Steven Spielberg tackles Stanley Kubrick again with never-filmed ‘Napoleon’

Mark Deming
Movie Talk
Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg
Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg may the most famous filmmaker alive, but he has heroes just like anyone else. For proof, look no further than his next project, resurrecting a long-abandoned project by a great director he idolizes.

In an interview for French television broadcast over the weekend, Spielberg announced he’s working on a television miniseries on the life of the French leader Napoleon. The twist is that his source material will be a screenplay the late Stanley Kubrick wrote for a grand-scale biopic.

“Kubrick wrote the script in 1961, a long time ago,” Spielberg said. “And the Kubrick family, because we made ‘A.I.’ together … the next project we’re working on is a mini-series, it’s going to be Napoleon.”

“Napoleon” was a dream project for Stanley Kubrick, the celebrated director of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Shining,” and many others. After years of historical research, Kubrick had hoped to make the film in the late 1960s following the global success of “2001.” Kubrick approached both Oskar Werner and David Hemmings about playing the title role, and asked Audrey Hepburn to appear as Josephine. However, due to the massive scope of the project, Kubrick couldn’t obtain financing for the “Napoleon.” He tried to revive the project several times before his death in 1999, but it never went before the cameras.

As Spielberg acknowledged, this isn’t the first time he’s revived one of Kubrick’s uncompleted projects. Kubrick spent over a decade conceptualizing a sci-fi project that he was unable to complete; with the blessings of Kubrick, Spielberg took over the film, which became 2001’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.”

While Spielberg has announced that “Napoleon” is in production, he hasn’t said if he’s actually going to direct as well as produce. There’s also no word on when the project should be ready for air, or who will broadcast it.

But Kubrick’s estate has not only allowed Spielberg to use the late filmmaker's screenplay for “Napoleon,” he's also been granted access to notes, research, and archival materials, including a letter to a studio chief in which Kubrick says of his “Napoleon,” “It’s impossible to tell you what I’m going to do except to say that I expect to make the best movie ever made.”

And although it might not fulfill Kubrick’s wish, with Spielberg on board, it has a shot at being one of the best TV shows ever made.