The greatest movie Stanley Kubrick never made

For 30 years before his death, the idiosyncratic director dreamed of making a sex-drenched epic of war and peace.

By Darryl Mason

Published October 4, 2000 7:15PM (EDT)

In 1968, 40-year-old director Stanley Kubrick had the cinematic world at his feet and one big movie project germinating in his head.

He had started his career as the original independent filmmaker, at a time where it was nigh impossible to make movies outside the studios, and through the previous 15 years he had directed eight films -- some of the most acclaimed, debated and controversial ever made. "Spartacus" (1960), "Lolita" (1962) and "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964) clearly demonstrated Kubrick's ability to use pitch-black humor and great spectacle to tell tales of the true heart of man as few filmmakers had told them before. His films had been feted by critics as cinematic masterpieces or dismissed as overblown indulgences, and although all were profitable, they were hardly box-office triumphs.

But Kubrick's latest film, "2001: A Space Odyssey," had proved to be both a critical and a box-office success. Kubrick knew he could now make almost any film he desired, and what he desired most was to bring to the screen his vision of the chaotic, war-soaked life of Napoleon. It was to be no mere Hollywood biopic; Kubrick planned to stage full-scale re-creations of the French ruler's most infamous wars, and he wanted to do it on the same battlefields that Napoleon had fought on 150 years before.

Since his youth hustling chess games in Greenwich Village, N.Y., Kubrick had harbored a deep fascination with Napoleon's life. It was, according to Kubrick, "an epic poem of action."

"He was one of those rare men who move history and mold the destiny of their own times and of generations to come," Kubrick told Joseph Gelmis in 1968 (for Gelmis' interview anthology book, "The Film Director as Superstar") as he geared up for the film's production.

When "2001" picked up five Oscar nominations, including best director, Kubrick used the heat to marshal MGM into backing his new film. The studio coughed up development funds and Kubrick hired a team of researchers. He then plunged into a two-year odyssey to bring his Napoleon epic to the screen.

His first step was to view all the other films made of Napoleon's life so far. There were many, an average of three a decade from the birth of cinema up to the early 1950s. Although Kubrick found many things he liked in the massive 1956 "War & Peace," made in Russia, he abhorred Abel Gance's much-hallowed "Napoleon" of 1927, which originally ran more than five hours and was shown in cinemas in a triple-screen presentation.

The film "has built up a reputation among film buffs over the years," Kubrick told Gelmis, "but I found it to be really terrible. As far as story and performance goes it's a very crude picture."

Kubrick then hired a renowned Napoleon scholar, Oxford University professor Felix Markham, to serve as overseeing historical advisor, and purchased the rights to Markham's own biography of the man. Though Kubrick used Markham's book as a basis for his screenplay, he mainly bought the rights as a legal base to avoid "the usual claims from the endless number of people who have written Napoleonic books."

Kubrick used 20 of Markham's graduate students to construct a master biographical file on the 50 principal characters of Napoleon's life. A file ordered by date was devised to store index cards of key events, when and where they happened, with each index card annotated with individual characters' names. This allowed Kubrick to instantly determine where each of his characters was on a given date, and what they were doing in relation to one another.

Kubrick himself soaked up a few hundred books on Napoleon's life and times. So intense was Kubrick in his research that he began to imitate the Frenchman's habit of bombarding every person he met with a plethora of questions, a character trait Kubrick reportedly kept for the rest of his life.

Stranger still, Kubrick even adopted Napoleon's eating habits. During pre-production on "A Clockwork Orange," actor Malcolm McDowell watched in astonishment as Kubrick consumed a meal: a bite of dessert, a bite of steak, another bite of dessert. "This is the way Napoleon ate," Kubrick informed the amused McDowell, who often cited it in interviews as one of his favorite Kubrick anecdotes.

After the years he had devoted to nailing down every last detail of costume, set and space science for "2001," Kubrick desired to simplify the process for his new film. The unintentional result was a bewilderingly large picture file of some 15,000 entries on all things Napoleon. Kubrick designed a retrieval system based on subject classification that also included a visual signaling method, allowing cross-indexing of subjects to an almost unlimited degree of complexity and detail. It was designed so everyone from costumers to set detailers could find any information they needed, and not soak up Kubrick's time with the endless queries that had plagued him during the making of "2001."

The director, who was a revolutionary film technologist, also sought out special lenses that would allow him to continue shooting his exteriors long into the evening, way beyond the hours mere mortal film crews would have to pack up and go home.

Kubrick wanted to shoot his "Napoleon" with natural light whenever possible, and found lenses that would allow the sex scenes between Napoleon and Josephine -- and Napoleon and queens and the wives of various rulers -- to be shot with only candles for illumination. Six years later Kubrick would use the very same techniques for the acclaimed candlelit interiors in "Barry Lyndon."

In production notes accompanying his screenplay of 1969, Kubrick noted four elements that would add most to the cost of filming his epic spectacle: the large number of extras required, the fact that all extras would require military uniforms, the prolific expenses incurred by constructing period sets of French and Russian palaces and, finally, "overpriced movie stars."

But Kubrick, ever the strategist, found many financially creative ways to reduce the budget.

He had no desire to try to match the budget extremes of the last great historical epic, 1963's "Cleopatra," still probably Hollywood's greatest financial debacle. If MGM was going to give Kubrick the money he needed to make his film, he had to show them how willing he was to compromise.

After his birth by fire in playing the director for hire on "Spartacus" a decade before, Kubrick knew the impossible expenses of staging a sea battle, even in miniature. In his screenplay he came up with the idea of using maps to show Napoleon's naval battle with the English and limning the disastrous results with simple haunting shots: two French ships lying on the bottom of the sea; a drowned French admiral floating in his cabin, surrounded by a drift of papers, books and a roast chicken.

He could live without a realistic sea battle, but Kubrick planned nothing less than full-scale re-creations of Napoleon's finest military moments.

And Kubrick knew he could do them for a reasonable price, despite the logistics. To replicate Napoleon's battles, Kubrick decided he would need at least 40,000 infantrymen and 10,000 cavalrymen, as many as Napoleon actually used.

When shooting "Paths of Glory" in 1957, Kubrick hired 800 German police officers (who were trained by the military) to play soldiers. It worked so well that Kubrick decided he must find a country that would hire out its armed forces to him. Fifty extras to a truck would mean the production needed 1,000 trucks to ship 50,000 soldiers to a location, so not only did Kubrick need locations with the proper terrain to accurately stage his battles, the sites also needed to be within marching distance of barracks or a city with enough accommodations.

But Kubrick's dream to shoot on actual Napoleonic battlefields was scuttled almost as soon as location scouting began. Few sites were found to be suitable for filming; industrial and urban development had overtaken most and the rest were ringed by modern buildings. Kubrick did, however, take samples of the soil from the battlefields of Waterloo so the color and quality of the dirt beneath Napoleon's feet could be duplicated at the new locations.

So how, exactly, did Kubrick expect to persuade a government to lend him 50,000 soldiers for a movie shoot?

"One has to be optimistic about these things," Kubrick told Gelmis. "If it turned out to be impossible I'd obviously have no other choice than to make do with a lesser number of men, but this would only be as a last resort. 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 an almost choreographic fashion ... [The battles were] so beautiful, like vast lethal ballets, that it's worth making every effort to explain the configuration of forces to the audience."

To do so Kubrick included not only scenes of epic confrontations in his screenplay but also maps, charts and vast tracts of voice-over, supplying concise history lessons on each battle as well as explanations of the psychology of war that Napoleon used to trounce his enemies.

By the end of 1968, Kubrick had found suitable locations for his battles in Yugoslavia and the Romanian government was willing to supply troops in the tens of thousands for no more than $2 per man per day. Yugoslavia, no doubt put off by the thought of having multitudes of Romanian soldiers tromping through its countryside for Kubrick's epic, offered to supply the same number of men for only $5 per man per day.

Both Yugoslavia and Romania also came to Kubrick's party in reducing his monstrous military-costuming budget. They each quoted him less than $40 per uniform, one-fifth the price Kubrick had been quoted in England. But Kubrick managed to find an even cheaper way to dress the majority of his troops.

A New York firm had come up with a way of producing a durable paper fabric (both drip-dry and fireproof) onto which could be printed the required detail and insignia of any uniform, and the uniforms could be manufactured in the tens of thousands for less than $4 each. Kubrick undertook film tests and found that at a distance of a few dozen yards, the paper uniforms were indistinguishable from the real thing. Prototypes of vehicles and weapons of the period were created from paintings and written descriptions of the time, and Kubrick insisted they be exact to the minutest detail. Once he was happy, the prototypes were readied to be mass-produced in the volume the movie required.

He originally budgeted $3 million to $6 million to construct and decorate the numerous palatial sets required for his French emperors and Russian kings. This was a shocking amount in 1969, for any film. But Kubrick, through his researchers and his own formidable negotiating skills, managed to locate and secure 16th and 17th century palaces and villas in France and Italy. These would require almost no additional detailing to be historically authentic, and he worked out a deal to rent them for daily fees of only a few hundred dollars.

As far as the "overpriced movie stars" were concerned, Kubrick felt there was enough proof that they do "little besides leaving an insufficient amount of money to make the film properly."

In script notes to MGM, Kubrick cited his own "2001" and the then-recent, low-budget box-office monolith "The Graduate" as films that were successful simply because they were enjoyed by filmgoers for being good stories, well told. He added that it was the positive word of mouth, not star power alone, that quickly encouraged the masses to fill cinemas nationwide.

Kubrick's intention was to use "great actors and new faces." One of his first choices -- along with Ian Holm -- was Jack Nicholson, fresh from his Oscar-nominated role in "Easy Rider." Kubrick believed Nicholson permeated his characters with intelligence -- a quality, Kubrick noted in a letter to the actor (later cited in John Baxter's Kubrick biography), "that cannot be acted."

But while Kubrick collected his vast minutiae of detail on Napoleon through 1968, hotelier Kirk Kerkorian was collecting shares in the then-ailing MGM. By the time Kubrick finished and delivered his screenplay, in September 1969, he had solved most of the pre-production problems of filming, costuming, locations and casting. But Kubrick was not able to persuade MGM to finance his epic and was forced to fire his researchers and key crew. Kerkorian, who soon became the new owner of MGM, was more interested in moving into television production than in producing the kind of large-scale epics that had almost bankrupted the studio over the previous decade.

What's more, Napoleon himself was no longer good box office. Although no Napoleonic film had been made for two decades, by the time Kubrick finished his screenplay there were suddenly three new films in production. The main competitor was John Huston's "Waterloo," but Kubrick had been able to track down the screenplay and had learned it would be substantially different from the film he wanted to make. Huston's "Waterloo" would focus only on the 100 days leading up to Napoleon's last great battle, while Kubrick's would follow Napoleon from birth to death.

By early 1971, all three of the other Napoleonic films had been released, and all three were box-office disasters, failing to even make their budgets back. MGM, now barely producing any movies at all, could find no funds for Kubrick's epic, and his name and talent alone were not enough to convince Kerkorian that the film would set the box office alight.

Reluctantly, Kubrick walked away from MGM. But he quickly found a comfortable home with Warner Bros., where he would stay for the rest of his career. He signed a three-film deal that would supply the funds to develop and make the movies Kubrick wanted to make, the way he wanted to make them. Not only would he have total freedom in choosing his projects and be given the final cut, but after a period of five to seven years after each film's release the original negative and all rights would become the sole property of Kubrick.

To prove its faith in its new star director, Warner Bros. gave Kubrick a few million dollars to turn Anthony Burgess' then relatively unknown novel, "A Clockwork Orange," into an X-rated film.

In a press release to announce their partnership, Kubrick stated that after "Clockwork" he would return to bringing "Napoleon" to the screen. Kubrick then plunged into "Clockwork," and the finished film was in cinemas around the world within a year of the start of principal photography -- a script-to-screen ratio that Kubrick was never again able to replicate.

Kubrick's mind did indeed turn back to Napoleon after "A Clockwork Orange" was released, but Nicholson no longer had any interest in playing the historical figure, and Holm, another of Kubrick's choices, had been signed to star in yet another Napoleon biopic, the British television production "Napoleon and Love."

It, too, failed spectacularly to hook in an audience. Whether Kubrick was dismayed by such a lack of interest in his prime subject or whether he felt he never truly nailed the script is not known. But according to Kubrick's longtime friend at Warner Bros., publicist Julian Senior, the director never officially submitted a finished screenplay to the studio.

Not wanting to waste all those years of prodigious Napoleonic research, and still fascinated with the era, Kubrick searched out a suitable literary vehicle, eventually settling on William Thackeray's "The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esquire, by Himself" after considering, then dismissing, the author's better-known "Vanity Fair." During post-production on "Barry Lyndon," in 1975, Kubrick was still talking about his Napoleon project, though he confided to an interviewer that it would cost $50 million to $60 million to produce and would run more than three hours.

In the midst of preparing his adaptation of Stephen King's novel "The Shining," and noting the success of the large-scale miniseries "Roots," Kubrick began investigating the possibility of turning his Napoleon project into a 20-hour television production, with Al Pacino in the lead role. He revealed his plans in an interview with French writer Michel Ciment. But Kubrick's friend Senior believes the suggestion was probably nothing more than a joke. "My God," Senior exclaimed in a recent interview, "can you imagine Stanley Kubrick actually doing a miniseries?"

After Kubrick's death last year, rumors abounded through movie media that Steven Spielberg, a friend of Kubrick's since the pair met at London's Elstree Studios in 1978, was going to film Kubrick's "Napoleon" screenplay, with Kubrick producing. But this rumor most likely arose in confusion with another Kubrick/Spielberg project, "AI" which Spielberg has recently started shooting from a script by Kubrick.

The terrible irony for Kubrick fans is that in the year of his death, the technology of computer-generated imagery exploded to the point where his vast Napoleonic battle scenes would finally have been within realistic budgetary reach. Recent films like "Gladiator" and "The Patriot" used CGI to turn a few hundred extras into thousands of soldiers pouring down hillsides and slamming into battle. Kubrick was very well aware that CGI would allow him to personally craft his beloved battle scenes via computer.

Now, after the massive worldwide box-office success of "Gladiator," Hollywood has evidence that audiences will sit through lengthy historical expositions on politics and the duality of man as long as a gritty, limb-hacking, blood-caked battle scene is just around the corner. And if Kubrick's "Napoleon" screenplay can be used as a marker, his film would have supplied plenty of both.

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A few months ago, Kubrick's September 1969 "Napoleon" screenplay appeared on a number of Internet sites. It originally turned up six years ago in a salt mine near Hutchinson, Kan., where the major film studios have long stored their archives. Earlier this year copies traded hands on eBay for hundreds of dollars each, before the full script made its illegal Internet debut. It is gone from the Web now, however, though tens of thousands of Kubrick fans managed to download it before the Kubrick estate requested the screenplay be removed.

In his lengthy screenplay, Kubrick desired to show Napoleon as more of a man, with all a man's failings, and less a crusading hero. He wanted the audience to find out what it was like to be Napoleon, on and off the battlefield. Like Mel Gibson's best-picture-winning epic "Braveheart," Kubrick's "Napoleon" screenplay showed its hero leading countless charges, but it also detailed the behind-the-scenes preparations for a battle. In Kubrick's film you would have seen the less than glamorous side of staging a war, the necessary paperwork behind the negotiating and signing of treaties and declarations, the exacting mathematics of troop configuration to determine just how far troops could march on how much food.

As with many of Kubrick's films -- notably "Spartacus," "Dr. StrangeLove" and "Full Metal Jacket" -- the screenplay makes much of the inherent responsibilities that come to the mighty and powerful and of how quick most are to abuse that power. It wallows in the corruption of the state by the war machine and man's insatiable desire for valor, victory and bloodshed.

Curiously, Kubrick's "Napoleon" screenplay shares many similarities -- even some duplicate scenes (!) -- with his final film, "Eyes Wide Shut." Like Tom Cruise's character, Napoleon, his heart hammered by Josephine's infidelity, meets a young prostitute on a cold night street. He also attends a party where couples copulate spiritedly in plain sight of the other guests.

The sexuality of Kubrick's "Napoleon," considering he intended to make it in 1971, is remarkable. Josephine and Napoleon make love surrounded by floor-to-ceiling mirrors (to evoke a feeling that Kubrick described as "maximum erotica"). She betrays him with another lover while Napoleon is heard in voice-over, away in battle, declaring his love and lust for her. Later, at a lavish dinner, Napoleon finds himself seated next to "the strikingly beautiful Madame Trillaud, a sexy brunette." He addresses her husband about the true source of corruption in society: "Society is corrupt because man is corrupt, because he is weak, selfish, hypocritical and greedy ... and he is born this way." Napoleon's servant then purposely spills wine down the dress of Madame Trillaud. Napoleon then takes her into a side room and tries to seduce her, ignoring her refusals. When she finally succumbs, they are interrupted by Josephine knocking on the door. Napoleon orders his wife away, yelling that he will "only be five minutes!"

These scenes in themselves make Kubrick's screenplay a unique biopic study. Most historical films barely even acknowledge that their subjects had any kind of sex life at all. It is obvious that Kubrick intended his scenes to have been more than just an embrace and a quick fade-out after a kiss.

In very much the same way as his films, Kubrick's screenplay comes truly alive after multiple exposures to its densely worded architecture. The historical epics of the 1990s, like "Braveheart," "The Patriot" and "Gladiator," seem trite in comparison, on the screenplay page at least. There is very little that is wistful or overtly romanticized in Kubrick's "Napoleon." People fuck, fight, kill, betray each other and then fuck again.

Much blood is shed, but not only in battle. Some of the strongest scenes occur away from the battlefields, the most poignant in the Grand Army's adventures in Russia. Napoleon leads his troops into a Moscow that has become a ghost town. Kubrick describes it as "deserted, lifeless, a city of the dead, except for the eerie echo of horses' hoofs."

An old man stumbles from a house, brandishing a pitchfork and babbling insanely. Napoleon's soldiers laugh at him, until the old man runs through a soldier with his pitchfork. An officer executes the old man with a pistol, but in the act of doing so blows off the hand of one of his own soldiers.

Marching 1,000 miles home through a terrible winter, Napoleon's army becomes "a starving, feverish mob, without purpose." Then follows an incredible scene in a Russian village, in which officers and soldiers try to fend off the winter freeze by squashing themselves into a tiny house with their horses. They blockade themselves in to stop the other soldiers left outside to die from fighting their way in. But then a fire breaks out and those inside are unable to escape the flames. Other men rush forward from where they have been huddling in an open field to warm themselves, and cook horsemeat on the ends of their swords.

In reading the screenplay, it is obvious that Kubrick's heart was more devoted to the warring Napoleon than to the lover, the father, the son. Kubrick may have personally regarded the love affair between Napoleon and Josephine as "one of the great obsessional passions of all time," but most of their scenes together are filled with clunky dialogue more reminiscent of soap opera than great cinema.

Kubrick often seems in a rush to get on with the next battle, or into the thick of more talk about the tactics and psychology of war. Napoleon had a mental warehouse of war tips and battle tactics, and Kubrick uses a number of them as a way to inject some much-needed humor. "The first rule of warfare," Kubrick has his Napoleon tell a colleague, "is to wear warm winter underwear. You can never conjure up brilliance with a cold bottom."

Kubrick's "Napoleon" would not have been an easygoing cinematic experience. His Napoleon was a dour, complex, demoralized man, even from childhood. Kubrick writes of Napoleon as a teenager in military school, alone in his dorm room, surrounded by books of history, philosophy and poetry, always reading, always learning. In the voice-over to this scene, the utterly miserable Napoleon tells us, "Life is a burden for me. Nothing gives me any pleasure; I find only sadness in everything around me. It is very difficult because the ways of those with whom I live, and probably always shall live, are as different from mine as moonlight is from sunlight."

It is also hard not to read some characteristics of Kubrick the director into his telling of Napoleon the conqueror. Though Napoleon's voice speaks to us directly on only a few occasions, the words seem to be coming straight from the mind of Kubrick. He stated in a number of interviews that organizing a massive campaign of war bore similarities to staging a major film production.

"There is no man more cautious than I am when planning a campaign," Napoleon states in voice-over, echoing Kubrick. "I exaggerate all the dangers, and all the disasters that might occur. I look quite serene to my staff, but I am like a woman in labor. Once I have made up my mind, everything is forgotten, except what leads to success."

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There has been plenty of Internet speculation, and highly suspect rumors, that directors from Martin Scorsese to Ridley Scott to Michael Mann are planning to resurrect Kubrick's "Napoleon," using the original screenplay he wrote 31 years ago.

The most believable scenario is that the Kubrick estate will eventually allow a publisher to produce a book bringing together Kubrick's original screenplay and interviews with the key crew members of the aborted project, lavished with a selection of designs for costumes, props, vehicles and weaponry.

Kubrick never got to stage his beloved Napoleonic wars, but in his 1968 interview with Gelmis, he hinted at what we might have seen had his dream epic been realized on celluloid. It can only be one of the great losses of modern cinema that Kubrick's "Napoleon" never came to be.

"There's a weird disparity between the sheer visual and organizational beauty of the historical battles and their human consequences," Kubrick said. "It's rather like watching two golden eagles soaring through the sky from a distance; they may be tearing a dove to pieces, but if you are far enough away the scene is still beautiful."

Darryl Mason

Darryl Mason is an Australian novelist and screenwriter. He's currently writing a film based on the life of science-fiction author Philip K Dick.

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