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Exploring 'Napoleon', the mysterious film Stanley Kubrick never made

American auteur Stanley Kubrick is widely acknowledged for the breadth of his ambitious artistic vision.

His projects beautifully condense the universal to fit the big screen but at the same time, they expand and keep growing in the consciousness of the audience. Most of his films, like Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, remain important parts of cinematic tradition because of their compelling conceptualisations of important and familiar issues through the unfamiliar and unsettling perspective with which Kubrick chose to examine things.

Throughout his extensive career, the acclaimed filmmaker started many projects but never ended up finishing quite a few of them. Somewhat bizarrely, Wikipedia even decided to put up a separate page for this very list called “Stanley Kubrick’s unrealised projects”. It includes film adaptations of Calder Willingham’s Natural Child and Stefan Zweig’s The Burning Secret (which were too controversial to be slipped past any censor board), an adaptation of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and even a reinvention of pornography. After considering it, he deemed the Holocaust and The Lord of The Rings (suggested by the Beatles) as unapproachable for the cinematic medium. However, the biggest project of them all was Napoleon.

During the post-production of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick decided what his next project was going to be, a biopic on the famous French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. Although Kubrick was interested in his dramatic story, one that featured soaring ambitions and tragic consequences, he was most fascinated by the psychological mechanisms of Napoleon’s mind. He could not fathom how such a brilliant man could fall prey to his own vices.

While working on the script, Kubrick researched extensively, reading over 500 books about Napoleon. He also started watching films on the subject, including Abel Gance’s Napoléon and the Soviet film series War and Peace but he did not like either of them. Being the perfectionist that he was, he constructed a vast database of research materials with the help of experts. It contained over 30,000 illustrations and location-scouting photos. He insisted that the costumes be recreated perfectly as well, down to the last detail. However, when it came time to start production for the huge project, the studio pulled out because they thought a historical epic was too risky.

Kubrick remained interested in the mythical figure of Napoleon for the rest of his life but he was not willing to compromise on his vision and therefore, the budget was also too unrealistic for producers. Although this grand epic never materialised, Kubrick used this research to make his 1975 masterpiece Barry Lyndon whose story ends in 1789, approximately fifteen years prior to the commencement of the Napoleonic Wars.

It remains a great shame that we never got to see Kubrick’s Napoleon because he expected it to be “the best movie ever made”.