Cinephiles woke up on Sunday to some exciting and unexpected news about a project from a filmmaker who continues to inspire debate and discussion more than a decade after his death. Steven Spielberg announced he would be bringing Stanley Kubrick’s unmade, long-in-development “Napoleon” to television as a miniseries. This is nothing short of monumental news, but as devotees of Kubrick know, it’s just one of a handful of projects that he either decided not to make or never got the chance to.
So we decided to do a little bit of digging and take a look at the movies Kubrick had in the cooker over the years, and what happened to them. Some are back in development while others have been lost to the dusts of time, but all are pretty fascinating in their own regard. So sit back, and let’s take a look.
Easily the most well known and well documented of the unmade Kubrick films (“Aryan Papers” is a close second), the director’s voluminous research, notes, location scouting details and more inspired a massive book about the movie based on that material alone.
Originally proposed as his next project after “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Kubrick pitched the movie as a $5 million production (roughly $100 million in today’s dollars) with extraordinarily ambitious plans that included upwards of 30,000 men as extras for the battle scenes, and utilizing the front projection techniques that he had recently used on ‘2001.’ Ian Holm, Alec Guiness, Laurence Olivier and Patrick Magee were mooted as potential cast members, while David Hemmings (“Blow-Up,” “Camelot”) was eyed for the lead role of Napoleon. Kubrick also wanted Audrey Hepburn to play Joséphine, but the actress graciously turned down the part (you can read letters between the director and actress about the role right here).
To reiterate, the research was meticulous, with Kubrick using Felix Markham’s 1966 biography as a launching pad for his in-depth study that eventually grew to include an extensive index card library about everyone in Napoleon’s life, cross referenced to an exacting degree. And Kubrick even thought of using computers to catalog his notes, something that was pretty much unheard of at the time. “If you searched ‘Joséphine’ you were going to get possibly every portrait that was made of her at the time,” “The Greatest Movie Never Made” editor Alison Castle said about the proposed database that was going to be created with the help of IBM.
MGM had initially greenlit the movie, and United Artists were offered the project, but both grew wary after similar epics like “War & Peace” and “Waterloo” struggled financially. “He had shelved ‘Napoleon’ after MGM and UA dropped the project,” Kubrick’s longtime producer Jan Harlan told Filmmaker Magazine. “He was very sad since he was so well prepared and in full swing to do the film in Romania, France and England. But three weeks later he was back on track with various [other] ideas.” And one of those was an adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange,” which would be his next film.
And while Spielberg now has the gig to bring “Napoleon” to life, the Kubrick estate did try to reach out to other filmmakers in the past. “Ridley Scott knows that we have the material and we put it to Ang Lee,” Harlan told The Independent in 2010. You can read Kubrick’s 147 page screenplay from 1969 right here.
“Aryan Papers” (aka “Wartime Lies”)
Another intensively researched project, this one actually very nearly happened, with casting in place and shooting practically imminent before Kubrick pulled the plug. One could write reams about this particular Holocaust tale, but we’ll try to keep it simple.
Based on the book by Louis Begley Jr., Kubrick penned a script entitled “Aryan Papers,” set in Poland during the Nazi occupation of WWII, telling the story through the eyes of a ten-year-old who recalls how his Aunt protected him by passing them off as Catholics in order to survive. Development started in the early 1990s, and according to “Kubrick: The Definitive Edition,” Joseph Mazzello (“Jurassic Park”) would’ve played the young boy. And it seems at least two actresses were committed to lead the movie — Uma Thurman and Johanna Ter Steege.
According to Thurman, “I was going to make a film with [Kubrick] — for a long time I was scheduled to make a film with him,” she told MTV about “Aryan Papers” in 2008. “I was contracted to do it and things happened and he shelved the film. He never made the film.”
“It was devastating because it was an incredible part,” she reflected. “It would have been the part of my career, the best part I ever had been offered or had written for me, or anything.”
Meanwhile, the lesser known Steege (perhaps most familiar to audiences for her role in George Sluzier’s “The Vanishing”) revealed she was kept on the hook, with promises that cameras would roll. She declined other work all with the expectation that the movie would shoot, with continual confirmation from Kubrick and Harlan. But as Thurman noted, the movie was eventually canceled. “We know that [Kubrick] was a perfectionist. We also know the dangerous thing for a perfectionist is that, at a certain point, he comes to a zero,” Steege told The Independent in 2009, while Christiane Kubrick, the filmmaker’s widow, noted that the director became depressed “because of all the research he did” about the Holocaust.
And the detailed research had another effect on the movie. “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,” Kubrick’s assistant Tony Frewin told Vice. Kubrick, who had seen Oliver Stone‘s “Platoon” come out around the same time as “Full Metal Jacket,” was concerned about having his Holocaust picture and Spielberg’s being released near to each other, and ultimately shelved it.
“Eyes Wide Shut” co-writer Frederic Raphael has long spun an anecdote that Kubrick had dismissed “Schindler’s List” by saying it was about “success,” while the Holocaust is actually about “six million people who get killed.” Whether or not this is actually true is unclear, but one should note that the Kubrick family have largely dismissed Raphael’s memoir, “Eyes Wide Open,” about working with Kubrick.
Warner Bros. still has the rights to “Aryan Papers,” and in 2005 William Monahan (“The Departed“) was hired to write a new draft of the script. As for Harlan, he welcomes the notion of another filmmaker tackling the material. “It would have to be really a good director. In the wrong hands, this would become a very cheap movie. But if Ang Lee wanted to do it, I would jump to the ceiling!” he told The Independent.