Stanley Kubrick Predicted 2023's Napoleon Being a Box Office Bomb 54 Years Ago

Stanley Kubrick Predicted 2023's Napoleon Being a Box Office Bomb 54 Years Ago
Image credit: Scott Free Productions

The cancellation of Kubrick's project foreshadowed the failure of Ridley Scott's film.


  • Released in 2023, Napoleon, starring Joaquin Phoenix, was a critical and commercial failure.
  • 54 years earlier, Stanley Kubrick had similar ambitions.
  • The decision to cancel Kubrick's project was motivated by the unrealistic prospect of breaking even.

There is something about the period of the Napoleonic Wars and the personality of Napoleon Bonaparte himself that keeps world-renowned filmmakers returning to the subject. Maybe it's the aesthetics of the early 19th century and the epic battles of the time. Maybe it's the fascination of the life of the great French general and emperor that ambitious filmmakers are drawn to.

Whatever the reason, each of these films either failed commercially or received mixed reviews from critics. Abel Gance's Napoleon, Sergei Bondarchuk's War and Peace and Waterloo, Peter Weir's Master and Commander, and of course Ridley Scott 's recent Napoleon – despite epic scales, a talented cast and crew, and sometimes even a great script, all of the above films failed in one way or another.

Ridley Scott's new feature, starring Joaquin Phoenix, is both commercially and critically underwhelming. Despite its grandeur, its Rotten Tomatoes score was a measly 58%, and it grossed only $221 million worldwide against a budget variously estimated at between $130 million and $200 million.

But such a failure was foreseen long before Scott came up with the idea. Stanley Kubrick also planned to release his own Napoleon movie, but the work had to be frozen until the director's death in 1999. Let's find out more about Kubrick's project and how the legendary filmmaker foresaw the failure of the film that would be released 54 years later.

Stanley Kubrick's Passion Project

After the colossal success of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick decided that he could impress the audiences with a new major biopic on the life of the French commander. Previously, the major films about the period had been the aforementioned Gance's Napoleon and Bondarchuk's War and Peace film series.

As a result, the filmmaker and his team undertook an incredibly colossal amount of research, from detailed studies of Napoleon's biography, his inner circle, and Josephine, to visiting the actual locations where the events of the Napoleonic Wars took place.

The movie promised not only to be massive, covering Napoleon's entire life from birth to death, but also to break all War and Peace records in terms of production and financial investment. Napoleon was to be played by David Hemmings or Jack Nicholson and Josephine by Audrey Hepburn. In addition, the battle scenes were to be filmed in France, Great Britain and Romania, and Kubrick even enlisted the help of the Romanian army to provide 40,000 soldiers and 10,000 cavalrymen for the costumed battles.

Stanley Kubrick Predicted 2023's Napoleon Being a Box Office Bomb 54 Years Ago - image 1

All in all, Stanley Kubrick's passion project, as Adrienne Groen, co-curator of the Design Museum's Kubrick exhibition, put it, could have consisted of 'the slow pace of Barry Lyndon, the attention to detail of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the massed battlefields of Spartacus'.

Kubrick Abandoned the Idea, Predicting the Failure of Napoleon in 2023

Despite this colossal contribution to a future project, Kubrick cancelled it in 1970. The reasons were many: the western release of War and Peace, which Kubrick did not want to profit from; the subsequent commercial failure of Waterloo (though no less epic in its battle scenes); and the incredibly high projected costs. In other words, Kubrick was well aware that even if he produced one of the most lavish period films ever made, it would almost certainly fail at the box office.

Such was the fate of Ridley Scott's failed film. Unfortunately, audiences around the world don't seem to be that interested in another iteration of the Napoleonic Wars, and so there wasn't enough demand to turn Napoleon, released in 2023, into a success.

Source: BBC.

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