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Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon Would Have Been the Greatest Movie Ever Made

But now Steven Spielberg is making it.

by Alex Godfrey
11 March 2013, 4:00pm

Eagle-eyed VICE readers (or at least those who remember seeing it the first time round) will notice the below interview originally ran approximately three years ago. But in the name of topicality/cashing-in, we're running it again now.

All of these photos are from Taschen's enormous and exhaustive book: Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon, The Greatest Movie Never Made.

Steven Spielberg, who's clearly feeling the historical heavyweight thing at the moment, announced last weekend that he's adapting Stanley Kubrick's abandoned Napoleon film for TV. Working with the Kubrick family, he says he's developing what his old mate promised would be "the best movie ever made" into a mini-series.

Kubrick was obsessed with Napoleon. At dinner during pre-production on A Clockwork Orange, Malcolm McDowell asked him why he was eating ice cream at the same time as his steak. "What's the difference?" said Kubrick. "It's all food. This is how Napoleon used to eat." Napoleon, the film he tried and failed to make for decades, is perhaps the best example of his notoriously meticulous attention to detail. He believed nobody had ever made a great historical film and planned to change this with a three-hour epic, telling the story of the French Emperor's entire life.

It comes as no surprise then that, to Kubrick, Napoleon Bonaparte was the most interesting human throughout the past 200,000 years or so that we've been on this earth. He called Bonaparte's life "an epic poem of action", thought his relationship with Josephine was "one of the great obsessional passions of all time" and said, "He was one of those rare men who move history and mould the destiny of their own times and of generations to come." 

Getting to work on the film in the mid-60s, after 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, Kubrick sent an assistant around the world to literally follow in Napoleon's footsteps ("Wherever Napoleon went, I want you to go," he told him), instructing him to bring back samples of earth from Waterloo so he could match them for the screen. He read hundreds of books on the man, broke the information down into categories "on everything from his food tastes to the weather on the day of a specific battle", gathered together 15,000 location photos and 17,000 slides of Napoleonic imagery, which pretty much defines the concept of obsession. 

He would shoot the film in France and Italy for their grand locations, and in Yugoslavia for its cheap armies. This was pre-CGI, so he arranged to borrow 40,000 Romanian infantry men and 10,000 cavalry for the battles. "I wouldn't want to fake it with fewer troops," he said to an interviewer at the time, "because Napoleonic battles were out in the open, a vast tableau where the formations moved in an almost choreographic fashion. I want to capture this reality on film, and to do so it's necessary to re-create all the conditions of the battle with painstaking accuracy."

He planned to have David Hemmings and Audrey Hepburn play the lead roles, with Alec Guinness and Laurence Olivier as supporting characters, but it all came crashing down when – partly as a result of another Napoleon film, Waterloo, being released in 1970 – studios decided Kubrick's dream was too much of a financial risk. In the early 1980s, he still talked of wanting to make the film, but it wasn't to be. After his death in 1999, it was reportedly offered to Ridley Scott and Ang Lee before eventually landing, it seems, with Spielberg.

Tony Frewin was Kubrick's assistant from 1965 until the day he died. I called him up for a first-hand account of what it was like to be in Kubrick's Napoleonic vortex.

VICE: So tell me how your life with Stanley began – you were an office boy for him, right?
Tony Frewin:
Well, a runner. I think office boy rather glorifies it.

How did you come across him in the first place?
I grew up in Borehamwood and he'd just moved in to MGM Studios down the road on the pre-production of 2001. My father had just quit the management at MGM but he'd gone to work for Stanley, and he just kept on at me, saying, "Come down, we need a runner on this." In those days – in the mid-60s – we only ever went to see foreign language films, French films, Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman, Buñuel. Terribly snobbish. And I think I said something crass like, "Well, if it was Jean-Luc Godard I might be interested." Ah god. What a prick.

The pretentiousness of youth.
Oh absolutely. You squirm when you think of it. Oh god. Anyway, I went down one Sunday afternoon and my dad showed me into this office, which was absolutely full of books on fantastic art, surrealism, Dadaism, cosmology and flying saucers, and I thought, 'Fuck, I wouldn't mind working here just to have access to these books.' And then Stanley came in wearing a baggy pair of trousers and a sports jacket with ink stains all over it. I thought he as an office cleaner at first. We got chatting and he said, "When can you start?" I said, "When do you want me to?", and he said "Seven o'clock tomorrow morning." I said, "You got a deal." That was a week after my 17th birthday.

What sort of running work was it? Anything that was required?
Yeah, and it was always like that. People used to say, "What's the management structure like there?" at Hawk Films, or whatever we called ourselves, and I'd say, "Well, there's Stanley at the top, and then everybody else." There were no tiers of middle management, there was Stanley at the apex and all the rest of us on the bottom line. But it was a tremendous education working for Stanley – he was an intellectual Catherine wheel of ideas and projects and ideas and enthusiasm. You really earned your nickel working for Stanley, but as [Full Metal Jacket writer] Michael Herr says in that lovely little book [Kubrick], nobody earned their nickel more than Stanley himself. He lived by example, not by dictation.

When do you remember him first talking about Napoleon?
I remember when we were working on 2001, he had a sort of fascination with military figures. He was always very interested in Julius Caesar, particularly the invasion of Britain, but this ability to be a man of action – an intellectual, a strategist, with political objectives – and how you balanced all this and did what was right. I guess Napoleon grew out of that.

Did he relate to these types of people?
I don't think he related to them, but he found them tremendously fascinating. How, ultimately, flaws in their character, particularly Napoleon, would bring them down. You see this in people in positions of public trust or power anyway, you know? Like Harriet Harman getting out after that car crash and imperiously saying [it's alleged], "I'm Harriet Harman, You know where you can get me." I mean, what a cunt.

The research and planning he did for Napoleon is near legendary.
Yeah. He did a lot on all his films, not least of which was on the abandoned project Wartime Lies, about the Holocaust. We spent nearly two years, day in day out, researching that. And in that same period, Spielberg got the idea for Schindler's List, did the pre-production, made the film, released it and we were still shuffling index cards.

So Schindler's List just killed it for him?
Well, he'd always wanted to do a film about the Holocaust, but it presented certain problems. As Stanley said, if you really want to make an accurate film about the Holocaust, it's got to be unwatchable. But he thought Schindler's List was a hard act to follow, and it wasn't the right time to do Wartime Lies. You know what [historian] Raul Hilberg said about Schindler's List? He wrote this massive, three-volume study of the destruction of the European Jews, quite witty and funny too, but he said Schindler's List was a success story – a feel-good picture.

Well, that's one way of looking at it. In terms of Stanley's fascination with Napoleon, what do you know of Malcolm McDowell's story about him eating dessert and steak at the same time because that's how Napoleon used to eat?
I'd take that with a pinch of Bolivian marching powder.

Do you think the levels of research he carried out and his attention to the smallest detail was all part of the fun?
Well, it was a means to an end. He said "God is in the detail." But he knew when to cut his research, when to stop it. Barry Lyndon is a wonderful example of a historical film correctly done, right down to the lighting. Unlike all this crap you see on the BBC now. What he aimed for was for it to actually look like it did at the time. It's a wonderful film.

Do you think if he was making films today he would have utilised CGI?
Oh absolutely.

What about for extras? He'd hired 40,000 or so troops for Napoleon, do you think now he would have done that with CGI, or would he still have hired all those people for authenticity's sake?
I think it would depend very much on the shot. Some shots you might need a couple of thousand and then some CGI. Although, I don't think he would have automatically thought, 'Let's CGI everything.'

Was he enthusiastic about new technology in that area?
Oh, absolutely from the word go. He used to say anything that saved time was worth its weight in gold. The rest of us were sort of Luddites, but he wasn't. In 1980 he bought us all IBM green screens. These were the first PCs that were generally available – little 12 inch screens. You didn't even have a hard drive, you had two floppies. And Stanley said, "This is the future, this is what we'll be using." I told him, "No, I like to type something and take out the piece of paper and see what's on it," and he said, "No, listen, you've got to get rid of that, this is the future, it's arrived now." He wasn't at all conservative in that way. We had fax machines before anybody else did. People would say, "What the fuck do you want a fax machine for?" But he'd grab anything that saved time and made things look better.

Apparently the film was offered to Ridley Scott – how would you feel about him making it?
Well, he's a very competent director, but it would be a very different film from Stanley's. There's only one Stanley who could make a Stanley Kubrick film.

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Alex Godfrey