Investigations In Art: Alex Cohen
Essay # 23
“The Greatest Film Never Made”
Photo: Jacques-Louis David’s “Napoleon Crossing the Alps”

Holding the new hardcover edition of Alison Castle’s “Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made”, one can’t escape the weight of the subject at hand.  The ten pound, 1112 page, 14x9x3 inch book makes this ghost of an unrealized endeavor tangible with sheer heft.  This book is, after all, an endeavor about an endeavor about an endeavor.  Castle took eight years among the infamous Kubrick archives to create a book that follows the obsessive and tactical style of the infamous director’s fourteen year crusade to make a film about one of history’s most heralded tactician who ruled the French for ten years.
The venture to make a film that depicted the full span Napoleon Bonaparte’s life could be nothing less than epic.  The scope and scale of Napoleon’s campaigns were dizzying and the quality of his romance with Josephine was no less operatic.  Kubrick swallowed the entirety of this colossal history, amassing an extensive library on the subject with meticulous zeal.
Castle’s book does not operate as an analysis of Kubrick’s work but rather presents the pieces of the puzzle with bold clarity and shrewd graphic design.  It includes accounts by Kubrick’s key collaborators, his own notes and historical gleanings, photographs of the actual production documents, the treatments and working script, correspondence and preparatory location and costume photography.  Even a keycard is provided that gives access to the entire visual archive of over 17,000 Napoleonic images.  A selection of these pictures scroll along the tops of the pages as a constant reminder of the ultimate visualization remaining absent—the film.
It’s a painful thing for an artist to gestate a great idea and be unable to give it birth.  There is no certainty of a feeling and one desires to give it some concrete form to validate its strength.  Just as a scientist needs experiments that are repeatable to prove the conviction of his or her results, an artist needs the physical proof of their mental labors.  In Kubrick’s case the material of his idea is stuck in the limbo of preproduction forever.  The immense archive of historical records and preparatory photos gives clues to the scope and potential for what the film could have been but it doesn’t depict the art of the final product.  As meticulous as Kubrick was in his planning, his genius was in his adaptability and willingness to change the course and tone of his pictures during their shooting.  His prowess as a chess player is often sited as a mentality that he consciously applied in filmmaking, calibrating a plan to the changing shape of the game board.  Kubrick skillfully wove his big picture ideas with the fleeting flavors of the moment.  Famously, the director had his actors film their scenes sometimes hundreds of times looking for the most idiosyncratic variant of their performance.  Essentially he created a fastidious net to catch even the most elusive element lurking in the cinematic ether.
The similarities between director and emperor were evident from the onset.  They both strove for goals loftier than most would dream possible and then boldly and defiantly conquered.  But while Kubrick’s notes try to make some sense of Napoleon’s defeats, his own campaign reached a comparable collapse.  After the tepid reception of his “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the flop of a Napoleon film by another director that came out at that time, MGM ultimately pulled their support for the film.  Even with Kubrick making painstaking calculations to make this huge film fit within a reasonable budget, he couldn’t keep the project afloat.
While Kubrick spoke of his Napoleon film with certainty that it would not only be his best film but exceed any cinematic accomplishment to that point, it’s incompletion makes for something perhaps more precious.  The mystery that is left in the vacuum of this effort has the attraction of possibility.  Both Kubrick and Napoleon aimed for conquests that would garner them a sort of immortality by changing the entire context in which they operated.  Napoleon’s campaigns undoubtedly shaped the cultural and political landscape of our modern times on a scale that has since redefined our concept of power.  Kubrick did as much to reshape expectations of artistic accomplishment, though his audience has not easily processed or accepted just what that means yet.
The absence of a completed Napoleon film creates a sort of blank canvas on which to consider his entire career.  It forces the audience to step back and consider an artist’s process over the product.  Works of art can be so great as to stupefy onlookers with a conciseness that conceals just how difficult they were to conceive. Without the finished film, we can only see the raw material that makes up greatness and wonder at how a mind like Kubrick’s would have shaped it, and in turn how we would have been shaped.

Alex Cohen is a Bucks County painter.  He exhibits at Riverbank Arts in Stockton, NJ.  To view more essays and paintings visit