“The first rule of warfare is to wear long-sleeved and long-legged underwear. You can never conjure up brilliance with a cold bottom.”
- Kubrick’s Napoleon
I love to dream of the movies that could be and might have been. Thus, Napoleon is my favorite Stanley Kubrick film. As Darryl Mason wrote, it is “the greatest movie Stanley Kubrick never made.”
Napoleon was Stanley’s lifelong obsession, and this was the movie he wanted to make more than any other. Kubrick sifted through more than 18,000 documents and books about Napoleon. He constructed a monster index file of the 50 principal characters in his movie, which were all written on 3x5 cards and organized by the dates of all the key events in Napoleon’s life from his birth to his death. He had a different card for each character. That way, Kubrick could quickly determine where, during any given period in Napoleon’s life, each character was and what that character was doing.
He had 25,000 index cards.
He constructed a picture file retrieval system that had 15,000 images on all things Napoleon. The images were classified by subject, which also included “a visual signaling method,” “allowing cross-indexing of subjects to an almost unlimited degree of complexity and detail.” His enormous picture file system was designed to help everyone involved in the production find any information they needed and not take up Kubrick's time with endless questions like the ones that plagued him during 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Kubrick was so intense in his research that he reportedly began imitating Napoleon’s habit of bombarding everyone he met with rapid-fire questions, a character trait Stanley kept the rest of his life.
He even adopted Napoleon's eating habits. Malcolm McDowell, in various interviews, often told a story about Kubrick that took place during pre-production of A Clockwork Orange in which he witnessed Kubrick eat a meal with, say, a bite of dessert first, then a bite of steak, then another bite of dessert, and so on. “This is the way Napoleon ate,” Kubrick told him.
Volumes could be written about Kubrick’s plans for his movie. He intended to do nothing less than recreate perfectly Napoleon’s greatest battles. In 1968, he actually convinced the Yugoslavian and Romanian governments to loan out to him a combined total of 50,000 soldiers for $2 per man per day to recreate Napoleon’s battles.
Do you recall in Barry Lyndon (pictured above) all of that gorgeous natural lighting? There was that story in the documentary, Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures, about a one-in-a-million camera lens he obtained (and rebuilt) so he could have scenes in Barry Lyndon lit naturally by candles. That was all meant for Napoleon, which also explains why there are over a dozen references to candles in his script.
He thought of Ian Holm or a young Jack Nicholson for the role.
In a 1969 interview (for his anthology book, “The Film Director as Superstar”), Joseph Gelmis asked Stanley the big question:
Why make a movie about Napoleon?
“That's a question that would really take this entire interview to answer. To begin with, he fascinates me. His life has been described as an epic poem of action. His sex life was worthy of Arthur Schnitzler. He was one of those rare men who move history and mold the destiny of their own times and of generations to come -- in a very concrete sense, our own world is the result of Napoleon, just as the political and geographic map of postwar Europe is the result of World War Two. And, of course, there has never been a good or accurate movie about him. Also, I find that all the issues with which it concerns itself are oddly contemporary -- the responsibilities and abuses of power, the dynamics of social revolution, the relationship of the individual to the state, war, militarism, etc., so this will not be just a dusty historic pageant but a film about the basic questions of our own times, as well as Napoleon's. But even apart from those aspects of the story, the sheer drama and force of Napoleon's life is a fantastic subject for a film biography. Forgetting everything else and just taking Napoleon's romantic involvement with Josephine, for example, here you have one of the great obsessional passions of all time.”
I’d say that Napoleon’s “obsessional” passion for Josephine is second only to Kubrick’s passion for Napoleon.
Next: A Teddy Bear, A Prostitute, and A Peasant's Revolution.