In this occasional series on famous unproduced screenplays, Don Groves spotlights Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon.
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4 Jan 2010 - 11:57 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

When Stanley Kubrick died in 1999, aged 70, he bequeathed the world just 13 feature films including the classics 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, A Clockwork Orange and Spartacus.

Most notable among the many projects that perished with him is Napoleon, rated by some film scholars who've read his script as the greatest movie he never made. Chronicling the epic story of the rise and fall of the French ruler was an obsession which pre-occupied the director for more than 30 years.

''It's impossible to tell you what I'm going to do, except to say I expect to make the best movie ever made,” he said in 1971 in a letter to MGM, which was to finance the production. For the lead role he intended to cast Jack Nicholson, fresh from his Oscar-nominated performance in Easy Rider. The director admired the intelligence that Nicholson invested in his characters, a quality, he noted in a letter to the actor, “that cannot be acted.”

Alas, as happened many times in its storied history, the cash-starved studio was almost moribund, and it pulled the plug on Kubrick's film due to concerns about the budget and after the box-office failure of Sergei Bondarchuk's costly Waterloo, which starred Rod Steiger as Napoleon. “Stanley was devastated,” recalls Jan Harlan, his executive producer and brother-in-law. “He was very depressed for a while.” Adding to his dismay, he'd received a letter from Audrey Hepburn politely turning down his offer of a part.

Kubrick went to Warner Brothers, where he happily spent the rest of his career, turning out A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut, but he never gave up hope on his passion project. As Harlan explains: "Napoleon represented for him the worldly genius that at the same time failed".

After he finished A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick tried to revive the film, but Nicholson was no longer interested in playing the historical figure and Ian Holm, another actor whom he'd considering for the role, had signed to star in the British miniseries Napoleon and Love.

During post-production on Barry Lyndon in 1975, Kubrick was still talking about his project, although he conceded it would cost US$50 million-$60 million and would run more than three hours.

Starting in 1968, Kubrick had spent two years writing the screenplay and undertaking extensive research. Helped by students at Oxford University, he pored through more than 18,000 documents and books about Napoleon's life, and devised a card filing system that recorded every significant event in his life, day by day.

He wasn't impressed with any of the Napoleon movies he'd seen, and he expressed contempt for Abel Gance's 1927 epic, which ran more than five hours and was shown in cinemas in a triple-screen presentation.

Interviewed in 1969 by Joseph Gelmis for the book "The Film Director as Superstar", Kubrick explained his fascination with the Emperor: “His life has been described as 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 -- in a very concrete sense, our own world is the result of Napoleon.

“Also, I find that all the issues with which it concerns itself are oddly contemporary -- the responsibilities and abuses of power, the dynamics of social revolution, the relationship of the individual to the state, war, militarism, etc. Even apart from those aspects of the story, the sheer drama and force of Napoleon's life is a fantastic subject for a film biography. Forgetting everything else and just taking Napoleon's romantic involvement with Josephine, for example, here you have one of the great obsessional passions of all time.”

In Kubrick's grand vision, his movie would be a full scale re-creation of his protagonist's most famous battles, for which he calculated he'd need at least 40,000 infantrymen and 10,000 cavalrymen, precisely as many as Napoleon actually used.

As Darryl Mason wrote in Salon magazine, Kubrick had to abandon his dream of filming on the Napoleonic battlefields after discovering most of those areas had been developed or were ringed by modern buildings. But by the end of 1968, Kubrick had found suitable locations in Yugoslavia, and the Romanian government was willing to supply tens of thousands of troops for a bargain rate of $2 per man per day. Yugoslavia promptly offered to provide the same number of men for $5 per head per day.

However Kubrick lost the most critical battle of all-- persuading MGM to finance his epic-- and was forced to fire his researchers and key crew. As late as 1987, he stated he had not given up on the project.

In 2000, a copy of his screenplay was posted on the Internet, shocking his family but delighting fans who followed his work. The irony, as Mason notes, is that in the year he died, the technology of computer-generated imagery had advanced to the point where his logistically complex film could have been made for a realistic budget, as Gladiator had demonstrated.

Since then, there's been plenty of internet speculation that various directors including Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott and Michael Mann were planning to resurrect his labour of love.

The movie website IGN probably got it right when it predicted back in 2000, “Unless a filmmaker shows up who truly possesses the vision to bring Kubrick's Napoleon to the screen, it will likely remain on the printed page forever. And, more importantly, remain in our imaginations, as Kubrick fans visualise what might have been one of the most extraordinary works in this great filmmaker's oeuvre.”