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Kubrick's Unfinished "Napoleon," in 1,000 Pages

Posted by Josh Rothman  May 2, 2011 09:41 AM

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Stanley Kubrick spent four years of his life, from 1967 to 1971, planning an epic film about Napoleon. He worked with an Oxford history professor and dozens of assistants to compile one of the world's largest Napoleonic archives -- including 17,000 photographs and drawings of Napoleon's world -- and sent teams out into the field to take 15,000 location photographs. He designed costumes, contacted actors, and reached out to the armies of Romania and Lithuania, planning to hire 30,000 troops to serve as extras during the battle scenes. In a note to himself, Kubrick wrote: "I expect to make the greatest film ever made."

It was never meant to be; the film was too expensive for the cash-starved studios of the late 1960s. In 2009, the art-book publisher Taschen released Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made, a $1,500 collection of ten books about the film, nestled inside one hollowed-out "Napoleonic history" book. This year, they've released a cheaper "facsimile edition" -- it's only $45 at Amazon. It tells the same story of ambition, obsession, and ultimate defeat.

A costume made by Kubrick's designers for the Napoleon film.

The book, in a deliberate echo of the film, is rough around the edges. Rather than providing a seamless, synthesized account of Kubrick's vision, the editor, Alison Castle, has focused on the raw materials: the photographs, clippings, letters, and notes that Kubrick kept in binders and a huge, library-style card catalog. There are interviews with Kubrick, and a complete draft of the screenplay, with many marked-up pages from earlier drafts. Here and there you'll find introductory essays by Kubrick experts, or a historian's response to Kubrick's screenplay -- but the emphasis is on the small gestures, as in the collection of underlined passages and marginal notes that Castle compiles from Kubrick's personal library of books about the emperor. A special 'key card' included with the book gives you access to a huge online library of images.

If you're a Kubrick maniac, this is an amazing deal for $45. Even if you're not, though, it's a unique record of what the creative process looks like when it's arrested in full flight. It gives you an unusual opportunity to measure your own obsessive nature against the towering, extremely productive obsession of a genius. As you flip through the images and read Kubrick's notes, you realize the grand scale of his imaginative life. These 1,000 pages are only the froth on the wave of Kubrick's vision. The archive tells you a lot about Kubrick's unfinished film, but it also tells you a lot about how much a single person can accomplish using his own imagination. We never saw Napoleon -- but Kubrick certainly did.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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