The 1960s were a good decade for director Stanley Kubrick. 1964's Dr. Strangelove was already considered a classic of political satire; four years later came 2001: A Space Odyssey, considered by many to be one of the best science-fiction films ever made. By the time Kubrick was working on A Clockwork Orange in 1971, he had a slew of awards under his belt and was considered one of the best filmmakers in the world. He began gathering his resources to produce what was to be the crowning achievement of his life - a massive biopic based on the life of Napoleon, complete with historically-accurate battle scenes featuring thousands of extras.
There's just one problem - the film was never made.
Instead, Kubrick's Napoleon was to become one of the greatest might-have-beens in cinematic history. Kubrick, ever the perfectionist, had done meticulous research into the time period, reading hundreds of books on his subject and collaborating with eminent historians in the field. He personally complied a massive cross-referenced index with over 15,000 entries, which the cast and crew of the movie could consult it in order to ensure historical fidelity. He watched every other film ever made on Napoleon, noting the strengths and weaknesses of each one. In the early seventies, Kubrick even began to personally scout out different European locations, comparing them to the actual sites of Napoleonic battles, noting their geographic similarities and their suitability for filming. He developed new camera equipment that allowed for filming scenes using only natural lights, meaning that scenes shot in candlelight would actually look that way.
It sounds like Kubrick had this endeavor under control. So what went wrong? First, Sergei Bondarchuk's adaptation of War and Peace hit American shores. Accounting for inflation, the four-park movie is the most expensive ever made, a cinematic masterpiece that Kubrick felt he could not possibly match. Then, the release of the box-office flop Waterloo in 1970 sealed the fate of Kubrick's Napoleon. Despite Kubrick's box-office draw, movie producers were reluctant to funnel millions of dollars into a historical epic, especially as such movies were selling less and less tickets. Kubrick notoriously demanded complete creative control over his films, which most likely did not help matters.
Kubrick cobbled together a draft of script, which you can probably find making its way around the Internet if you know where to look. The script ends with an addendum in which Kubrick seems to be trying to convince himself that the film is financially feasible, quoting the prices for military extras and the cost of producing thousands of historically accurate uniforms. Kubrick planned to save money by hiring little known actors. "I think sufficient proof must now exist that over-priced movie stars do little besides leaving an insufficient amount of money to make the film properly, or cause an unnecessarily high picture cost," he wrote. Unfortunately, the producers felt otherwise. Kubrick took his historical research and revolutionary cinemographic techniques and went and made Barry Lyndon, a well-received historical drama in its own right, but not the historical epic to rule them all that he had been planning.
But what might Kubrick's Napoleon have been? It's fun to contemplate. Kubrick is arguably one of the few directors whose career never had a misstep - his weakest movies are head and shoulders above 99 percent of everyone else's productions. Would Napoleon have been what Kubrick anticipated - the greatest movie ever made? Or would it merely be what the script already hints at - another mediocre melodramatic historical epic with an unlikely number of kinky sex scenes? Or, even worse, a disaster of Alexandrian proportions?
We'll never know, and I think it's better that way. There's something I find captivating about an artist who spends one's whole life planning some sort of magnum opus. The whole endeavor seems so hopeless, so likely to fail. The artist never thinks so, usually convincing themselves that the impossible is somehow feasible. But, more often than not, if these works ever see the light of day, they tend to be disappointing. It turns out it's difficult to stew on one piece of art for a lifetime and still have it come out as something halfway digestible.
But if these masterpieces are never actually made (and there's a surprising number of unfulfilled lifetime dreams), then they can exist in the mind's eye as a piece of genius - a work that would have been the Best Thing Ever Made if only a few things had gone differently. This view is false, of course, but it's more fun to believe that there are a bunch of unproduced perfect movies out there. It speaks to the creativity and ambition of directors such as Kubrick that they're willing to consider such massive projects and keep returning to them over their entire life (Kubrick was considering returning to Napoleon as late as the post-Full Metal Jacket era of the late 1980s).
Kubrick is not the only director to fail to produce his magnum opus by any means. The Monty Python alumnus Terry Gilliam provides another example. For years, Gilliam was planning his own adaptation of Don Quixote, one of the greatest novels ever written. Gilliam spent two years casting the role, and spent even more time finding independent financing from Europe, as he didn't want any pesky American studios mandating what he could and could not do with his movie. Filming began in 2000...only to have a freak flash flood ruin the shooting location and equipment, then have actor Jean Rochefort be diagnosed with a double herniated disc, severely inhibiting his ability to ride a horse. The entire project was scrapped, to retreat into a litigious purgatory as lawyers scrambled to determine who, exactly, owns the rights to what part of the project. Gilliam is apparently trying again, beginning to rewrite the script in 2009, but I'm not holding my breath. And a Don Quixote movie, like most of these wildly ambitious projects, is probably much better on paper than on the big screen anyway.
Finally, there's the curious case of Terrence Malick, the reclusive Rhodes Scholar-turned-filmmaker who has directed such works as Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line. Malick has supposedly been working on some sort of mysterious project since the 1970s. Originally known just as 'Q', the movie was rumored to focus on the relationship between father and son in a family in midwestern America in the 1950s.
Sounds simple enough, and not particularly ambitious. But then the rumors began to get weirder. Scenes were shot in the Middle East and in India. Stories leaked out that some of the characters in this movie were immortal. Special effects gurus were called in to create dinosaurs living in a primeval wasteland. As it turns out, Malick was also creating a cinematic version of the entire history of the universe, and this supposedly meshes with the father-son story to create some sort of coherent narrative that tackles the meaning of life. The movie is now called Tree of Life, and it features Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. After over 30 years of gestation, it is supposedly going to be released in 2010. It might even be all right, but I can't pretend that the movie that I'll see in the theaters will be anything as close to as good as the movie that's in my mind right now. A movie tackling the perennial problems of the human condition and the history of the universe sounds amazing…but experience has led me to believe the end result will be less than convincing.
And that's the problem with these masterworks. Artists strive their entire life to create some sort of masterpiece, to leave one work behind that will sum up their entire career and say everything that they want to say. As a concept, this sounds like a great idea. As actual works of art, they almost always fail as bloated, messy enterprises. More often than not, they come out nothing like they were envisioned, as the artist discovers that it's hard to transfer decades of mental planning into an actual work of art.
Jean Sibelius is one of the twentieth-century's most underrated composers. He wrote seven symphonies, each one well-regarded in the musical world. He promised his eighth symphony would be ready for a premiere in 1930; however, the composer kept making excuses, kept going back to revise the work, kept worrying that the piece wasn't good enough and it was nothing like what he had hoped. No one knows for sure what became of the work in progress, but Sibelius' wife has a memory of the composer throwing sheets of music into a fire in 1945; it's likely that the last remnants of the never-produced Eighth Symphony went up in smoke then and there.
I would have liked to hear the Eighth Symphony, of course. But there's a certain mystique to these works that we will never see, works that were a creative itch for the artist's entire life, works that ended up existing only in their head. There's no disappointment with this kind of art - only wild ambition and creativity, a testament to the wonderful and crazy ideas that humans come up with. There's something inspiring about this sort of art. It will never find an audience, but I like to think that's beside the point. Kubrick's Napoleon was never shown in a single theater. There was never a single shot taken. But the movie still exists, in the minds of hundreds of ambitiously creative artists, as some sort of ideal to strive for. It's an ideal that will never be reached. But better to try and create an overly ambitious piece of art than to be nothing but an underachiever.