Not long after the 1968 release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick set out to create what he expected to be “the best movie ever made.” A historical epic about Napoleon that aimed to be as intimate as it was sweeping, the film's proposed scale was massive: Kubrick took thousands of photos while scouting locations across France and Italy; was promised as many as 50,000 soldiers by the army of Romania, where the battle scenes were to be shot, to serve as extras; and claimed to have read nearly 500 books about the French general in preparation. David Hemmings, who starred in Michelangelo Antonioni's Blowup, was his first choice to play Napoleon, with Audrey Hepburn as his wife, Josephine.
The release of two similar projects and budgetary restraints doomed Kubrick's project into merely vying for the title of greatest film never made, although certain aspects did make their way into 1975's Barry Lyndon.
As part of LACMA's exhibit devoted to Kubrick, which began last week, the museum is shedding some light on the unrealized Napoleon film, including his fabled card catalog, with an entry for each day in the life of the French emperor.
The exhibit, simply titled “Stanley Kubrick,” runs through the end of June. It also highlights the filmmaker's beginnings as a photographer for Look magazine in the 1940s, on-set photos from a number of productions, screenplays covered in marginalia, costumes, props, cameras and lenses. For many other filmmakers, most of this would be none too interesting. But considering how utterly meticulous Kubrick's creative process was — remember, this is the guy known for demanding countless retakes from his actors and overseeing practically every single detail of his productions — physical evidence of, and insight into, his working methods tends to be rather intriguing, even if the film itself was never completed.
Napoleon isn't the only unfinished film of Kubrick's on display: Aryan Papers, which was shelved after the enormous success of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List in 1993, also is featured. A proposed adaptation of Louis Begley's semi-autobiographical novel Wartime Lies, the film would have starred Johanna ter Steege in the lead role as a Jewish woman masquerading as Catholic in order to get herself and her family through the Holocaust. (Julia Roberts and Uma Thurman are said to have turned the part down before it was offered to ter Steege, whom Kubrick reportedly considered the best actress he knew.)
The more interesting, intimate and potentially apocryphal explanation as to why the film was never made comes courtesy of Kubrick's widow, Christiane, who has said that the subject matter was simply too taxing for the writer-director to spend years of his life delving into. Adding credence to this notion is Kubrick's longtime assistant Tony Frewin, who has said the filmmaker felt that “if you really want to make an accurate film about the Holocaust, it's got to be unwatchable.”
One of the more alluring aspects of the exhibit has to be Unfolding the Aryan Papers, a video installation by English artists Jane and Louise Wilson. The sisters received unfettered access to Kubrick's personal files related to the would-be production and constructed what the British Film Institute (who, along with Animate Projects, commissioned the work) describes as “part film and part portrait.” Considering the subject, it sounds like a fitting approach.