comedy that has more resounding resonance. In the first case, one scene has Napoleon discussing the cold with Tsar Alexander. Napoleon inquires about whether or not the Tsar wears long-sleeved and long-legged underwear. “You can never conjure up brilliances with a cold bottom,” says the emperor, causing both men to laugh, concluding the scene. In the other case, however, the scene of the divorce proceedings for Napoleon and Josephine is tragically amusing in its superficial unspoken falseness; she agrees to the separation because she has been unable to bear him a child, not, of course, because neither one has ever been faithful.

Stanley Kubrick’s uncompleted Napoleon project is an engrossing entry in the great filmmaker’s career, and any admirer of his is certainly grateful for the breadth of material he left behind. Few of film history’s nonexistent potential classics have this much to work with and to explore. We’ll obviously never be able to know exactly what Kubrick intended to create. (This will remain true even if Steven Spielberg’s attempt to adapt Kubrick’s outline to a TV miniseries comes to fruition.) However, we should consider ourselves fortunate that he was so distinctive in his formal tendencies and narrative concerns; with these consistencies, combined with what is available, at least we can partially analyze Napoleon, or at least what might have been.

– Jeremy Carr



By Jeremy Carr

Jeremy Carr is a faculty associate with the film and media studies program at Arizona State University where he is also a visiting research fellow at the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture.

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