Stanley Kubrick's Unmade Epic: Inside “Napoleon”

Stanley Kubrick, positioned at number eight in the "Sight & Sound" magazine's 2012 list of "The Greatest Directors in Film History," obtained 157 votes from 864 critics and film scholars, barely trailing behind John Ford and Carl Theodor Dreyer by a single vote. Reflecting on this ranking, one might argue that Kubrick's oeuvre fell short due to the scarcity of his output compared to the prolific works of directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Godard, and John Ford, who established an extensive body of work throughout their careers.

Nevertheless, I argue that Kubrick's thirteen feature films are sufficient to firmly establish his place in the history of cinema. His repertoire spans multiple genres: crime thrillers ("Killer's Kiss," "The Killing," "A Clockwork Orange"), science fiction ("2001: A Space Odyssey"), war dramas ("Paths of Glory," "Full Metal Jacket"), horror ("The Shining"), historical epics ("Barry Lyndon," "Spartacus"), and even erotic drama ("Eyes Wide Shut," "Lolita").

Yet, Kubrick's genre-specific films are anything but standard Hollywood fare. Each of his works embodies his profound personal philosophies. In "2001: A Space Odyssey," a monolith predicts the tumultuous path of humanity in the 21st century, hinting that tools might supplant human nature. "Full Metal Jacket" portrays the swift descent from reason into madness, showcasing how an ordinary man can transform into a bloodthirsty demon overnight. "The Shining" encapsulates America's brutal founding history, suggesting that the atrocities committed by white people against Native Americans need redemption from an African American.

However, Kubrick's most exceptional film might be the one that never materialized: "Napoleon." This unrealized project demanded an unprecedented level of energy and passion from Kubrick. If brought to life, it would have been his most ambitious and challenging film.

(Posters made by fans)

What he truly wanted to showcase was the madness of humanity

After the release of "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" in 1964, Kubrick's pace in filmmaking progressively slowed down, sometimes resulting in gaps of three, seven, or even twelve years between his movies. This deliberate pacing stemmed from two reasons. First, Kubrick meticulously prepared for his films, investing significant time in pre-production. Before shooting "The Shining," he not only read Stephen King's novel but also delved into almost every ghostly horror book and collected photographs of mountain hotels worldwide.

Secondly, while engaged in ongoing film projects, Kubrick was simultaneously preparing for several unrealized films like "A.I. Artificial Intelligence." Although varied in themes, these unfinished Kubrick projects shared certain characteristics: monumental difficulty in execution, futuristic elements, and a common theme—human madness.

Concept maps of “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”

In the early 1990s, Kubrick planned a film on the Holocaust titled "Wartime Lies." However, during his two years of extensive research, Steven Spielberg completed "Schindler's List," winning numerous Oscars.

However, these unrealized films pale in significance compared to "Napoleon." Napoleon was Kubrick's most admired historical figure. He considered Napoleon's life a "walking epic" and his passionate love affair with Joséphine one of the most captivating in history. He believed that Napoleon's legacy shaped the modern world and deemed this subject matter as fitting his recurring theme—"the madness of humanity."

In 1968, "2001: A Space Odyssey" achieved monumental success, grossing over $16 million in its initial release. This success provided Kubrick the opportunity to plan his next grand project—the haunting "Napoleon."

Over the next two years, he put all his energy into the film. By 1970, filming of "Napoleon" was ready to start. This monumental picture would narrate Napoleon's entire life, from his troubled childhood, and turbulent military career, to his epic love affair with Joséphine.

Storyboards of "Napoleon"

Kubrick held the belief that there had not yet been a definitive film about Napoleon, and he felt it was time to bring such a project to fruition. His meticulousness reached a peak in preparing for "Napoleon." He read over 500 books and documents related to Napoleon, maintained in a room in his home resembling a small library to this day.

Kubrick painstakingly viewed almost every film associated with Napoleon, focusing notably on the epic silent film "Napoleon" by French director Abel Gance from 1927 and Soviet director Bondarchuk's "War and Peace" released in 1966. Despite this extensive viewing, Kubrick found himself dissatisfied with both portrayals.

The epic silent film "Napoleon" by French director Abel Gance from 1927

He aimed for an unparalleled level of authenticity in the film. Sending assistants across the globe, every location Napoleon visited needed to be scouted. The team captured 15,000 location photographs and collected 17,000 portraits of Napoleon.

He even sought to bring back dust from Waterloo. Ideally, each scene would have been shot on the actual site, but due to budget constraints and significant changes in those locations, this was unfeasible. He settled for approximations, with Waterloo's dust serving as a reference, striving for authenticity. He even employed a historian from Oxford University as a consultant, amassing a database of 25,000 cards containing every facet of information on Napoleon.

From Lavish Plans to Cost-Cutting Measures

Having planned the script and some storyboards based on his research by 1969, Kubrick was well-prepared for "Napoleon." Filming would have spanned six countries: France, Italy, the UK, Spain, Yugoslavia, and Romania. The cost of extras varied by country, with Kubrick meticulously noting the expenses per person per day. He intended to depict large-scale battle scenes in Yugoslavia and Romania, engaging up to 30,000 soldiers from each side.

Regarding costumes, Kubrick opted for in-house creation due to the extensive shooting duration and potential for damage. He found a manufacturer in New York who produced fire-resistant, quick-dry paper fabric costumes for as little as $1-4 per piece, ensuring the outfits looked exceptional from a distance.

For the set design, Kubrick aimed to use a combination of real locations and front projection techniques. While constructing a palace could cost millions, he discovered authentic palaces and villas in France, Italy, and other countries that could serve as filming locations. Additionally, he planned to utilize front projection techniques, allowing lead actors to perform remotely, saving on travel costs and fees.

While Kubrick stressed the importance of steering clear of high-priced celebrity actors for "Napoleon," his casting choices remained notable. He envisioned Audrey Hepburn in the roleof Joséphine, despite her recent departure from acting. However, her refusal put an end to that particular possibility.

Despite meticulous budgeting and comprehensive planning, "Napoleon" failed to secure the necessary finances. Coupled with the commercial failure of another Napoleon-related film in 1970, Kubrick reluctantly shelved the project and proceeded to direct "A Clockwork Orange."

Yet, Kubrick remained persistent. In 1971, he wrote to the production company, stating, "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." After completing "A Clockwork Orange," he even asked the original author, Anthony Boggs, to write a novel on Napoleon, intending to base the screenplay on it. However, Kubrick was dissatisfied with Boggs' efforts. Despite Boggs publishing "Napoleon Symphony" in 1974, Kubrick's film remained unrealized.

Throughout the 1980s, Kubrick's dedication to "Napoleon" persisted. Nevertheless, he couldn't secure the necessary budget to initiate the filming.

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