Jewish History & Culture: Stanley Kubrick

Our series of blog posts on Jewish History and Culture continues with this extract from David Mikics’ biography of Stanley Kubrick, part of our Jewish Lives series. This extract looks at the greatest film Kubrick never made, his biopic of Napoleon.

In September 1968, the Kubricks were living in Abbots Mead, near Borehamwood Studios outside London. Kubrick had decided to take on the most famous hero in European history: he wanted to make a movie about Napoleon. Paths of Glory and Spartacus were historical movies with large set piece battles. Now Kubrick was moving on to another vast subject, Napoleon’s wartime career. He had been reading deeply for years in military history, and he was particularly obsessed with Napoleon.

Kubrick had been thinking more than ever about how to show war on film. A few years earlier, in August 1964, he wrote to MGM’s Ron Lubin to turn down a film about Simón Bolívar that the studio wanted him to make (“My only problem is I have no real interest in the old boy,” he said). Kubrick remarked to Lubin that “representing a broad panorama of history has always proved to be the undoing of film makers.” He recommended that the movie, whoever was to direct it, have voice-over narration, not too much dialogue, and a “documentary visual style.” Kubrick added that “costume war scenes tend to look like so many extras thoughtlessly dressed on a beautiful hill. . . . The thing that usually makes movie battles idiotic is that the terrain is senseless. Almost all battles are shaped and finally decided by the terrain itself.”

“The thing that usually makes movie battles idiotic is that the terrain is senseless. Almost all battles are shaped and finally decided by the terrain itself.”

While planning his epic Napoleon, Kubrick brooded over the terrain he could use for the film. Most of the actual Napoleonic battlefields had been turned into suburbs or industrial parks, so Kubrick looked elsewhere, to Romania and Yugoslavia. His dreams for the movie were gigantic: he planned on “fifty thousand extras” supplied by the Romanian military. He wanted cinematic diagrams of the battles, showing with maps and voice-over narration how Napoleon cut the Austrian forces in two at Austerlitz. The “sheer visual and organizational beauty” of the battles was important to Kubrick, but also, he told the interviewer Joseph Gelmis, the clash between these rational patterns and the dismal human reality of war. Kubrick was once again on to one of his basic themes, the split between reason’s all-controlling plans and the blunders and chaos that mark actual life.

Kubrick had a scholarly interlocutor for the Napoleon project, Felix Markham, the Oxford historian. In addition to reading a small mountain of books about Napoleon, Kubrick hired Markham’s graduate students to provide notes on hundreds more sources.

Kubrick’s interviews with Markham on Napoleon make fascinating reading. At one point he tells Markham about the “in-between” move (Entzwischenzug) used by chess players, and asks him whether Napoleon’s Achilles’ heel was his inability to make such a move: Napoleon was comfortable attacking or defending, but remained at a loss when he was prevented from doing either. (Kubrick’s description of the Entzwischenzug is rather misleading: in chess it is part of a tactical sequence, not a delaying maneuver.) Markham agrees with Kubrick that Napoleon had a hard time standing still.

Kubrick’s script begins with Napoleon the alienated child who suddenly grows up and plunges into action. (Many Kubrick movies and unfilmed screenplays, from The Burning Secret to Lolita to The Shining, share this pattern.) Kubrick begins with a scene of the four-year-old Napoleon “dreamily suck[ing] his thumb.” Then we glimpse Napoleon at boarding school in France insisting that someone has put glass in his pitcher of water: the Corsican boy had never seen ice before. A few quick scenes later, after the storming of the Bastille, Napoleon coolly shoots in the head a leader of the revolt, one “Citizen Varlac”—a thoroughly fictional incident.

“After the storming of the Bastille, Napoleon coolly shoots in the head a leader of the revolt, one “Citizen Varlac”—a thoroughly fictional incident.”

In Kubrick’s retelling Napoleon makes his way effortlessly to the top, and soon he is giving Tsar Alexander military tips as they sit naked together in a sauna. The script ends with Napoleon’s death, and then a maudlin shot of his grieving mother surrounded by her son’s childhood wooden soldiers and teddy bear. Earlier, Kubrick described the four-year-old king of Rome,

Napoleon’s son, sitting alone and playing with his soldiers, never to see his father again. The Napoleon screenplay is haunted by childhood, and perhaps suggests that Napoleon’s conquering of Europe was a boyish fantasy come true. After Napoleon lost his empire, Kubrick implies, he once again became a mere boy, bereft of power. He proved to be not a godlike Starchild but instead an all-too-human figure whose life expands grandly and then shrinks back to its minor-scale origins.

Napoleon’s “sex life was worthy of Arthur Schnitzler,” Kubrick said to Gelmis.  (Schnitzler wrote thousands of pages recording each of his sexual encounters.) In the screenplay Napoleon meets Josephine at an orgy, though Kubrick refrains from depicting explicit sex. Kubrick verified with Markham that such an event was historically possible: Josephine, the lover of the rakish politician Paul Barras, traveled in fast circles.

But Napoleon’s rapturous desire for Josephine never seems quite real in Kubrick’s script, and he treats their infidelities with clumsy prurience. Despite several sex scenes in mirrored bedrooms, nothing here sizzles. Kubrick’s heart is instead with Napoleon the brilliantly innovative general, a personality rather like Stanley Kubrick the film director. “There is nothing vague in it. It is all common sense,” the Corsican says about the art of war. “Theory does not enter into it. The simplest moves are always the best.”  This Napoleon is an elegant, cold-blooded calculator. His disastrous Russian campaign is depicted, briefly, but left unexplained: if Napoleon was such a genius, how could he have erred so mightily?

Kubrick completed his Napoleon script in September 1969. The next month, he estimated the budget for the movie at four and a half million dollars if it was filmed in Romania. 

Christiane remembered that during the negotiations over Napoleon “the studios told Stanley that Americans don’t like films where people write with feathers.” This line, originally the complaint of a movie exhibitor in the mid-thirties who was saddled with yet another costume epic drawn from a classic European novel, had been kicking around Hollywood for decades.

MGM was wary of the Napoleon project because Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo (1970), starring a somewhat weaselly looking Rod Steiger, had bombed at the box office. (During the making of Waterloo the Romanians received warnings not to work with Kubrick, but they carried on doing so anyway.) United Artists was interested for a time, but negotiations ended in November 1969. After this point Kubrick still wanted to make themovie. He was dreaming of Audrey Hepburn as Josephine, and for his hero he had in mind Jack Nicholson, also a Napoleon buff. If Nicholson said no, David Hemmings or Oskar Werner would do, Kubrick thought.

“Napoleon is a character unfinished, like Hamlet; and like Hamlet, a puzzle—full of contradictions, sublime and vulgar,” writes his biographer Steven Englund. In Kubrickian terms, the contradictory Napoleon has something of both Starchild and ape, as James Naremore suggests. Napoleon’s life gives us “the awe-evoking sense of human possibility, which is a different thing from hope,” Englund judges.

“Napoleon is a character unfinished, like Hamlet; and like Hamlet, a puzzle—full of contradictions, sublime and vulgar.”

Just as Napoleon pushed the world to extremes, so Kubrick expands cinema. It’s possible Kubrick’s film would have been more equal to its subject than any earlier movie about Napoleon, because Kubrick, as he showed in 2001, knew how to approach a giant enigma. Yet his script, which glosses over the catastrophic aspects of the retreat from Moscow, doesn’t inspire confidence. Masses of freezing, starving men could not be harmonized with Napoleon’s heroic image in Kubrick’s mind.

As his chances to make Napoleon waned, Kubrick realized he needed a new project. Terry Southern and Bob Gaffney, Kubrick’s right-hand man with the Romanians on the Napoleondeal, had both turned Kubrick on to the novels of Anthony Burgess. When Kubrick read Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, he knew right away that this was his next movie

Featured image: “Stanley Kubrick painted portrait” by Abode of Chaos is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Listen to the author David Mikics speak about the book on the Jewish Lives Podcast.

Jewish Lives

Jewish Lives is a major series of brief, interpretive biography designed to illuminate the imprint of eminent Jewish figures upon literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences. Subjects are paired with authors to elicit lively, deeply informed books that explore the breadth and complexity of Jewish experience from antiquity through the present. Jewish Lives is a partnership of Yale University Press and the Leon D. Black Foundation.

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