The Great Unmade? Not Tonight, Josephine: Kubrick’s Napoleon

kubrick's napoleon

Kubrick. Napoleon. Two outstanding generals in their own fields, a marriage of subject and auteur that director Stanley Kubrick believed would be “the greatest film (n)ever made.” But endless preparation, research and writing would, not for the last time, leave him behind the  competition. In Dino De Laurentiis’ rival picture, he met his own Waterloo.

The idea of a filmography of Napoleon Bonaparte first germinated in Kubrick’s mind in the early 1960’s, and percolated during the lengthy post-production period on 2001: A Space Odyssey. He was not impressed by previous film versions of the little Emperor’s life, saying of Abel Gance’s 1927 silent mega-epic, “I found it to be really terrible. As far as story and performance goes, it’s a very crude picture.” He saw Napoleon’s life as “an epic poem of action.” His relationship with Josephine de Beauharnais “one of the greatest obsessional passions of all time. He was one of those men who move history and mould the destiny of their own times and generations to come.”

Kubrick’s then backers MGM financed two years of exhaustive research and script writing. What he wanted, he got. Both he and Napoleon were extremely bright, yet academic failures, seemingly aloof from society, achieving success on their own terms, dazzling others with their brilliance. Napoleon’s comment in his memoirs could have been written by Kubrick of himself: “It is very difficult because the ways of those with whom I live, and probably always shall, are as different from mine as moonlight from sunlight.”

Immediately he hired Napoleon authority and biographer Felix Markham, appointing him “overseeing historical director”.  He bought the rights to his book, using it as a template for his screenplay. Markham supplied a small scouting party of twenty students who were set to work compiling an exhaustive and extensive catalogue of the fifty major characters in Napoleon’s life, in chronological order, colour coded for quick and easy reference. They also filed 17,000 slides of period costumes, art, equipment and so on.

kubrick napoleaon photo soil

An assistant was dispatched “to the front”, following in the conqueror’s footsteps across Europe, taking photographic references, even gathering soil samples from the Waterloo site to be matched when shooting the battle elsewhere. The film was to be a three hour epic of one man’s life, budgeted at $5 million with a 150 day shooting schedule – 2001 had easily outstripped this figure and took three years in total to complete. However, Kubrick had many cost saving measures in mind, some ingenious.

He believed the battle scenes could be shot in Romania and Yugoslavia, where he could get between 30,000 and 50,000 troops, at $3 to $5 per man. “I wouldn’t want to fake it with fewer troops, because Napoleonic battles were out in the open, a vast tableau where the formations moved in almost choreographic fashion, “ he said. Yet for the aftermath of the battle of Austerlitz, a weeping Tsar Alexander I by the roadside implies the human cost. Ridley Scott adopted the same method with a frozen soldier in his micro-budgeted debut, the Napoleonic set The Duellists, to suggest the savage winter of the Russian campaign.

All those troops had to be clothed, and the solution for background figures was a New York tailoring firm and their paper uniforms, which each had “a 300 pound breaking strength, even when wet,” for one to four dollars each.  “We have done film tests on the uniforms, ” Kubrick wrote, “and from a distance of thirty yards or further away, it looks marvellous.”   

kubrick's napoleon 2

He intended to rent authentic period palaces in France and Italy, saving money on dressing as many were already furnished in the correct style. His Front Projection method developed on 2001 would help create convincing wider shots. Star names were a drag on the authenticity, he believed. Names batted around for the lead included David Hemmings and Ian Holm, the latter going on to later portray a comically height sensitive Napoleon in Terry Gilliams’s Time Bandits. However, he did hope to entice Audrey Hepburn out of semi-retirement as Napoleon’s paramour, Josephine, sending her a flattering letter, to which she responded personally, regretfully turning him down.

It isn’t likely she would have accepted though – Kubrick’s script has the lovers first meet at an orgy, and their passionate couplings and falling outs have an air of farce amid the drama elsewhere. Nearly every sexual coupling takes place beneath mirrored ceilings. There is a naivety too about the scripts bookending with the Citizen Kane Rosebud like motif of Napoleon’s teddy bear. Surely an anachronism?

kubrick Napoleon script extract

Kubrick’s brother in law Jan Harlan said “Stanley was besotted with the story. He was a political beast and fascinated with human folly and vanity. Napoleon was the perfect study for that. ” Harlan insisted the draft script in circulation was an outline, not the finished shooting script. “Stanley was not a great writer. He had no false pride in this area and hired writers to help him.” Jean Tulard, France’s leading Napoleon scholar says, “Reading the screenplay, it’s impossible to tell whether Kubrick likes Napoleon or loathes him.” Kubrick believed Napoleon was undone by his passions. Harlan:”He believed Napoleon might have learned to control himself better had he played chess. Stanley thought if you are too emotional, you lose.”

Sometimes, however, it is better to advance with the heart. Over analysis lead, as stated earlier, to Kubrick being pipped at the post by De Laurentiis’ Waterloo in 1970, starring Rod Steiger. It didn’t do very well and MGM’s money men got scared, so Napoleon was dropped. Kubrick later channelled what he had learned into Barry Lyndon, including the use of special Zeiss lenses, used by NASA, that could film longer in fading light, even by candlelight, creating ravishing images, akin to a “moving Gainsborough painting.” He hoped to return to the subject, but never didIn 2009 The Taschen Press, who had published The Stanley Kubrick Archive, released a ten book Russian doll-like massive tome, Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Film Never Made, reproducing all the research materials, annotations and the script.

Many directors have been linked to resurrecting Kubrick’s script, but nothing has ever been formally announced. Until now, that is. Steven Spielberg has told French television station LE JT De Canal+ that he is developing a television mini-series based on Kubrick’s first script: “I’ve been developing Stanley Kubrick’s screenplay — for a miniseries not for a motion picture — about the life of Napoleon. Kubrick wrote the script in 1961, a long time ago.” See him speak on the linked clip around the 9.14 mark.

Meanwhile, the ghost of Abel Gance must be having a quiet chuckle. Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of the silent film will screen at The Royal Festival Hall on Saturday 30 November (all eight hours of it!). Details can be found here. 

Originally posted 2013-03-04 17:22:05. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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