Spielberg’s Napoleon Wrongo

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?

23 thoughts on “Spielberg’s Napoleon Wrongo

  1. Can’t fault Stevie for wanting to try and finish “The Greatest Movie Never Made,” but pray it will not happen. It would be dreadful beyond belief for Kubrick lovers. Spielberg simply doesn’t have the depth to do it. Give it to David Fincher and let him make the icy and violent epic it deserves to be.

  2. Reminds me of the 2002 remake of The Magnificent Ambersons for TV. The problem with that one is that they blew the chance to restore the original ending.

  3. Playing every Sunday afternoon on Hollywood Elsewhere – it’s the Steven Spielberg hate-boner nitpick hour!

  4. Or maybe Spielberg just misspoke? And Barry Lyndon cannot possibly be everything Kubrick wanted to do in Napoleon. A small-time rake vs. one of the great, overreaching military figures of all time?

  5. What if it was done Band of Brothers or From The Earth To The Moon style, with multiple directors, writers, approaches to episodes, etc.?

  6. @Balthazar: That’s probably what they have in mind. If so, I think it’s a good idea.

    What good is a screenplay just sitting around, anyway?

    A.I. was awesome, by the way.

  7. I read the Napoleon screenplay. It’s remarkable. I don’t think Spielberg is generally the right guy for posthumous collaboration with Kubrick, and I say that as a borderline-fanatical admirer of both.

    Quote from a 1971 Kubrick memo, seen at the LACMA exhibit:

    *****

    1. I propose we make a deal to film Napoleon based on the following premises.

    2. I will do a new screenplay. Naturally, in the two years since the first one was written I have had new ideas.

    3. 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.

    *****

    I LOVE THAT GUY! Dammit, he should still be with us, not 14 years dead.

  8. I miss him, too — almost inarguably more than any other American-born filmmaker. His death in ’99 hit me pretty hard — he was the first modern master whose work I really I enjoyed that all of the sudden I realized I would never see any new cinema from ever again (and seeing EWS in a mall-megaplex is still — to this day — one of the more bizarrely awesome viewing experiences in my life).

    So here’s a question to the peanut gallery — given your pick of the litter, who would you like to see direct this? Doesn’t just have to be ONE name, either, seeing how this looks to be on track for the mini route.

    Have a vote above for Fincher, and that’s certainly not a bad one (although somehow doesn’t seem quite right to me). Personally? Give me Sir Ridley Scott working in Kingdom of Heaven mode.

    And thematically and period-wise, this would make for a nice career bookend to The Duellists (which I always found to be very Lyndon-esque, anyway).

  9. I say let Spielberg do it as an HBO miniseries.

    It’d be awesome if he directed the whole thing, but maybe just an episode. Bring in some other talent behind the scenes and make it like a 5 or 6 episode mini series.

    Either way, even if they use his script, they should NOT try to duplicate Kubrick’s style. That would be a mistake. Kubrick was a one shot deal, there wont be another.

  10. Wells to TVMCCA: Seriously? That’s a brilliant idea. Use a 33 year-old Nicholson ( I.e., circa 1970) to play Napoleon via rotoscope animation — love it. The only problem is that today’s 75 year-old Nicholson sounds too weathered and gravelly to play a 33 year-old. You’d have to get a guy who could deliver that Easy Rider-ish voice. As Kubrick was fond of daying, “Realistic is good but interesting is better.”

  11. Kaned, I’d vote for Paul Thomas Anderson. The Master, especially, shows his obsession with Kubrick. I think he could do the material justice, while still putting his own spin on it.

    I think Spielberg would also do a good job, but Daniel Day Lewis is too tall. Maybe Peter Jackson can Hobbitize him.

  12. I’ve said this before, but I think it’s worth repeating: the one way to do this properly under this plan is to shoot it the way Assayas shot Carlos. Do TWO versions. Shoot an epically-themed version for theaters, emphasize scope and spectacle. Simultaneously, shoot a miniseries version, more scenes, the same scenes but longer (and shot differently to take advantage of televisions more intimate scope).

    I think this lessens the financial risk and takes advantage of both mediums; I think you get to make a bigger film. If there’s not enough material, borrow from Burgess’ Napoleon book that resulted from their aborted collaboration (maybe hire Kushner to adapt these elements).

    Anyway, I think this is what makes the project doable.

  13. Agreed on PTA, JLC (FYI!).

    You know, I always thought There Will Be Blood was vaguely Kubrick-esque…then I watched The Master and that just took it to another level.

    Kind of interesting that he started out getting compared almost exclusively to Scorsese, though — and certainly not without good reason (Sydney = Mean Streets; Boogie Nights = Goodfellas; Punch-Drunk Love = After Hours, etc.).

  14. I would still love to see it structured, and scored, to Beethoven’s 3d Symphony (Eroica) as SK (when he was last developing it) intended.

    It would really take a director who has a great love and knowledge of music…. and by that I mean classic-period Alan Parker, as opposed to current pop-boy Adam Shankman.

    A Ridley or a PTA would indeed be most excellent.

  15. I think a lot of these are great suggestions, but they miss the point. While Rid or PTA or Assayas would make great Napoleon movies, they wouldn’t be Stanley’s “Napoleon’. Kubrick basically believed the universe was indifferent to us, and that the grander the scheme, the more likely it was to fail, which is one of the reasons he was drawn to Napoleon, who could have stopped early on and had been lionized as one of the most enlightened despots ever. The other problem is that the screenplay (and this is the only problem I’ve ever had with it) had to compress a ton to get his life into a two + hour movie. A miniseries, by definition, is going to have to be expanded from the screenplay and it’s going to lose Kubrick’s POV on the guy and just wind up as “The Life of Napoleon” by S. Kubrick and whoever. If using Stanley’s name to get it made is necessary, great. Napoleon is one of the great tragic over-reaching monsters of history and his story has never adequately been told; but it’s certainly not going to be Kubrick’s “Napoleon” and trying to market it as such is a misnomer if not an outright lie…

  16. I’m with Wells on this one. This must be some revenge fantasy on Spielberg’s part for not receiving an Oscar for Lincoln. Ruin a master’s work so, somehow, his lesser film looks better.

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