Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made, Alison Castle (ed.), Taschen, 1112pp, £44.99 (hardback)

When we were thirteen I went with my best friend to a nearby seaside town for a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. We knew we were seeing a ‘great film’ and we were very solemn. After the matinee we emerged onto the seafront beside an old lady. She shook her head: ‘I still don’t understand that film but I can’t stop watching it.’

We grew up with Kubrick. Spartacus on television would enliven sleepy Sunday afternoons. A Clockwork Orange was tantalisingly forbidden; there were bootleg Scandinavian copies. Friends recited passages from Dr. Strangelove and my younger brother memorised Sergeant Hartman’s epigrams from Full Metal Jacket. We negotiated our divorces while Eyes Wide Shut told us that marriages survive through frail and perilously held conventions.

Inevitably there was a critical reaction. While watching Malcolm McDowell beat a woman with a large plastic penis it is possible to suspect that A Clockwork Orange is not a masterpiece. Kubrick’s visual flair can disguise a lack of psychological complexity. Torrance’s insanity occurs too quickly in The Shining; the protagonist of Barry Lyndon sleepwalks through his life. The frequent masks and mannequins in the films may offer a confession that the director found people inscrutable. In his most celebrated film, 2001, he almost does without characters. Perhaps we admired the wrong Kubrick films. Recently, in tears at the end of his anti- war fable Paths of Glory, I thought this might be his finest work. Stephen Spielberg screened it after hearing of Kubrick’s death.

Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made editedby Alison Castle adds another enigma to the Kubrick canon. It offers an affordable version of the 2009 limited edition. Apart from the beautifully illustrated book, the new edition gives readers access to an online research database of nearly seventeen thousand images compiled by Kubrick. The title comes from the director’s boast of 20 October 1971: ‘I expect to make the best movie ever made.’ By poring over the Napoleon screenplay and the visual and written notes, as well as the transcripts of his interviews with the Napoleonic historian Felix Markham, the reader is invited to collaborate with Kubrick in visualising this unmade film.

Like Napoleon himself, the project embodies a potent combination of radical and surprisingly traditional ideas. In part, it returns to the genre of the Hollywood historical blockbuster. Kubrick approached Audrey Hepburn to play Josephine. Perhaps, despite his dislike for previous Napoleonic films, he recalled her performance as Natasha in King Vidor’s 1956 version of War and Peace. The reader might wonder how she would have responded to Kubrick’s explicit treatment of Josephine’s sexuality; she refused the part.

Kubrick promised that his film would contain ‘plenty of bravery, cruelty and sex’. The screenplay supplies several explicit sex scenes and a staged orgy between six ‘actors’ watched by a bored aristocratic audience, which anticipates Eyes Wide Shut. Josephine’s adulterous encounter in her bedroom full of mirrors with Hippolyte Charles is described as ‘maximum erotica’. As with many of Kubrick’s films, there is also an interest in homosexuality. Napoleon’s sponsor Paul Barras ‘is a virile, handsome, bi- sexual man with the elegant manners of the Ancien Régime.’ Napoleon, on meeting the Tsar, declares ‘If Alexander were a woman, I think I should fall passionately in love with him’. Kubrick suggests an erotic subtext as a partial motive for Napoleon’s Russian campaign. Napoleon fails because he treats Alexander as if he were a moody lover who needed to be cajoled, rather than a dangerous rival. The cruelty in the film also reveals Kubrick’s sardonic touch: ‘A drowned French Admiral floats in his cabin with his papers, books, clothes and a roast chicken.’

Would Kubrick have given Napoleon the psychological depth that most of his protagonists lack? Eva-Maria Magel argues that Kubrick was fascinated by his hero’s mind: ‘Scholarly historical research for the Napoleon project always ran parallel with a psychoanalytical character study.’ He was attracted by Napoleon’s comment ‘Conquest made me what I am; conquest alone can keep me there.’ There is a forlornly compulsive element to the Emperor’s need to win ever more spectacular victories and the screenplay captures enough of this psychological ambivalence to suggest that Kubrick has created his most complex character. By contrast, the warfare scenes with up to fifty thousand extras seem a distraction, even if there is a boyish glee to directions like ‘A big, exciting shot of about two hundred cavalry crossing the stream’.

The screenplay has its flaws. It is overly dependent on a narrator. There is a cumbersome quality to Kubrick’s linear, ‘womb to tomb’ treatment of Napoleon’s life. Important achievements, like the creation of the Code Napoleon, are suppressed. But the relationships between Napoleon, Josephine and Alexander are compelling. There is a mesmerising sequence in which Napoleon’s love letters to Josephine from Italy are read as a voiceover while Josephine seduces Charles. Napoleon becomes pitiful, complaining that ‘In a month I have received only two notes of three lines each’.

In a sense Napoleon was filmed as Barry Lyndon. The two works have many themes in common: the early passion for an unfaithful woman, a brutalising time in the army, a splendid but empty marriage to an aristocrat, the loss of a son and the loss of power. The pastoral image of the hero’s son in a carriage drawn by sheep is used in both stories to symbolise a moment of contentment. Napoleon is a metaphorical gambler, Lyndon a literal one. Both men have the audacity required to attain wealth but lack the tenacity to keep it.

It is fitting that this monument to Kubrick’s perfectionism should contain a screenplay which begins and ends with an anachronism: Napoleon’s teddy bear. Were the many errors in Kubrick’s work (most noticeably in the orgy scene of Eyes Wide Shut) deliberate? They remind us that film is a deceptive medium. Perhaps, like the teddy bear, these deceptions first appear in the nursery and, like cinema itself, they sustain us for a lifetime.

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