There are a few directors that when they want to make a movie, audiences will follow them into the mouth of hell to see it. But even for those most auspicious auteurs, this does not always mean studios or financers will do the same. Such is the case for the ill-fated Napoleon epic which Stanley Kubrick almost made at the height of his career in the early 1970s.
Fresh off the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and around the same time he delivered another masterpiece in A Clockwork Orange (1971), Kubrick also developed what is perhaps one of the greatest movies never seen. Years of research, pre-production, and location scouting went into Napoleon before the box office failure of a similar themed subject, appropriately called Waterloo, crashed and burned in 1970.
For Napoleon, Kubrick envisioned a far-flung biopic about not just the downfall of the French emperor, but a complete canvas of his inner-circle and domination of the European continent. Napoleon Bonaparte’s entire life was indeed squeezed into 150-page script Kubrick personally wrote for the film, which clicked through the greatest successes and failures of the emperor’s reign with a planned three-hour running time. Kubrick apparently developed his research for the project by reading multiple biographies, watching with dissatisfaction a Russian television miniseries of War & Peace, and by sending aides around the world, retracing Napoleon’s conquests. He even created a rolodex of 25,000 index cards that he used to track every movement of every member inside the high command of the French military leader.
Conflicting reports suggest that English character actor David Hemmings (Camelot, Barbarella) and a young Jack Nicholson fresh off of Easy Rider and had been cast in the lead role of Bonaparte. Kubrick was also desperately pursuing Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Sabrina) to play his Joséphine de Beauharnais, the wife of Napoleon who had a complicated romance and sex life with the military titan that Kubrick also was eager to explore. He also had Alec Guinness, Peter O’Toole, and Charlotte Rampling pegged for supporting roles.
Before financing collapsed, Kubrick had designated location shooting in France, as well as recruited the Romanian army to provide 40,000 soldiers and 10,000 cavalrymen to help film epic battle sequences in their native land. Unlike major battle scenes in modern movies, Kubrick really would have tens of thousands of extras on the field.
Such ambition likely contributed to the film’s undoing. Since there were so many expensive moving pieces, once another Napoleon-themed movie flopped, this project died on the vine. The 18th and early 19th century influences did not fully leave Kubrick, as he did wind up making one of his most controversial movies afterward, the much debated but visually gorgeous Barry Lyndon (1975), which adapted an 1844 novel by William Makepeace Thackery about the exploits of an Irish adventurer. It spanned the times and wars that predated Napoleon’s rise from the 1750s until its epilogue set in 1789.
Kubrick would also go on to work with Jack Nicholson in the film that followed that, a little gem you might’ve heard about… 1980’s The Shining.
Meanwhile Kubrick’s script has not been wholly abandoned. Indeed, Steven Spielberg is currently attempting to produce an HBO miniseries based off his peer and friend’s vision.