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Nowhere in the announcement that Steven Spielberg has reached an agreement to realize Stanley Kubrick‘s dream project Napoleon as a miniseries is it indicated whether Spielberg will direct this staggeringly ambitious undertaking. The answer, of course, is that he will if he wants to; Kubrick agreed to let his younger friend take on another unfilmed project of his, A.I., and Kubrick’s family now has entrusted to Spielberg what Kubrick himself hoped would become “the best movie ever made.”
Reading Kubrick’s 186-page screenplay — dated Sept. 29, 1969, sumptuously published, along with a wealth of supplementary essays, notes, artwork and photographs as part of the extraordinary Taschen book Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made — prompts many feelings and thoughts. The first is a great ambivalence about the idea of someone else taking up what was such a deeply researched and personally meaningful project for its creator. No matter who ends up directing it, he or she would know only a fraction of what Kubrick knew about Napoleon Bonaparte; for the newcomer, it would necessarily be an interpretation of someone else’s creation, not an original vision.
On the other hand, Kubrick’s script is a great blueprint for a potentially incredible film; after reading it, I urgently want to see it on the screen. All the essays in the Taschen volume correctly stress that the published screenplay would have been revised through more drafts and then during production; Kubrick estimated that the script he wrote probably would result in a film of about 200 minutes, though he also spoke of making a two-part, six-hour film.
After some rather basic, history-bookish opening pages, Kubrick’s script skillfully manages to provide a coherent arc of Napoleon’s life, convey the necessary aspects of the ever-changing geopolitical situation involving France, England, Italy, Austria and Russia over many years, create comprehensible accounts of several major battles, fashion an involving love story between the Emperor and Josephine and, perhaps most important, impose a distinctive philosophical prism through which to view the behavior of a man who so decisively influenced the course of history.
Kubrick’s point of view toward his subject is most clearly understood through the nature of the script’s abundant narration. Designed to link and explain events, it also contains a mordant edge that anticipates the style of the incomparable narration Kubrick wrote for Barry Lyndon, his 1975 period piece, set in the immediate pre-Napoleonic era, that in so many ways reflects the research, thinking, style and view of human nature he drew together in his Napoleon work.
All indications point to the conclusion that, artistically, Napoleon would have resembled Barry Lyndon in many ways. Along with Spartacus, they were his only two projects set prior to the 20th century, and much of extensive research Kubrick did for Napoleon on historical matters — including military and battle practice, clothing, architecture and social strata — were applied to Barry Lyndon. The director also intended to shoot Napoleon entirely with natural and indoor source light, even though, as of 1969, his initial tests of various new lenses and stock had proven unsatisfactory.
Most important, however, was the matter of how Kubrick’s attitude toward the title characters of both projects so acutely expressed his vision of mankind and worldly endeavor. Napoleon centers on one of the great figures of history, while Barry Lyndon is about an opportunistic nonentity, but Kubrick was able to shape the lives of both the French emperor and Irish scoundrel to advance the same idea, about the ultimate folly of human endeavor, as each man engineers his own downfall. This was the director’s overriding theme, which he never expressed more cogently and, in my view, more powerfully than he did in Barry Lyndon. And in the screenplay of Napoleon.
As Spielberg did not explicitly state that he intends to direct the entire miniseries himself — he functioned only as a producer on Band of Brothers, The Pacific and other estimable television projects he’s been involved with over the years — the game can begin about how Napoleon could most excitingly be realized in miniseries form. The first question is whether it should be entirely directed by one filmmaker or split up among several, as is usually the case with long-form series. If the result is meant to run just three hours or a bit more, I would argue on behalf of one director. However, if it’s going to be expanded in the way Kubrick imagined it could, to something like five or six hours, I believe a tantalizing approach would be for Spielberg to assemble five or six of the very top directors in the world today to make one segment apiece. This would hold out the promise of great filmmaking applied to an indisputably challenging subject, as well as reduce the feeling that a single director is trying to impose his or her own vision on a work already stamped with the personality of one of the cinema’s great auteurs.
Whoever gets behind the camera on Napoleon would have to be up the job of managing huge logistics but also the subtleties and nuances of political and romantic intrigue. An ideal director should be someone whose style is precise, analytical and cold — an analytical sort with a skeptical, if not caustic, view of human motivations and a belief that intelligence and rationality are very often trumped by destructive traits, particularly hubris.
As an intractably pessimistic assessment of humanity lies at the core of Kubrick’s script, it’s impossible not to notice that this runs counter to the fundamentally optimistic and ennobling attitude that is almost always dominant in Spielberg’s work. If he were to take on the whole project himself, there is no question that Spielberg could stage the battles scenes brilliantly and create a dramatic narrative that would grab the public. He conceivably could provide insights into Napoleon’s personality that might not even have occurred to Kubrick.
But as someone who quite liked their previous “collaboration,” 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, I have to wonder whether the essentially positive-minded Spielberg is enough of a chameleon at this stage of his career to adopt Kubrick’s mind-set and express his intentions, which are clear from the script as well as from the nature of Barry Lyndon, the film Kubrick made instead after he had failed three times to launch Napoleon. For Kubrick, a dedicated chess player, Napoleon might have been a king and Barry Lyndon a pawn, but they were both still just pieces on the cosmic chessboard who would one day be taken. Philosophically, Kubrick and Spielberg are antithetical to each other, even if, artistically, both are all-stars.
Who, then, among big-name Hollywood directors, could realize Napoleon — or, more likely, parts of Napoleon — in a way that would be most compelling and still properly honor Kubrick? Seven clear-cut candidates would be David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan and Peter Weir. Guidelines would have to be laid down about sticking to the script and not veering off into uncharted territory, but these are terrific filmmakers who could pull off such an ambitious project and, one might hope, preserve Kubrick’s intentions while not betraying their own aesthetics and interests.
Then I have one more eccentric idea, a now highly prominent international director who has only ever undertaken his own projects and has never done anything on this scale but whose work is just as exacting and chilly as Kubrick’s and who is probably his intellectual equal: Michael Haneke. I have little doubt that Kubrick himself would have loved The White Ribbon, and I believe that, if Haneke shot, in his own style, any portion of Kubrick’s script more or less as he wrote it, we’d have something as close to what Kubrick would have done as any director now on earth could manage.
A final thought: Finding the correct tone for the narration of Napoleon, as the late Michael Hordern did for the commentary in Barry Lyndon, will be critical. I very recently heard someone who would do an extraordinary job. He is the narrator of the audio CD version of Hilary Mantel‘s Wolf Hall: Simon Vance. His uncanny imitation of Paul Scofield‘s vocal performance as Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons is simultaneously sincere and insidiously mocking and, as such, precisely right for the commentary Kubrick wrote for Napoleon, a film (or miniseries) I’m becoming increasingly anxious to see every minute I think about it.
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