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31.10.09

Kubrick's Napoleon

Stanley Kubrick's planned movie (.PDF file) on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte is one of those chefs-d'œuvres manqués of which history has cheated us, like Verdi's dream of an opera on King Lear. A new collector's set of ten volumes, recently published by Taschen, reproduces images of the entire archive of materials Kubrick compiled while working on the project, which was planned for production by MGM but eventually shelved. An article by Éric Neuhoff (Le Napoléon impossible de Stanley Kubrick, October 27) for Le Figaro provides some more details (my translation):

Kubrick kept everything in trunks and desks. Research was carried out in Yugoslavia, France, Italy, Romania, Belgium. Andrew Birkin, the brother of Jane, was sent on location. For the battles, 50,000 soldiers were recruited. Costume fittings took place. Actors posed in uniforms of Hussars and Dragoons. Kubrick bought the rights to Felix Markham's book on the subject. He bombarded that professor, the author, with countless letters, harassing him endlessly on detailed points and hiring him as as a consultant.

He was so meticulous that he asked him if Napoleon could have celebrated New Year's Day in 1799 or if the revolutionary laws had forbidden this sort of celebration. Another question: how were the army's horses equipped? Several actors had been approached about the title role, including Oskar Werner and Ian Holm. Ultimately, the role fell to David Hemmings. For Joséphine, Audrey Hepburn politely declined the offer, in a letter sent from Switzerland on blue paper. The reasons for the refusal are not clear, but in the script Napoleon meets Joséphine in the middle of an orgy.
David Hemmings was launched into a film career after creating the role of Miles in Britten's Turn of the Screw (as the composer's protegé), but I have to say that the young Ian Holm seems like pretty much the ideal actor to have played Napoleon (he later played the character in a very different movie, The Emperor's New Clothes). Taschen has arranged the small volumes of text and images to fit in a space carved out from a box made to look like a large leather-bound book. Only a thousand copies were produced, at a price of €500.

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