Hollywood’s Waterloo: where are the great Napoleon films?

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Albert Dieudonne in Napoleon (1927) - Alamy
Albert Dieudonne in Napoleon (1927) - Alamy

Hollywood seems able to make a film about any historical subject imaginable, with one major exception: the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. It almost seems cursed. The latest development has seen Kitbag, Ridley Scott’s big-budget film about the emperor, lose its Empress Josephine just as filming was due to begin. Jodie Comer, who was to have played the role opposite Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon, has pulled out citing Covid-induced scheduling conflicts; Scott swiftly cast the excellent Vanessa Kirby in the role instead.

Yet screen accounts of Napoleon’s exploits seem as problematic as his ill-fated 1812 advance into Russia. After the first, triumphant filmed version of his early life, simply entitled Napoleon and directed by Abel Gance in 1927, there have been numerous attempts to bring the emperor’s story to cinemas. All have either failed commercially or floundered within pre-production hell. Most of his appearances in film have either been in comic cameo roles, such as in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Time Bandits, or in bit parts in other stories such as War and Peace or the Marquis de Sade drama Quills. He exists mostly in cinema as an iconic caricature, bicorne hat firmly in place.

The only major film made about his life in the past half-century was Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo, an epic Italian-USSR co-production that starred the American actor Rod Steiger as Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as his nemesis the Duke of Wellington. As the title suggests, the film dealt almost exclusively with the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and cost a massive £12 million (around £120 million today), making it one of the most expensive films ever made. Not only did it attract scathing reviews criticising its incoherence and lack of human interest (Roger Ebert wrote that “the leading characters turn out scarcely more human than [the] extras”), but it was a massive box office failure, making only £1 million.

The man who was most irritated by its disastrous reception was the great Stanley Kubrick, fresh from his success with 2001: A Space Odyssey. That film had been a significant financial hit for MGM Studios, and so Kubrick had approached them with his plans for a film about Napoleon’s life, which would have been the first major picture since Gance’s. Unfortunately, while the previous head of MGM, Robert O’Brien, had admired Kubrick’s visionary work, his successor Louis F Polk Jr was a more financially minded figure who began cancelling the production of any films that might not be guaranteed smash hits.

According to Kubrick’s biographer Filippo Ulivieri, author of the forthcoming book Kubrick Unmade, the director despaired at the changing of the guard. As he put it: “The lights went out in Hollywood.” But his films were usually profitable, and so he was able to agree a deal with United Artists at the beginning of 1969. He faced several rival projects, including Bondarchuk’s Waterloo, but also a more romantically-focused film provisionally entitled Napoleon and Josephine, to be directed by Bryan Forbes and produced by Warner Brothers. As Ulivieri notes: “Despite Kubrick’s name, his film was not perceived as unique, which may have had an impact in the management decisions.”

Napoleon blesse devant Ratisbonne by C. Gautherot (detail) - Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library
Napoleon blesse devant Ratisbonne by C. Gautherot (detail) - Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library

In any case, he had started his usual painstaking pre-production process. In a note from 1968, Kubrick wrote: “My first choices would be David Hemmings and Audrey Hepburn [for the roles of Napoleon and Joséphine]. Oscar Werner would be my second choice.” Hepburn, who was by then in semi-retirement, turned down the part. “I am flattered and happy you would like me to work with you,” she said. “[but] I still don't want to work for a while so cannot commit or involve myself in any project at this time. I hope you understand this... and will think of me again someday?”

Casting Napoleon would prove more difficult. Kubrick met with Ian Holm, and discussed the role with him for 18 months, even making him learn to ride a horse. Other actors contacted included Jack Nicholson and a pre-fame Anthony Hopkins, but as Ulivieri says: “It’s difficult to say who was Kubrick’s favourite choice, because the project dragged in pre-production limbo for a few years; I have the impression that virtually all the names were the best option he had the moment the project was given the green light.”

In 1969, Kubrick wrote a first draft of a screenplay and dealt with many of the pre-production logistics. Ulivieri comments that “his idea to use tear-resistant printed paper for cheap military uniforms that looked like the real thing from a certain distance strikes me as one of his most brilliant to cut costs. He used two major biographies of Napoleon for his research, Felix Markham’s Napoleon – primarily an account of his military acumen – and Frances Mossiker’s Napoleon and Josephine, which concentrated on the obsessive relationship between the two.

According to Ulivieri, “the soldier and the lover were the two interconnected strands of the film. For Kubrick, these two aspects were of equal importance to understand Napoleon’s character. He had an enduring interest in stories about dysfunctional heterosexual interaction – many of his unrealised films deal with marital conflict, sexual obsession, betrayal and jealousy. This is clearly on show in the Napoleon project: the life story of Napoleon offered an excellent canvas to portray such themes.”

A costume test for the doomed film, as seen in the Taschen book Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made - taschen.com
A costume test for the doomed film, as seen in the Taschen book Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made - taschen.com

Unfortunately, by the end of the year, the project collapsed at United Artists, with the studio citing budgetary concerns, although Kubrick had already pared the script down in order to keep costs at what he saw as a manageable level; the director idea of “affordable” was distinctly different to a Hollywood bean-counter’s. Yet he still faced a central problem. Gance’s film had been five-and-a-half hours-long, and had only dealt with Napoleon’s early life, and Waterloo dealt primarily with the final battle.

Kubrick wished to deal with the entirety of Napoleon’s life and career, from his childhood to his final exile, but was unable to find work out a way of condensing the various events into a coherent three-hour film. “At first he thought about making two three-hour-long films,” Ulivieri says, “showing simultaneously in theatres. At the end of the screenplay, he noted the film would run 180 minutes. ‘Length of the picture’ is an issue that recurs over and over in his notes.”

He was initially worried that Bondarchuk’s film would be a serious threat, but when he eventually saw it, he was relieved that it was poor; he dismissed it as “such a silly film”. Unfortunately, its box office failure meant that Kubrick’s new backers Warner Brothers – who would remain his studio for the rest of his life – were reluctant to commit to an expensive picture on a similar theme, and instead asked that he proceed with the lower-budget and less ambitious A Clockwork Orange.

Ulivieri describes Kubrick as unprepared to make his Napoleon film in any case: “He never had the chance to re-write and improve the script and make it better. He also engaged Anthony Burgess in 1972 but didn’t like the result. Kubrick also did not make any decision on the cast. All in all, Kubrick had done a lot of research and preparation, but the project had never been ready to go in front of the cameras.”

Nonetheless, the director refused to abandon the idea of filming his cherished project. In 1971, he wrote a letter to Warner Brothers, shortly after delivering A Clockwork Orange, in which he stated: “It’s impossible to tell you what I’m going to do except to say that I expect to make the best movie ever made.”

Ulivieri calls this “rather boastful intention” an atypical piece of hubris, and questions if the letter was ever sent in this form. “Kubrick was always very confident in his ability to make good films, but this phrase does sound uncharacteristically ostentatious. I think he was trying to push Warners using all his persuasion and clout. It seems almost a desperate attempt, as if he was already feeling that his chances to win Warners over were slim.”

After A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick turned to an adaptation of Thackeray’s novel Barry Lyndon. It was set partially during the Seven Years War and therefore allowed him to use a good amount of the research that he had engaged in for his Napoleon project, both in terms of the military details and the technical requirements. He had unsuccessfully attempted to test candlelit photography previously, but by 1973 he and his cinematographer John Alcott had refined it to visually stunning effect.

And as Ulivieri says: “Among the handwritten and typed notes for Napoleon there is one that says, ‘you need distance’. I believe this is the aesthetic principle that Kubrick wanted for Napoleon and that later followed for Barry Lyndon: he watched these characters of the past from a very long distance, in a detached manner, as if they were crystallised in time.”

Barry Lyndon remains a classic of cinema and a highlight of Kubrick’s distinguished oeuvre, but as the set designer Ken Adam said: “Barry Lyndon always seemed to me to have been the dress rehearsal for Napoleon.” Kubrick refused to give up his grand passion, so much so that the cast and crew of A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon would even joke about perceived similarities between the autocratic director and the emperor. But after Lyndon was unsuccessful at the box office, Kubrick moved away from lavish period pieces, although he briefly considered resurrecting Napoleon in the early 1980s as a 20-episode television series that would star Al Pacino.

Rod Steiger as Napoleon in Waterloo (1970) - Bettmann
Rod Steiger as Napoleon in Waterloo (1970) - Bettmann

Although it became the quintessential unmade Kubrick film, its legacy has lasted in unorthodox ways. The director spoke of his regret at not having made it during the production of his final picture, Eyes Wide Shut, which would incorporate some of the Napoleon script’s scenes and even lines verbatim. As Ulivieri says: “Kubrick had an enduring interest in stories about dysfunctional heterosexual interaction. He was already familiar with the writings of Arthur Schnitzler while he was writing Napoleon, and several of Schnitzler’s ideas were inserted into the Napoleon script.

"Two scenes stand out: the first one is the encounter between a young Napoleon and a prostitute – one of the few fictional episodes in an otherwise historically faithful script – which is closely modelled upon Traumnovelle. The second is the orgy Napoleon attends and couldn’t find the courage to take part in, which was directly inspired by the events in the same novella. Surprisingly, Kubrick reused portions of dialogue from these scenes in Eyes Wide Shut.”

Since Kubrick’s death, there has been persistent talk that the Napoleon project will somehow be resurrected. Steven Spielberg, who of course brought Kubrick’s other great unmade film A.I: Artificial Intelligence to the screen in 2001, began to develop a miniseries based on the original Napoleon screenplay in 2013, with the initial intention that he would direct it himself.

A set design from the book Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made - taschen.com
A set design from the book Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made - taschen.com

In 2016, he passed the responsibility over to No Time To Die director Cary Fukunaga, who has now assumed control of the project. Although the announcement of Kitbag might have rendered it redundant, Fukunaga confirmed in October last year that he was still developing it, saying: “ I’ve been working on [Napoleon] now for, I wanna say, four or five years, maybe longer. So yeah, I’m definitely involved in that. We’ve got all the scripts of the episodes now and we’re getting ready to see where the next stage is on it. So it’s happening.”

It would be a grand cosmic irony that the Emperor himself might have appreciated that, after a century in which it proved all but impossible to capture his life on film, two major projects are competing to offer the definitive account. Ulivieri is sceptical that both will co-exist. “Ridley Scott’s film will surely make things difficult again for the television series. It’s odd how this seems to be the destiny of Kubrick’s Napoleon, always overtaken by someone else’s project when it is about to happen. But I don’t think it is possible to make a theatrical film that covers Napoleon’s entire life, from childhood to the grave, that will detail the main events in a rich enough fashion. It is doomed to be simplistic, superficial and disconnected.”

While he concedes that a TV series “might” crack it, it is not until at least one project is complete that we will actually see whether “the curse of Napoleon” has been lifted – or whether, two centuries on from his death, he remains as elusive a subject as ever.

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