Napoleon Bonaparte has been the subject of more film adaptations than any other historical figure. Why, some might ask, is there a need for a further edition? It is difficult not to imagine how one of cinema’s most notorious and ingenious mavericks would have adapted the little corporal’s story for the big screen.
Not long after 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, Stanley Kubrick began work on an altogether more vast undertaking. To his mind, no one had yet managed to make a truly great historical film and he intended to change this with a three-hour epic, telling the story of Napoleon’s entire life.
Kubrick’s decision to dedicate his not-inconsiderable resources to such a project stemmed from a deep-seated fascination with the French emperor. In an interview in 1969, Kubrick reflected on how the life of Napoleon has been ‘described as an epic poem of action.’ He also spoke of how Bonaparte was ‘one of those rare men who move history and mould the destiny of their own times and of generations to come’, and that his romantic involvement with Josephine was ‘one of the great obsessional passions of all time.’
Once Kubrick had settled on his chosen subject, his desire to see it brought to the silver screen was predictably insatiable. Funded by MGM, Kubrick began pre-production work and pencilled in a release for either 1972 or 1973. Devouring over 500 books on Napoleon, Kubrick broke his research down into categories detailing ‘everything from [Napoleon’s] food tastes to the weather on the day of a specific battle.’ What’s more, he sent an assistant around Europe to follow, quite literally, in Napoleon’s footsteps, telling him ‘Wherever Napoleon went, I want you to go.’
Moreover, at a dinner during pre-production on A Clockwork Orange, Malcolm McDowell supposedly asked his director why he was simultaneously eating ice cream and steak. Kubrick’s alleged response was blunt and illuminating: ‘What’s the difference? It’s all food. This is how Napoleon used to eat.’
Having gathered together some 15,000 location photos and 17,000 slides of Napoleonic imagery, Kubrick planned to shoot his epic in France and Italy for their grand locations, as well as Romania where he arranged to borrow 40,000 infantry men and 10,000 cavalry for the battle sequences. Further details have subsequently come to light, which reveal that Kubrick wanted David Hemmings to play the lead role, with Audrey Hepburn his preference to portray Josephine. Both Alec Guinness and Laurence Olivier were also touted for supporting roles. Despite harbouring a degree of uncertainty about the progress of the project, Kubrick said ‘I expect Napoleon to be the best movie I’ve ever made. It will be my defining moment.’
Unfortunately for Stanley, the release of Sergie Bondarchuk’s ill-fated Waterloo in 1970 put paid to this ambition. Despite some positive reviews for its battle depiction, Waterloo failed to recoup its considerable cost. As a result, the studios decided that Kubrick’s even more ambitious venture posed a financial risk which was considered too great.
Forty years on, however, and it appears that renewed life has been breathed into Kubrick’s long-dormant vision. In his final years, Kubrick developed a friendship with another legendary figure: Steven Spielberg. According to Ian Nathan (author of The Greatest Movies You’ll Never See), Kubrick was ‘staggered and elated by what Spielberg achieved in Jurassic Park’ and asked him to direct AI: Artificial Intelligence, which the former was struggling to complete. During this period, Kubrick entrusted his Napoleon project to his new friend and in March of this year it was announced that Spielberg would work in conjunction with Kubrick’s family to develop a TV miniseries about the life of the French emperor based on the great man’s script.
Furthermore, in the last few weeks it has emerged that Baz Luhrmann (director of The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge!) is being lined up by Spielberg to direct Kubrick’s magnum opus for the screen at long last. Quite what Kubrick would have made of the choice to approach the enigmatic Australian is open for debate and only time will tell what the result will be. Whatever the outcome, however, it will see one of Hollywood’s greatest obsessions finally and spectacularly realised.
Did we miss out on Stanley Kubrick’s greatest feature or would it have been one opus too far? Tell us what you think below.