‘The greatest movie never made’ - Kubrick’s Napoleon film

The barmy story behind Kubrick’s unrealised project, soon to be remade by Steven Spielberg.

Stanley Kubrick’s legendary ‘Napoleon’ is up there with Orson Welles’ ‘Heart Of Darkness’ and David Cronenberg’s version of ‘Return Of The Jedi’ in the pantheon of amazing movies that were never made – yours to buy on DVD in a parallel universe.

Except that ‘Napoleon’ could now belatedly see the light of day, more than 40 years after Kubrick first wrote the script.

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[Related story: Kubrick Napoleon drama to get Spielberg remake]


Steven Spielberg told a French TV show that he’s planning to take the script and turn it into a TV show.

“I've been developing Stanley Kubrick's screenplay - for a miniseries not for a motion picture - about the life of Napoleon. Kubrick wrote the script in 1961, a long time ago,” he said.

There’s certainly a lot of material for Spielberg to flesh out a series. The ‘Napoleon’ script itself (check it out here) is an epic that would’ve made a three hour movie, according to Kubrick’s own notes, and has been pored over by scholars and film students for years.

The legendary director famously put years of research into the project after he finished his masterpiece ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. As was revealed in 2011 when the enormous (and expensive) ‘Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made’ coffee table book was released, which contained just a sample of the maestro’s research.

It includes photos taken by the researcher employed full-time by Kubrick to literally follow in Napoleon’s footsteps by visiting areas the emperor visited. He even collected samples of earth from Waterloo so the field would be the right colour on screen.  

Obsessive... Stanely Kubrick on set (Credit: Rex Features)

There’s also cards from the exhaustive colour-coded catalogue created by Kubrick to establish what Napoleon, and all the members of his inner circle, were up to on any particular day.

He grilled Oxford historian Felix Markum on the most minute and utterly mundane minutiae of Napoleon’s life. Such as: ‘Where did his secretaries sit during his military campaigns?’ Or ‘who proof-read his letters?’

Perhaps most obsessive of all, Kubrick collected real nails from the horseshoes that famously doomed his cavalry in the Russian winter.

According to his brother-in-law Jan Harlan, he’d collected more material for ‘Napoleon’ than any of his finished films.

Besides the historical research, we also know bits and pieces about what the film might have looked like if it’d ever been made. Kubrick was keen on David Hemmings (‘Blow Up’) for the lead role, but also considered ‘Jules And Jim’ star Oskar Werner, Bilbo Baggins actor Ian Holm and even a young Jack Nicholson.

He tried to tempt Audrey Hepburn to play Napoleon’s great love Josephine, though she turned him down, and was mulling Alec Guinness, Paul Belmondo and Peter O’Toole for the supporting cast. As he wrote in his script notes though, he was not keen on using “over-priced movie stars’.

The enormous battle scenes would’ve dwarfed even those in the director’s own ‘Spartacus’, as Kubrick had done a deal with the Romanian government to use 40,000 troops and 10,000 cavalry as extras.

He wanted the huge battles to play like “a vast, lethal ballet’.

The story, which was partially structured around Napoleon’s own writings, began and ended with the Emperor as a young boy. It opens with the four-year-old Napoleon, sucking his thumb, holding a teddy bear and listening to mother Letizia tell him a bedtime story. It would end with a silent shot of his much-older mother in the same room.

According to the script: “The camera moves slowly away from Letizia, to an open portmanteau. It is filled with very old children's things - faded toys, torn picture books, wooden soldiers and the teddy bear Napoleon slept with as a child.”

Kubrick himself wasn’t keen on the ending, which sounds uncharacteristically sentimental on the page. “A bit like Rosebud”, he said, referring to the central mystery in ‘Citizen Kane’. Nonetheless, it perhaps reminds us that Napoleon was human, that he saw the manpower and resources of France as his own, personal toy box.

Kubrick said of Napoleon: “I won’t claim that he is most honourable man in history… just the most interesting.” His feelings about emperor were a mixture of “admiration, incomprehension, disappointment, even disgust”.

Flop... Rod Steiger as Napoleon in 'Waterloo' (Credit: Rex Features)

Sadly for film fans, all of Kubrick’s planning and research was for naught. At the same time as he was trying to sell the hugely expensive project to studios MGM and United Artists, the Dino de Laurentiis epic ‘Waterloo’ – starring Rod Steiger as Napoleon - was released. It was a flop and made the studios jittery about the subject matter.

A bitterly disappointed Kubrick had to abandon ‘Napoleon’ and went on to make the considerably cheaper ‘A Clockwork Orange’ instead. Eventually, some of the research would find its way into ‘Barry Lyndon’, set 15 years before the Napoleonic wars.

While he was still working on ‘Napoleon’, Kubrick wrote a note to himself saying : “It’s impossible to tell you what I’m going do [with ‘Napoleon’], except to say that I intend to make it the best movie ever made”. No pressure, Spielberg.