Kubrick: From “Burning Secret” to “Artificial Intelligence” passing by “Napoleon”

(marino demata)  (foto da IMDB.com) 
The army of Kubrick aficionados is so vast that every piece of news occasionally leaked about his work as a director, screenwriter, and filmmaker starts a media frenzy of remarkable proportions. And that is the reason why no newspaper nor website has dared “not to talk” about the umpteenth discovery concerning Kubrick’s work. After all, his preference for an undisturbed life out of the spotlight led to many secrets while he was still alive, and to great discoveries since he passed away in 1999.
Kubrick 2Today we are talking about the latest findings of Nathan Abrams – a professor at Bangor University in Wales – who recovered a long screenplay of approximately hundred pages, typewritten by Kubrick. The screenplay is unabridged, up to the point that it could be easily turned into a film, without having to undergo noteworthy alterations. It is a film adaptation dated 1956 of Burning Secret (1913), a short story by the Viennese writer Stefan Zweig. Like every discovery of this kind, it happened by chance: Abrams was wholly engrossed in his study of Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, when he came across the typescript of Burning Secret.
Every director has a series of unrealized films, scripted, thought or dreamed of, stashed away in a material (or metaphorical) drawer. The list of directors who did not see all of their works turned into films is very long, starting from Eisenstein to Orson Welles, from Hitchcock to Alain Resmais, to Italian directors such as Sergio Leone, Pasolini, Visconti, Lizzani and many more. Naturally, there are always reasons behind every unrealised film adaptation, but in the case of Burning Secret, these are unclear. One could hypothesize that the subject of the story – a 30-year-old trying to win over a 12-year-old boy in order to get to his mother – was too obscene. The story told in Burning Secret contravened Hollywood’s rigid rules and was too hard to swallow at the time. It is also possible that MGM had acted out of spite because Kubrick had signed a contract with United Artists, thanks to which Paths of Glory was born. One thing is for sure: Burning Secret should be added to the list of films that were written, dreamed of, but never realised by the great director. And as often happens in these cases, another director, Andrew Birkin, seized the idea and, in 1988, he turned it into an incredibly mediocre film, unlike how Kubrick would have made it.
This was certainly not an unprecedented event. We are talking about AI: Artificial Intelligence a film to which Kubrick thoroughly dedicated himself, by employing excellent collaborators, whose accounts were collected and are still visible today in an enjoyable video. Artificial Intelligence turned out to be a failure, getting worse day after day. Kubrick exchanged ideas over the phone with Spielberg, asking him if he wanted to direct the movie, but Spielberg waved away his offer, because he did not feel up to the task. Sadly, Kubrick’s sudden death gave Spielberg the opportunity to deny himself and shoot Artificial Intelligence, which turned out to be an appalling film, lacking Kubrick’s original themes and poetry.
Kubrick 4On a similar note, The Aryan Papers – a film about the holocaust that Kubrick planned to direct in Denmark – never saw the light of day. Everything was ready for the shooting, but once again (though this time it was not voluntary), Steven Spielberg released Schindler’s List, “beating” Kubrick to his own project.
The most striking example, however, remains Napoleon. By analysing the latter, we will conclude this review, referring back to Burning Secret, the film that we first took into consideration. The screenplay of Napoleon (dated 1969) was discovered by chance: it was found in 1994 in a salt mine in Kansas. It appeared online for a brief period, where it was available for everyone, until the company that owned the rights of Kubrick’s works barged in to prevent further unauthorized distribution. Among the films that Kubrick never realised, Napoleon was without doubt the one he was most fond of. Kubrick was certain of the film’s production since MGM had already shown its support to the project (exactly as happened with Burning Secret!). For two years he engaged in the same meticulous (and obsessive) research, which characterized all of his works, offering financial support as well. As usual, he was careful not to leave out anything: he carried out negotiations with the government of what then constituted the state of Yugoslavia, and Romania in order to hire tens of thousands of their soldiers; he was also going to make use of Felix Markham – the famous English historian of Napoleon – whom he had already put under contract for the exclusivity of his research. Kubrick lead continual inspections in Europe, so as to find suitable settings for the scenes he wanted to shoot. He had even chosen Jack Nicholson (whose performance in Easy Rider he greatly admired) for playing the leading role of Napoleon. The director talked a great deal about Napoleon, perhaps even more so than he did about the films he had actually made. But what are the reasons behind Kubrick’s obsession in making a film on such unsure financial grounds? What did he find in the figure of Napoleon? I believe he was drawn to him essentially for two reasons: the absolute atheism that led him to make extreme and brave decisions, for which Kubrick admired him (after all, weren’t Kubrick’s life choices equally atheistic and brave?); and Napoleon’s ability to meticulously and personally supervise everything that could (and should) be done to win his battles, with the exceptions of Leipzig and Waterloo. So, isn’t this Napoleonic ability to keep History itself under one’s direct control similar to Kubrick’s will to personally oversee his works, without meddling from outsiders?
Contrary to the screenplay that was just recently found (Burning Secret), we know the reasons why Napoleon was not turned into a film. The director himself recounted how he received a phone call from the USA while he was at a lunch with friends. It was MGM studios. When he returned to the table, he coldly announced: “MGM said that the film would cost 40 million dollars – an unthinkable amount at the time – and that the Americans don’t care about Napoleon.”
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Articoli su Kubrick pubblicati su questo blog Rive Gauche-Film e Critica:
Kubrick, Stanley: Paths of glory
Kubrick, Stanley: Orizzonti di gloria
Kubrick, Stanley: 2001 Odissea nello spazio
Dietro le quinte di Shining
Dietro le quinte di Orizzonti di gloria
Arancia meccanica: il capolavoro di Kubrick che raccontava il futuro
Stanley Kubrick and 2001: the tremendous problem’s of innovation
(10) Styanley Kubrick films
Perchè Stanley Kubrick è i più grande regista di tutti i tempi
Krysztof Kieślowski: cosa ne pensava di Kubrick