Evil Ash checking in again.
I’d like to preface Part II in this ongoing series of films that never were by stating emphatically that this piece is completely biased. Stanley Kubrick is BY FAR my favorite director ever. I’ve gushed about him before on this site and it’s because of Kubrick that I became the cinephile that I am. Studying Kubrick’s work at length, reading numerous books about him, I still continue to be amazed by his use of natural lighting (see Barry Lyndon) and one-point perspective (see The Shining).
Kubrick is also the reason that I’m such an advocate of current master auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, who has admitted publicly numerous times that his use of music and cinematography owes a HUGE debt of gratitude to Kubrick. Tom Cruise, who was nominated for a best-supporting Oscar in PTA’s fantastic 1999 ensemble film Magnolia, invited Anderson to visit the set of Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, which he was starring in, and was also released in 1999. The two directors had a brief exchange, as Anderson would later state:
“Kubrick had a really small crew…I asked him, ‘Do you always work with so few people?’ He gave me a look and said, ‘Why? How many people do you need?’ I felt like such a Hollywood asshole.”
Now, I don’t think Kubrick was being intentionally nasty towards Anderson, he was just acting like Kubrick ALWAYS acted on a film set; intense, confrontational and brash. Just watch the behind the scenes mini-documentary of The Shining, which was filmed by Kubrick’s then teenage daughter Vivian, and you’ll see what I mean. I truly think that this interaction would help to shape Anderson as a director and writer. He goes into further detail on his once-in-a-lifetime meeting with Kubrick during a Q&A for The Master. Check it out below:
While I had known about Kubrick’s abandoned Napoleon project, which has a 148-page screenplay that is easily available online (I’ll provide a link at the end of this article), I hadn’t really known about the breadth and scope of resources and time that he had spent on it (typical Kubrick) until I had started doing the research for this piece. As you will soon see, it was absolutely staggering.
After the release of the visually stunning yet polarizing 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick referred to NY critics who trashed the film “dogmatically atheistic and materialistic and earthbound”), the director wanted to change gears a bit, and immediately began two years of intense research on what Kubrick envisioned being an epic historical drama about the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
The working title was Napoleon and Kubrick had dozens of assistants and specialists to help him with this ambitious project. Concept art by Warner Brothers had even been produced. Kubrick would later switch studios, bringing his project to MGM, when Warner Brothers refused to put up the financing for this ambitious production.
Kubrick’s brother-in-law and assistant Jan Harlan stated that the film would follow Napoleon from his birth in Corsica in 1769, to his death on the remote island of Saint Helena in 1821. Harlan further stated that the films emphasis would be on field battles that Kubrick often referred to as “vast lethal ballets.” The films other main focus would be Napoleon’s love and obsession for Josephine de Beauharnais, which Harlan referred to as “one of the great obsessional passions of all time.”
Kubrick had lined up British actor David Hemmings to play the title role, who was still hot off the wildly successful 1966 Antonioni classic Blowup. Kubrick’s legendary attention to detail was in overdrive for this project. Harlan, now 83, would later state:
“I was in Zurich in 1968 and 1969, looking for relevant material, books and drawings, simply everything I could find on the period from the French Revolution until The Congress of Vienna in 1815. Other people traveled for weeks through Germany, France and the UK on the same mission. He loved research and study. Pre-production and editing were his joy – filming itself a necessity.”
Kubrick had desperately pursued Audrey Hepburn to play the role of Josephine, but she turned him down. As to why, it’s not really known. However, she did state in a letter to Kubrick that:
“I still don’t want to work for a while so cannot commit or involve myself in any project at this time.”
For some context, at this time in 1968, Hepburn was in the middle of divorce proceedings from actor Mel Ferrer, so that may have had something to do with it. I tend to think that if Hepburn had read the script, it was the sexually charged relationship between the two main characters that caused her to decline the role. In Kubrick’s screenplay, Napoleon meets Josephine at an orgy! Knowing this, it’s hard to picture Hepburn agreeing to sign on.
Kubrick was also said to have been pursuing Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Jean-Paul Belmondo, and Charlotte Rampling in supporting roles. There are also strong rumors that the director was interested in a young Jack Nicholson to play the title role, but I’ve been unable to verify that. The two would get together just over 10 years later, to collaborate on one of the greatest horror films of all time. Below is the letter that Hepburn wrote to Kubrick, when she turned down the role.
Pre-production on the film had started in 1967. Kubrick at this time was red hot and had back to back critical and commercial hits with Lolita and Dr. Strangelove; and 2001: A Space Odyssey was just about to be released. The proposed budget for Napoleon was reportedly $5.2 million, which is equal to about $34 million, adjusted for inflation. Still, when you look at the amount of production that was to go into this movie, you can see that the budget would have been much much higher, and THIS might have been part of its downfall.
Kubrick quickly had sunk $420,000 into the project in the form of costumes, location scouting in Italy, France, and Romania, and securing the rights to borrow the Romanian army in order to stage elaborate battle scenes! Dozens of European military uniforms were camera-tested, as shown in the photo below.
Sadly, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, the studio that had just recently financed Kubrick’s masterwork, 2001: A Space Odyssey, started to have their doubts with regards to his latest project, and much like with Hitchcock’s The Blind Man, things rapidly deteriorated. Harlan would later state that:
“Stanley only had a pre-production agreement in place with MGM…an agreement to make a plan, schedule and budget. These elements were delivered, but MGM did not proceed to the next stage.”
In doing the research for this article, it seems that Kubrick’s timing was extremely unlucky. MGM had just changed ownership, and its new owners were extremely wary in putting up the financing for monumental historical dramas, with 50,000 military extras. On top of that, Dino De Laurentis’s own epic Napoleon movie Waterloo, released in 1970, was a huge disappointment, which gave the studio no motivation to continue to move forward with Kubrick’s project.
It’s tragic to think what Napoleon could have been had it come to fruition. It would have combined the massive battlefield scenes of Spartacus with the slow-paced sexually charged energy of Barry Lyndon. Harlan believed that it would have been the perfect project for his late brother-in-law; stating it would combine:
“Self-destructive actions by intelligent people, the poison of jealousy and revenge, the ways that brilliance, success and power can go hand in hand with egocentricity, vanity and the abuse of such power…these were the themes that always interested him. Just think of Lolita, Paths of Glory and Dr Strangelove.”
While Kubrick’s ambition and breadth of scope caused this never made film to die on the vine, it didn’t slow Kubrick down, and the 18th and early 19th century influences would never fully leave Stanley Kubrick. In 1975 he would make one of his most controversial movies; the widely discussed and visually stunning Barry Lyndon, which was an adaptation of an 1844 novel by William Makepeace Thackery about the travails of an Irish rogue.
The movie would take place during the times and wars that predated Napoleon’s rise from the 1750s, until its epilogue, which is set in 1789. After the Napoleon fiasco, Kubrick would go on to make A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), The Shining (1980), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999), an incredible run.
As promised, here is the link for the unmade screenplay to Napoleon:
Next week, we travel to Leningrad…
Sound off Outposters and let me know what you think about Kubrick’s unfinished project!
Hugh “Evil Ash” Feinberg