Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Director Spotlight Sidetrack: Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the chilly perfectionist Stanley Kubrick.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

No Grade- incomplete

As with any great director, Stanley Kubrick has a number of unrealized or incomplete projects. Many of them were wisps of ideas, suggested only to be batted away- a notable example being Blue Movie, a high-budget pornographic film that would reinvent the genre and elevate it. Suggested by Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove collaborator Terry Southern, it was eventually dismissed by Kubrick, who did not think the project could work. Another example is The Lord of the Rings, suggested by the Beatles (seriously), with initial plans for the four as Hobbits and later plans of Paul as Frodo, George as Gandalf, Ringo as Sam, and John as Gollum (seriously). Kubrick would dismiss this as well, feeling that the novels could not be successfully brought to film (the Beatles would then turn to John Boorman before finally giving up).

Other projects were lucky enough to get treatments or full scripts before being nixed, including the proposed Cary Grant/Kirk Douglas project I Stole 16 Million Dollars, or The Burning Secret, an adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s novel inspired by Max Ophuls adaptation of Zweig’s Letter from an Unknown Woman. The latter was cancelled after the Production Code made the film (about a Baron who tries to seduce a young Jewish woman by befriending her son) an impossible task.

Yes, there are a number of Kubrick projects that never quite made it to production, and many of them would no doubt have made for great movies. But one unfinished Kubrick project stands above the rest: Napoleon. Often referred to as the Greatest Movie Never Made (later the title of a book about the project), this was Kubrick’s great post-2001 passion project. Kubrick would read hundreds of books about the historical figure, a longstanding fascination for the filmmaker. He was an unparalleled genius of his time whose flaws were inextricable from his virtues: a benevolent tyrant, temperamental but sensitive, loving yet spiteful, brilliant but arrogant. Kubrick saw a genius who made almost impossibly stupid mistakes, a strategist and perfectionist undone by hubris. He was, in a way, what Kubrick feared he might become.

The director would write a 155-page script, available as a PDF here, in 1969 for a planned three-hour epic. He prepared extensively for the project, including detailed notes, suggestions, and cost-cutting measures for what he believed he could make “the greatest movie ever made”. He offered the role of Josephine to a semi-retired Audrey Hepburn (who politely declined), considered David Hemmings and Jack Nicholson for Napoleon (with Hemmings as his first choice), and listed a potential supporting cast that included Ian Holm (who would later play a hilariously volatile Napoleon in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits), Peter O’Toole, and Alec Guinness, among others. Kubrick even started to toy with the idea of using fast lenses to capture candlelight and daylight-lit scenes with minimal extra lighting, a technique he would later use in his exquisite period piece Barry Lyndon.

Alas, it was not to be. Kubrick delivered a script to MGM and United Artists later than expected, and by that point a number of competing Napoleon biopics rushed into production, most notably the Dino De Laurentiis-produced Waterloo. When that film bombed, MGM pulled the plug on Napoleon, and Kubrick went on to direct A Clockwork Orange for Warner Bros., who gave him the creative freedom to do essentially whatever he wanted for the rest of his career. After the success of Clockwork, Kubrick returned to Napoleon with the intention of rewriting the screenplay…only to be pre-empted by the failure of Napoleon and Love. The director would return to the aborted project numerous times, most notably toying with the idea of turning it into a miniseries after the success of Roots. It never happened: Kubrick died in 1999, with Napoleon unfinished.

When reading the Napoleon script, one must remember that Kubrick was planning on re-writing it again after Clockwork, and that even then the director was notorious for deviating from what was written and encouraging his cast to improvise. This is important because the script, while stunning on its own merits, is filled with some inelegant moments. Furthermore, the greatest joys in Kubrick’s filmography are visual, not dialogue-driven, and while the script does a wonderful job of describing what Kubrick envisioned for the project, it cannot compare to what it might have been like to see the film. Nevertheless, it is still a project well worth analyzing.

As with most of Kubrick’s post-2001 films, the script can be broken up into a handful of non-submersible units. Kubrick described the film as being made up of 15 sequences, but here’s how I would break up said units, including the script’s title cards and page numbers.

1.    Young Napoleon (1-9)

Kubrick begins with the shortest of the units (untitled, but I’ve dubbed it “Young Napoleon”): Napoleon’s boyhood. The script begins with an early passage of four-year-old Napoleon sucking his thumb, being told a bedtime story by his mother. The omniscient narrator (a Kubrick trope) establishes that he was not a healthy boy, but that his mother had loved him deeply. One of the more notable details of this early passage: a teddy bear, anachronistic but vital, like the Rosebud to Kubrick’s own Charles Foster Kane, a symbol of love and innocence soon to be tarnished by the harsh realities of the world.

The script jumps forward to nine-year-old Napoleon at a Royal Academy in Brienne, France. Napoleon is an odd boy, shy and temperamental. This is one of the more indelicate moments in the script: Napoleon totes around a book about Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, which an older boy makes fun of him for. It’s a bit too reminiscent of the scene in George Stevens’ strong but sometimes heavy-handed Giant where the future of Dennis Hopper’s character is foreshadowed by baby Hopper crying when playing on the horse and taking instead to toy doctor instruments. Nonetheless, Kubrick establishes the fury and power of young Napoleon.

The script again flashes forward to Napoleon at 16 and 17, a moody, withdrawn young soldier who takes little pleasure in life. He has a series of young romances, most notably with a young prostitute in a scene that captures the tenderness and awkwardness of young love (or at least young sex), ending with Napoleon blowing out a candle in what cannot be anything but an intended homage to the famous match-cut of Lawrence of Arabia. Kubrick would later revisit the theme of awkwardness in young love in the early scenes of Barry Lyndon, but I cannot help but yearn to peek into the universe where he made this instead.

2.    1789- Revolution (10-44)

Kubrick begins the next section with one of his most phenomenal examples of theatrical violence: the execution of the rebel Varlac by Napoleon in the middle of a crowd. There’s a great sense of both the times, with Varlac as a revolutionary lying to the people in order to instigate revolt, and of Napoleon, a man of order willing to do terrible things in order to do what he believes to be right. The crowd is described as “hypnotized” by Napoleon’s action, which I cannot help but think as a parallel to Kubrick’s own staging of violence- brutal and hard to watch, but impossible to look away from.

The script moves on to the battlefield as Paul Francois Nicolas Barras, a Parisian official, asks the French Army junior officers for advice on how to defeat the English at Touron; Napoleon alone speaks up, demonstrating a preternatural genius for military strategy that makes him a hero in his youth. A later passage between Napoleon and Barras shows just how indebted Barras is to the young master: Barras does not seem to have much of a head for battle at all, where Napoleon is completely calm planning for war. The scene is somewhat reminiscent of other depictions of cold, precise plans for war in Kubrick films, particularly Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove, but also of the eerie early scene between Ullmann and Torrance in The Shining as one man agrees to help another in what will lead to his ultimate downfall. Kubrick is even better throughout when describing the battle sequences, which are planned with exact precision.

But the best moments in this segment come with Napoleon’s early encounters with the love of his life, Josephine de Beauharnais. The two are guests at a party at Barras’ salon. The party is hedonistic, filled with a strange crowd that cheers on as a group of men have their way with women on a stage (Eyes Wide Shut, anyone?). Napoleon, by contrast, is uneasy, but he’s entranced by Josephine, whom he later meets through her son Eugene. Napoleon falls hard for Josephine, but he plants the first seeds of his undoing as he fails to realize that Josephine is not as passionately in love with him as he is her. Kubrick describes a series of vignettes of Napoleon rising to greater power but lamenting Josephine not responding to his swooning, romantic love letters (which are read over the sequences) and Josephine beginning a passionate affair with Captain Hippolyte Charles. Napoleon later meets with Charles as a way to dispel rumors that he has begun an affair with Josephine; his brother, Joseph, and his friend, Junot, lie to him. His trusting nature is too much- his relationship with Josephine will soon sour, the first crack in his seemingly invulnerable exterior.

3.    Egypt/Napoleon and Josephine (45-60)/Coup d’Etat (60-68)

And so Napoleon continues his ascension to power with his conquest of Egypt. He is an iron-fisted ruler, no doubt, but he’s also a man of extraordinary intellectual curiosity, one dedicated to preserving his conquest’s culture. All is not well, however: Napoleon finally learns the truth of Josephine’s infidelity. Jealous, hearbroken, and defeated. The two eventually have a cautious reconciliation, but their lovemaking is spiked with sadness, and his promise to stay with Josephine forever is half-hearted at best. As the Emperor rises to power, his great relationship starts to come undone: shades of Barry Lyndon’s own downfall here. In the meantime, however, Napoleon’s arrogance is outmatched by his genius, and no futile resistance from men who call him a tyrant will stop it. He brings calm amidst the chaos, order amidst unrest. He is the 1st Consul of France. He is only 30 years old. Like Kubrick himself, he is a young genius who has just conquered the world. Unlike Kubrick, his reign will not last.

4.    Empire (68-89)/The Fall (89-99)

Napoleon is a god among men, bringing organization, peace, and brilliance in both executive and legislative dictatorship. He is a tyrant, but a benevolent one who claims to be the only one able to bring order among a corrupt species. Kubrick’s cynicism towards humanity shines through here, but so does his empathy. For Kubrick understands Napoleon’s flaws- now power mad, he cheats on Josephine at any turn, growing angry with her whenever she questions his actions. There is a break-up fostered by his frustration over her failure to bear him an heir, followed by a hopeful but fruitless reconciliation. Napoleon also starts a near-homoerotic friendship with Tsar Alexander I of Russia, but he ignores his aides advice about how Alexander will abandon him at the first sign of weakness.

Then the fall begins: he cannot stay with Josephine, who has not produced an heir. The two divorce in one of the script’s most harrowing and emotionally wrenching scenes, with a distraught Josephine and shaken Napoleon reluctantly agreeing to separate in a ceremony amidst a cold and unfeeling family. Napoleon then moves on to Marie-Louise of Austria, a girlish wife who clearly neither understands nor truly loves Napoleon but rather takes to him because of his power. Where Josephine and Napoleon showed passion, Marie-Louise can do little but giggle. The defining relationship of Napoleon’s life is broken, and things are about to get ugly. Kubrick views Napoleon’s abandonment of Josephine as his ultimate mistake. True, the two remain friends for life, but Napoleon has left her for the sole purpose of moving on to a woman he doesn’t love so she’ll produce an heir. It’s a deeply sad and dehumanizing moment for both Napoleon and Josephine, made more tragic by how it affects them in the next few sections.

5.    Defeat (99-123)/Invasion of France (123-129)

Kubrick begins the next section with a masterful portrait of how relations between France and Russia sour: a French officer and a Russian man encounter each other. They start a quarrel over an essentially meaningless matter, only for the officer to start firing at the retreating Russian man. It’s an elegant metaphor for what happens next: Alexander abandons Napoleon, who soon invades Russia, ignoring ill-omens and the harsh conditions of the landscape. Too blinded by arrogance to turn back, he is amazed as the Russians employ scorched earth tactics and burn Moscow to the ground so Napoleon cannot conquer it. A surreal sequence of a French soldier being attacked by a old Russian man with a pitchfork sells the situation: the French are better armed, but this is not their land, and they don’t stand a chance against the harrowing conditions.

As Napoleon retreats, the armies of Europe close around Paris. Kubrick uses a poignant Napoleon quote to sell the situation: “A year ago, the whole of Europe was marching alongside of us. Today, the whole of Europe is marching against us”. Yet even despite this, his arrogance has blinded him. As Paris surrenders, Napoleon remains delusional, exclaiming that “victory was within our grasp!”. It is no use: he must abdicate the throne, and he is exiled.

6.    Elba/Waterloo (129-145)/St. Helena (145-148)

Kubrick spends a long time on Napoleon’s definitive defeat at Waterloo following his return to Paris, but he plants the final seeds for his climactic defeat in the early scenes at Elba. Napoleon is a sad, comic shell of his former self, marching around the locals without much power. But Napoleon bides his time and makes one final gamble after he learns of Josephine’s sad, unexpected death (not to mention the death of his son by Marie-Louise). After his defeat at Waterloo and his exile to St. Helena, Kubrick takes Napoleon to a sad deathbed scene as he laments a dream in which Josephine “slipped away the moment I wanted to take her in my arms.” Napoleon then died and was buried in a nameless grave, and as his mother mourns her son’s death, Kubrick takes a final look at a chest filled with young Napoleon’s old toys: books, wooden soldiers, and an old teddy bear. It would truly have been Kubrick’s own Citizen Kane story: a tale of a man who gained unparalleled power, only to lose everything that ever mattered to him.

That, until recently, was it. I had planned this sidetrack to Kubrick’s most famous unfinished project when I started this edition of Director Spotlight, but I’m now glad that this edition has dragged out as long as it has. Steven Spielberg, Kubrick’s longtime friend and colleague, has announced that he plans on bringing Kubrick’s Napoleon to television in an expansive miniseries. Spielberg previously took on another unfinished Kubrick project, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. The film came out to highly polarized reviews, with many complaining that Kubrick tacked on a happy ending (despite all evidence pointing to Kubrick having the same intended ending) and that the directors’ sensibilities, one cold and exacting, the other warm and gooey, were incompatible. But that’s both a gross oversimplification (if not a total misrepresentation) of both filmmakers and a serious misinterpretation of the film’s ending. If anything, Spielberg has proven that he understands Kubrick better than just about any of Kubrick’s other fans do. Here’s hoping that Spielberg gets cracking on this project (not to mention that he directs it himself) real soon.

More details about Kubrick's unfinished film here.

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  1. You know I kinda wonder how Spielberg intends to adapt the project as a miniseries. If you go by the standard 1 page = 1 minute of screentime rul Kubrick's script as is would not produce an extraordinary long film, I doubt that it would have been longer than 3 hours. This of course assuming that there isn't a later, longer draft that Spielberg is working from. Obviously Spielberg will have access to Kubricks archives which contain more than enough research to expand the narrative, but to what end? I don't pretend to be an expert on Napoleon, but the draft that I'm reading seems to be contain more than enough of the man's essence. Also the Teddy Bear thing is wonderful, it's wonderful precisely because it's anachronistic, it says loudly that this is Kubrick's Napoleon and no one elses. It works as both a highly personal piece of character development AND serves as a meta statement about how biographers try and put their own stamp on their subjects.

  2. It could be a three-parter divided in hours, or a two-part hour-and-a-half series. As for how much Spielberg would expand it: hard to say. He rewrote the script of A.I. himself, but this seems pretty good to go, some clunky lines aside. I'll trust his judgment until I see it.