Steven Spielberg has told a Canal Plus interviewer that he’s developing Stanley Kubrick‘s Napoleon screenplay for production as a TV miniseries. Which is cool. But he says in the interview that Kubrick “wrote the [Napoleon] script in 1961, a long time ago.” Sorry but nope. Off by seven years, I’m afraid.
Note: The Canal Plus embed code is crap, but watch the video here. Spielberg’s comments begin around the 9:20 mark.
Kubrick began work on Napoleon in 1968 just after 2001: A Space Odysssey was finished, and had completed a screenplay draft by July 1969. Perhaps Spielberg was thinking of The German Lieutenant, a never-produced WWII drama that Kubrick co-wrote with Richard Adams in the early ’60s?
Kubrick’s Napoleon history is common knowledge. I’ve read Kubrick’s Napoleon screenplay (the one dated 9.29.69), which I think is the same version contained in “Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made,” which Tashen published in 2011. This German Kubrick site (which has English translation) concurs about the intensive ’68 to ’69 Napoleon period. Kubrick’s Napoleon history is also summarized in an 11.19.12 Andrew Biswell piece in the Telegraph.
Another thing that Spielberg possibly misunderstands (he certainly doesn’t mention it) is that in various ways (tonally, stylistically, attitude-wise) we’ve already seen Kubrick’s Napoleon. It’s called Barry Lyndon.
A reading of the 9.29.69 screenplay makes it fairly obvious that Napoleon would have had the same vibe as Barry Lyndon, and been spoken the same way and framed and paced the same way. Okay, the lead character would be a determined egomaniacal genius instead of an amoral Irish lout and Napoleon would have more than one battle scene, but beyond these and other distinctions we’re talking the same line of country. Everything Kubrick desperately wanted to accomplish or put into Napoleon he put into Lyndon — simple.
The Biswell piece quotes a note written by Kubrick in 1968, in which he states that “newly developed fast photographic lenses would allow him to film interiors using ordinary window light — or even candlelight — which, he said, ‘will look much more beautiful and realistic than artificial light.’” Which of course he delivered in Barry Lyndon.
Remember the scene when Ryan O’Neal‘s Lyndon asks the pretty blonde fraulein if he could pay her for a meal, and then the follow-up scene inside her cottage when they carefully and delicately get around to talking about him staying that night and being her lover, etc.?
Consider this scene from Kubrick’s Napoleon — same tone, same idea, same sexual undercurrent. A lonely soldier, a poor young woman, etc.
EXT. LYON STREET – NIGHT
It is a witheringly cold winter night, in Lyon. People, bundled up to the eyes, hurry along the almost deserted street, past empty cafes which are still open. Napoleon, hands deep in his pockets, shoulders hunched against the cold, passes a charming, young street-walker, about his own age. He stops and looks at her, uncertainly. A large snowflake lands on her nose which makes him smile.
GIRL: Good evening, sir.
NAPOLEON: Good evening, Mademoiselle.
GIRL: The weather is terrible, isn’t it, sir?
NAPOLEON: Yes, it is. It must be one of the worst nights we have had this winter.
GIRL: Yes, it must be.
Napoleon is at a loss for conversation.
NAPOLEON: You must be chilled to the bone, standing out of doors like this.
GIRL: Yes, I am, sir.
NAPOLEON: Then what brings you out on such a night?
GIRL: Well, one must do something to live, you know. And I have an elderly mother who depends on me.
NAPOLEON: Oh, I see. That must be a great burden.
GIRL: One must take life as it comes. Do you live in Lyon, sir?
NAPOLEON: No, I’m only here on leave. My regiment is at Valence.
GIRL: Are you staying with a friend, sir?
NAPOLEON: No…I have a…room…at the Hotel de Perrin.
GIRL: Is it a nice warm room, sir?
NAPOLEON: Well, it must be a good deal warmer than it is here on the street.
GIRL: Would you like to take me there, so that we can get warm, sir?
NAPOLEON: Uhhn…yes, of course. If you would like to go there. But I have very little money.
GIRL: Do you have three francs, sir?