Read Stanley Kubrick's 'Napoleon' Script and Peruse His Plans for World Domination
After the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick was planning on shooting a film about Napoleon Bonaparte, but financing fell through and he was forced to make the comparatively low-budget A Clockwork Orange. An exhaustive book of preproduction materials was published in 2011 for the unfinished epic about Napoleon’s life, but for the curious, the screenplay and an insanely detailed production memo are available online for free, giving the world a glimpse into what might have been. Check out a detailed analysis and read it for yourself below.
This Napoleon script, a draft from mid-1969, is a straightforward and chronological biography of the great man, though it’s easy to visualize the film as a Kubrick production. It features his hallmarks of ironic narration (e.g. Barry Lyndon) and themes of power, doubling, and fate in a contingent universe. Also notable is how the draft blends traditional biopic drama with expository charts and graphics demonstrating how Napoleon overran Europe in the early 19th century, only to be defeated by the Russian winter and his own ambitions.
In an early scene, the young and provincial Napoleon is scandalized by a live Parisian sex show staged for the new upper classes — a tableau that wouldn’t have been out-of-place in Eyes Wide Shut:
Napoleon sits at the back of the room, still alone and awkward. Servants snuff out the candles, leaving only the empty stage illuminated. It begins to look like a musical evening until the entrance onto the stage of three very attractive girls, dressed in heavy winter costumes. The three “actresses” begin to talk about being snowbound in a desolate cabin, when their conversation is interrupted by the entrance of three young desperados. The purpose of this entertainment quickly reveals itself as the young men proceed to strip off the girls’ clothing and have intercourse with them. The distinguished audience sits coolly appreciative of the “sextet.” Napoleon, still the provincial, can scarcely believe his eyes.
The script contains some fantastic battle scenes, which would have required tens of thousands of extras:
When the two main forces are about 100 yards apart, the Commanding Officer in the field starts the chant “Hymn to Victory” and places his hat, with its large tricolored cockade, on the point of his sword so that is can be seen by all of his troops. When the distance narrows to about 50 yards, the defending Austrians fire their first volleys — first row, second row, third row. The French fall everywhere, but the remainder fill in the formation and keep moving in regular step.
The closest he would get to Napoleon-sized battles would be in 1975′s Barry Lyndon, and then he’d be dealing with far fewer extras than he wanted:
Kubrick wrote his memo (at the end of this document) to potential unnamed backers. Like the script, it is a detailed treasure trove of information:
A picture file of approximately 15,000 Napoleonic subjects has been collected, cataloged and indexed, on IBM aperture cards. The retrieval system is based on subject classification, but a special visual signaling method allows cross indexing to any degree of complexity.
Kubrick may have seen some parallels between his life and the Corsican general: both were detail-oriented geniuses obsessed with logistics, and both invented new systems to organize and deliver information and supplies in the most efficient manner possible.
Kubrick invented a whole new system of cataloging information, which he then used on all of his subsequent pictures. This is an absurd reaction to the problem of information management, and one which 99% of us would not have to deal with. But Kubrick was that 1%, and he never gave up the indie spirit that inhabited his early work, such as 1953′s Fear and Desire, which he shot for the equivalent of $220,000 in today’s dollars.
He aimed to solve the problem of stars, he said, by casting unknowns and new faces, since “the main impetus of going to the movies is word-of-mouth recommendations from friends.” He would solve the problem of costumes by using special paper uniforms: “a New York firm, who can produce a printed uniform on a Dupont, fireproof, drip-dry, paper fabric, which has a 300-pound breaking strength, even when wet, for $1-$4 depending on the detailing.” This would be necessary considering the numerous battle scenes and Kubrick’s penchant for maintaining a certain level of control and getting as many takes as he felt necessary to achieve what he wanted.
Kubrick wanted to save money on sets by renting on the cheap and using the “Front Projection” techniques he developed during the filming of 2001: A Space Odyssey:
Napoleon would have been so huge, it would have required entire armies. And he was not above working with Eastern Bloc nations, if they would pony up: “We have received bids from Romania to provide up to a maximum of 30,000 troops at $2 per man, though it is unlikely that we will ever exceed 15,000 men on the largest days.”
The memo is an inspiration to every independent filmmaker who has had to use every available resource to the fullest extent in order to get a movie made. This document is a must read if only because of the memo, which combined chutzpah and smarts to lay out a plan for making the impossible real, something every filmmaker, and especially independent filmmakers, can take a lesson from.
Kubrick spoke about the project in a rare interview with Michel Ciment prior to the release of The Shining:
Napoleon, himself, once remarked what a great novel his life would be. I’m sure he would have said ‘movie’ if he had known about them. His entire life is the story, and it works perfectly well in the order it happened. It would also be nice to do it as a twenty hour TV series, but there is, as yet, not enough money available in TV to properly budget such a venture. Of course, there is the tremendous problem of the actor to play Napoleon. Al Pacino comes quickly to mind. And there is always the possibility of shooting the twenty episodes in such a way that he would be fifty by the time he got to St. Helena — Al, I’m joking! I’m joking!
A lot has changed since 1980, and now there are reports that Steven Spielberg is working on just such a mini-series (and Spielberg famously took over production on A.I. after Kubrick’s death in 1999). Maybe now, Kubrick’s Napoleon will finally be realized, albeit in a completely different form from the one he imagined.
What do you think of the script? And do you think 1969 Kubrick has anything to teach us about planning a film in 2013?