Description image

Read Stanley Kubrick's 'Napoleon' Script and Peruse His Plans for World Domination

05.26.13 @ 1:00PM Tags : , , , ,

Stanley Kubrick abandoned Napoleon in the 1970s after Hollywood studios refused to fund it.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 OrangeAn 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.

The Script:

Eyes Wide Shut Masks

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 Lyndonand then he’d be dealing with far fewer extras than he wanted: 

Production Memo:

60s Kubrick

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 Nicholson Shining

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?

Link: Napoleon Screenplay and Production Schedule Memo

COMMENT POLICY

We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 19 COMMENTS

  • Edward Martinez on 05.26.13 @ 1:28PM

    First of all I want to thank No Film School for posting things like this on its site Ive learn so much through this site Thank you!!
    Second, yes I believe more than anything 1969 Kubrick can teach about planning movies today. Stanley Kubrick has inspired me to grow as a filmmaker take risks and through this yes, I believe Kubrick can teach us not only to plan but succeed in the film industry today untill forever.
    Thanks again no film school

  • Really great post. Didn’t know this script was out in the wild; can’t wait to get stuck into it. I remember hearing in a documentary that Kubrick thought Barry Lyndon was so important he actually postponed Napoleon to concentrate on making it. Not sure how true that is but I think it might have been Martin Scorsese who said it.
    When you read interviews by and about Kubrick you get the sense that he really loved being a producer as well as directing. I guess being absolutely meticulous about every aspect of production (not just what is happening in front of the camera) is a good lesson to take away from Kubrick.

  • There’s an awesome book on this and artwork for the movie. I just hope SPielberg don’t make this film.

  • Did anyone else go to the Kubrick exhibit in Los Angeles? There was a ton of info there. I bought that camera he is holding in the picture after going to the exhibit. Yes Kubrick is very relevant

    • Yep, I went not long after it opened. And… in the case full of Kubrick’s lenses, I found two that were mislabeled. There was one, either a 500 or 600, that was listed as a 90mm macro. I used to own that type of macro lens, a Macro Kilar, and I owned a 600 that was very similar to if not the exact same kind as was in the case. I wrote to the museum but never heard back, so I’m assuming it’s still wrong. However, the Kubrick people wrote back and said that was the kind of precision (or something like that) that he would have appreciated.

  • FatRick says, thank you!

  • Stick to the script or go home.

  • Thank you for this. Kubrick had the facility sadly lacking in many modern artists of understanding the power and beauty of words – litrerature and its ability to portray the drama of human life. Our modern educational system avoids literacy as one of the building blocks of civilization – and great art even a movie that might be wordless – will be affected by the film makers literacy. Fans might want to check out a film of two men meeting for dinner and simply talking ‘ My dinner with Andre ‘

  • Sergey Bondarchuk spent 8 million Soviet rubles of on-the-book costs (an average person then made about 90R/mo in the USSR) and six long years to make a four part “War and Peace”. The Battle of Borodino between Napoleon’s Grand Armee and the Imperial Russian Army under the command of Prince Mikhail Kutuzov was shot with the help of 1,500 men, that were designated as the 11th Cavalry Cinematographic Regiment, an actual formation of the Soviet Army (and I doubt those guys were making scale). To film the entire battle, around 15,000 men were recruited (most wore the historically accurate Russian and French uniforms, no less). In the recreation of the Battle of Austerlitz, the Soviet Army provided another regiment (3,000 men). The approximate overall cost in today’s money is ~ $400M-$600M.

    Clearly, Stanley eloped into the wrong country.

  • Justin Morrow on 05.27.13 @ 12:13PM

    Hey guys, thanks for the comments! This is my first post at nofilmschool and I’m going to be focusing on screenwriting mostly, with little detours now and then. I’m a filmmaker myself and glad to be a part of this community. I’m also looking forward to all your comments, as long as they’re nice (ha!). Anyway, thanks again and look for more soon. Happy Memorial Day!

  • As a side note – Sergey Bondarchuk’s son Fedor is currently directing another take on the Battle of Stalingrad (where the German 6th Army met its – temporary for the time being – end in February, 1943). The Russian government is providing some of the funding and hundreds of soldiers as costumed combatants of both sides. They’re shooting with Red Epic and some 3D cameras. In other words, a large scale war-related project is still possible if certain entities participate at less-than-market rates.

    PS. Historically speaking, Coppola received freebees from the Philippine government/military for “Apocalypse Now”. That was one of the reasons you saw a bunch Hueys in the “Ride of Valkyries” scene instead of the Cobra assault gunships that would have been more appropriate for the chopper based tactical battle.

  • Great post!! Very inspiring

  • As far as I’m concerned the only director who could do Napoleon justice is Ang Lee. Sadly that looks like it’ll never happen.

  • “Corsican general”
    That’s like saying the Parisian general, or the Provencal general… Ridiclous.