Napoleon: Kubrick and his lost film

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Waterloo (no, not the ABBA song) and Glen Falkenstein says it’s the right time to make Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon movie.


“He was one of those rare men who move history and mould the destiny of their own times and of generations to come.”

Given his impact on film and popular culture, one would be forgiven for thinking Stanley Kubrick was reflecting on his own life’s achievements. Considered one of the greatest movies never made, Kubrick obsessed over creating an epic biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte, a man he greatly admired, with the film set to span his entire life from his childhood to the defeat at Waterloo.

Known for his meticulous attention to detail and obsessive preparation prior to shooting, Kubrick immersed himself in Napoleon’s life, claiming to have read several hundred books and categorizing “everything from his food tastes to the weather on the day of a specific battle.” During pre-production on A Clockwork Orange, Malcolm McDowell asked why the director was eating ice cream with his steak. Kubrick replied “It’s all food. This is how Napoleon used to eat.”

Dissatisfied with other fictional takes on the famed Emperor, Kubrick reportedly tried to see every film ever made on his life, not finding any of them “particularly impressive.” Anthony Burgess even collaborated with Kubrick on a structure for the film that was rejected by Kubrick, supposedly for its comic depiction of the protagonist.

Arranging for twenty people to work full time in preparation for the shoot, Kubrick planned to mass-produce costumes, vehicles and weapons from the period based on paintings and the research he had done. During pre-production, Waterloo (1970) was released and became a massive box-office failure, deeming Kubrick’s plan a financial risk and causing him to take on other projects. Kubrick continued to speak of the Napoleon film decades later, though he never succeeded in getting it off the ground within his lifetime.

With this year marking the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s Waterloo defeat, various filmmakers have at times been attached to the yet-unrealised project. In 2013, Steven Spielberg revealed he was working on a miniseries based on Kubrick’s screenplay, with Baz Luhrmann rumoured as the choice director.

Many films have portrayed Napoleon in passing, but a ubiquitous, modern depiction of the military leader himself as envisioned by Kubrick does not exist. A promising project, any production today would certainly forgo Kubrick’s plan to hire 50,000 battle extras in favour of CGI, or fund an assistant to travel to the Waterloo battlefield to retrieve samples of earth for consistency.

It might not be exactly what Kubrick imagined or contain his attention to detail, but in the hands of a skilled filmmaker Kubrick’s plan and vision could come to life.

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