Stanley Kubrick’s “Napoleon” Dossier
To some of us, the loss of Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon biopic, for want of financing, seems like no great loss at all, not when you consider what he ended up accomplishing in the years during which he would have been making it otherwise. All that “Napoleon”-preparation seems to have somehow been put to excellent use in the years that followed–as if he had salvaged the thing for parts in vehicles he would have never been able to launch otherwise.
The obvious instance is Barry Lyndon (1975), with its period-piece pomposities processed through Kubrick’s dark-comic genius, not to mention all the technical innovations put to good use in Lyndon that had come to fruition only as Kubrick puzzled over just how “Napoleon” was to be shot: those sunlit scenes by day, candlelit by night, and the preciously obsolete lenses Kubrick was able to somehow score, “2 full stops faster than the fastest lens available for 65mm. cameras,” according to Kubrick’s production notes; these lenses, he wrote, “will allow shooting with the normal interior room light in all but the most darkened conditions, in which case, a small amount of supplementary lighting will be necessary.” The lenses are what allowed Lyndon its oil-painting feel, a look and mood and tone that only threw into sharper relief all the mischievous irreverence Kubrick had for that stuffy genre, its aridity and arthritis.
Even if you’re not among those of us who consider Barry Lyndon to be Kubrick’s masterpiece (a pitiful minority, to be sure), you probably don’t consider A Clockwork Orange (1971) to be a dispensable part of his oeuvre, or The Shining (1980). These two films–along with Lyndon–are the next three Kubrick made after 2001 (1969), in the period during which he was on the verge of–but, alas, failed at–receiving financing for the Napoleon project. How the project fell through, and exactly how much herculean labor Kubrick had put into its preparation, are meticulously documented in Stanley Kubrick’s “Napoleon”: The Greatest Film Never Made, a single-bound compendium of several texts testifying to the potential of a production never realized.
In addition to extensive production notes, there are location photos (even more extensive), costume designs, lengthy conversations between Kubrick and the Napoleon scholar Felix Markham, annotations Kubrick had made in Markham’s biography and interviews he had given on the project, a treatment of the script, not to mention the script itself, as well as a whole batch of essays, written by experts after the fact and assessing the merits of what Kubrick had been able to accomplish: his brother-in-law and co-producer Jan Harlan with an overview of the project, Eva-Maria Magel with a painstakingly virtuoso analysis of the production in each of its component parts, Geoffrey Ellis with “A Historian’s Critique of the Screenplay,” Jean Tulard with a survey of “Napoleon in Film” (both pre- and post-Kubrick), as well as a bibliography itemizing Kubrick’s roughly 500 books on Napoleon. When the author and filmmaker Jon Ronson, who eventually ended up making a documentary about Kubrick’s archives in toto, was first taken to the Napoleon room, after Kubrick’s death, he asked Kubrick’s assistant if this had been the library. “Look closer at the books,” he was told, and when he did, Ronson became neither the first nor the last in this context to recall The Shining and Jack Nicholson (whom Kubrick had seriously considered for the role of Napoleon) and those same lines batted out obsessively over and over again on the typewriter from inside the Overlook Hotel. After Ronson expressed his amazement that all the books were about Napoleon, the assistant then said to him, “Look in the drawers.”
In the drawers were the index cards, and those are reproduced here too, in part. They had been prepared by Oxford University graduate students whom Kubrick had hired, through Markham, to provide “[a] master biographical file,” cross-indexed, “on the principal 50 characters in the story.” The students, Kubrick wrote, “have taken the highlights of each person’s life, putting a single event and its date on a single 3 x 5 index card. These cards have all been integrated in a date order file with special signals indicating the names of the characters. The system allows you to instantly determine what any of the 50 people were doing on any given date.”
Kubrick’s ambitions for the project were not modest, and they were not subtle, either: “I expect to make the best movie ever made,” he said, on more than one occasion, and I guess that’s appropriate. But although there was nothing modest or subtle about his ambitions, there was plenty of subtlety in his preparations–and humility, too, because without humility, true greatness remains elusive. Kubrick was determined not to make this his own personal Waterloo. In some ways, that’s precisely what it became, but not because he had failed in his preparations. In the research phase, Kubrick seems to have had a persistent obsession with a particular kind of nail in Napoleon’s horses’ hooves, during the Russian campaign, and Magel shrewdly speculates that here “Kubrick is seeking to find excuses for the hero’s failings in circumstances that were beyond his control.” He obtained a specimen of precisely the kind of horseshoe frost nail that Napoleon, perhaps at the peril of his Grande Armée, had failed to procure for his horses. Although Markham “cautioned Kubrick that the theory should not be given too much weight,” according to Magel, “[w]e duly find this failure in cavalry preparation making its appearance in the screenplay….”
Kubrick’s “Napoleon”–like Kubrick’s Napoleon–was certainly imperiled by forces beyond its control. For one thing, the studios were losing money, and were otherwise loathe to continue subsidizing bloated costume epics. But there was another contribution to Kubrick’s Waterloo, and that was Waterloo, the Rod Steiger-starring stinkeroo that Sergei Bondarchuk had laid in 1970, as Kubrick was still trying to line up financing for “Napoleon.” Kubrick instantly anticipated troublesome implications for his own project but remained an optimist, writing to Markham, “‘Waterloo’ was such a silly film. It will not make things any easier but in the end I am sure we will get it done.”
When this was written, Kubrick was already in the midst of editing his next film, A Clockwork Orange, probably never allowing himself to believe that it was as close as he would ever come, in the seventies or any other decade, to a nihilistic Beethoven-inspired meditation on violence. (Beethoven was already in the Anthony Burgess source material, of course, but later, when the Napoleon project had fallen through and Kubrick was trying to convince Burgess to do a novel on Napoleon, based on the symphonic form, he did so by reasoning that Beethoven had already drawn up the blueprint with a literal symphony–which would seem to indicate that Beethoven was central to Kubrick’s thematic-aesthetic ideal for both “Napoleon” and Clockwork.)
Would he have ever made Clockwork if things had gotten rolling according to schedule on “Napoleon”? It’s not an idle question. Nor is it idle to ask if Kubrick would have had the resources for making such an idiosyncratic period piece as Barry Lyndon, or such an effectively astute movie as The Shining about what it’s like to be left with all possible resources, except one, for creating the grand masterpiece, and then the frustration that ensues from the subsequent failure. Stanley Kubrick didn’t turn into Jack Torrance, and the one resource he lacked–big studio money–was certainly different from the one that Torrance lacks–artistic inspiration–but that doesn’t mean Kubrick didn’t become, by all accounts, genuinely depressed by his inability to realize “Napoleon.”
But Clockwork, Lyndon, and The Shining are not the only great Kubrick films that “Napoleon”’s failure somehow facilitated. There’s also his last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and its preoccupation with those Schnitzlerian themes of sexual-romantic obsession and jealousy. These are major preoccupations of “Napoleon,” too, and in fact Kubrick even noted the Schnitzlerian parallels in Napoleon’s story long before he had designs on adapting Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, the book that became the basis for Eyes Wide Shut. “His sex life was worthy of Arthur Schnitzler,” Kubrick noted succinctly of Napoleon in a 1969 interview with the journalist Joseph Gelmis, referring to Napoleon’s distrustful, impassioned, and antagonistic relationship with his wife Josephine. And in his copy of a book called The Mind of Napoleon, Kubrick wrote “DIALOG TO SOMEONE” and “VERY SCHNITZLER” next to the following passage:
In Vienna, in 1805, Murat said to me, “I want you to meet a charming woman who is mad about you and wants nothing but you.” Although I had my misgivings, I told him to bring her along. She didn’t speak a word of French, and I not a word of German. I liked her so much that I spent the whole night with her. She was one of the most agreeable women I have ever met–no smell. In the morning, she waked me up, and I have never seen her since. I never knew who she was.
Kubrick’s legendary attention-to-detail and perfectionism are everywhere apparent in this volume. The two are not synonymous, as Kubrick himself understood better than anyone. In one of his recorded talks with Markham, Kubrick characterizes a rival general of Napoleon’s as being “someone who mistook busying himself with details as being a perfectionist. He apparently fancied himself as someone that…he says that he apparently didn’t busy himself in anything other than small details. His grand strategy was non-existent.” This was not a problem from which Kubrick suffered. He knew his small details, but he certainly had his grand strategy, too.
You can see here how the two would have been perfectly integrated. The photos are extensive, and comprise images of everything from battlefields, to uniforms and other costumes, to residential interiors, to historical personages, to city-streets and gardens (including a topiary maze strikingly similar to the one in The Shining), to battleships and great palaces and squat huts, the woods and the sea and the cobble-paved roads. There are more images than can conveniently fit into the book, and so there’s a coded key-card, tucked inside of plastic within the cover, with which one can access some 17,000 additional images online.
And then, at the end of it all, the finished screenplay is where the grand strategy is made manifest. Even to those of us disinclined to read literary forms intended to serve as guides for visual production, Kubrick’s screenplay reads smooth and vivid. If you let yourself relax into it, you can forget that you’re not watching a movie, the movie that Kubrick intended all along for you to watch. Because of the large font Kubrick used, there are 41 rather than the industry-standard 52 lines to an average page; what this ends up meaning is that the 186 pages reproduced here are really more like 148 pages, and can be counted on to have clocked a run-time of, according to Magel, “a good 200 minutes.”
Kubrick did not forsake poetry in his screenplays, least of all this one. It’s almost as if he knew we might be reading this movie instead of watching it. “The weather was so fine and the temperature so mild,” reads the narration of the Russian campaign, “that it seems as if even the season was conspiring to deceive Napoleon.” Even in mere scene direction, Kubrick can’t resist the poetical:
203. EXT – BATTLEFIELD – DAY
Massed columns of French horsemen riding up the slope at a slow canter, their helmets and breast-plates glittering like a stormy wave of the sea, when it catches the sunlight.
This wasn’t just some movie to Kubrick; this was, for more than a decade, the presiding obsession of his life. For someone as obsessive as Kubrick, that’s pretty much like saying it comprised the near-totality of his existence. That he didn’t get the opportunity to complete it is almost criminal, and only serves to remind us of what the case of P.T. Anderson and The Master has more recently demonstrated: no matter how esteemed and accomplished the filmmaker, without the support of a moneyed benefactor with scores of millions of dollars to gamble, even the best laid plans can die the death of a dog. Kubrick knew it–he knew it perfectly well–but if he’d allowed himself to constantly hold that knowledge at the forefront of his psyche, he would have barely been able to function. It’s like he told Gelmis, in the same interview in which he noted “Napoleon”’s Schnitzlerian parallels: “One has to be an optimist about these things.”
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