Unmade Kubrick: 10 essential films

With all of Stanley Kubrick’s films back on the big screen, here’s our rundown of ten projects that weren’t meant to be.

Brogan Morris
Updated:

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Stanley Kubrick didn’t rush. Pre-production on his pictures could stretch on for years, with the director only growing more exacting as time went on; between his penultimate film, Full Metal Jacket (1987), and his last, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Kubrick left a 12-year gap. The ever-lengthening ‘breaks’ weren’t just filled with extended periods of rest, however. In his absences, Kubrick spent significant time developing multiple projects that never saw the light of day.

The Down Slope (1956-58)

John Singleton Mosby (1833-1916)

As they attempted to break Hollywood in the 1950s, Kubrick and his producing partner James B Harris shopped a number of ideas around town. One of these was The Down Slope, a Civil War story about the bloody rivalry between Confederate cavalry commander John Singleton Mosby and Union general George Custer, to which Gregory Peck briefly became attached as producer-star. Civil War buff Peck, though impressed that Kubrick in preparation amassed “one of the largest private collections of Civil War books and mementos” he had ever seen, wasn’t taken with the film’s script, and by late 1958 he had gone looking elsewhere to make a Civil War picture.

I Stole $16,000,000 (1957-58)

Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick on location at Schleissheim Palace, Munich, Germany for Paths of Glory (1957)

In between Paths of Glory and Spartacus, the latter of which would irretrievably sour their brief relationship, Kubrick and Kirk Douglas almost teamed up for a third film. In 1957, Douglas’ production company bought the rights to I Stole $16,000,000, the autobiography of clergyman turned bank robber Herbert Emerson Wilson, and set Kubrick and Harris to work developing. The pair flew to Tijuana to meet the real Wilson, who was still on the run from US authorities, and produced screenplays with the help of writers including pulp novelist Jim Thompson, but by late 1958 Douglas’ focus had shifted elsewhere.

One-Eyed Jacks (1958)

One-eyed Jacks (1961)

Infinitely curious, Kubrick tackled a range of genres across his career, but was a fortnight shy of making his Western. Kubrick spent six months prepping Marlon Brando revenge oater One-Eyed Jacks, but left – or was fired – just two weeks before shooting began. The pair had butted heads too often: Kubrick recommended throwing out Sam Peckinpah’s original script in favour of one by Paths of Glory screenwriter Calder Willingham, which Brando agreed to, and replacing second lead Karl Malden with Spencer Tracy, which he wouldn’t. Brando would direct One-Eyed Jacks — the title was Kubrick’s — himself, with Kubrickian obsessiveness: the film Brando began shooting in 1958 wouldn’t be finished until almost two years later.

The German Lieutenant (1958-59)

Touch of Evil (1958)

Despite his interest in the period, a WWII movie always eluded Kubrick. He came close with The German Lieutenant, written by himself and former US paratrooper Richard Adams, about a pair of patriotic German officers who experience intense disillusionment at the close of the war when they’re sent on a suicide mission behind enemy lines. Alan Ladd and Orson Welles were sought as stars and location scouting was underway in Germany when Kubrick suddenly left the project in early 1959, hired as an emergency replacement director on Spartacus. Jack Palance bought the German Lieutenant script, but it stayed unfilmed.

Dr. Strangelove sequel (1964, 1995)

Stanley Kubrick during production of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963)

Around the time of the 1964 release of Dr Strangelove, Kubrick and the film’s co-writer Terry Southern briefly considered a trilogy, with Strangelove to be followed by two films tentatively entitled Turgidson’s Mother, or Into the Shaft! and Muffley Strikes Back, though any plans were quickly shelved. The pair apparently didn’t get much further with the proposed Son of Strangelove in 1995 – a script was never completed, though Southern outlined a story of life in the nuclear bunker for Strangelove and a harem of women – but Kubrick did get as far as deciding that Terry Gilliam, not himself, should direct.

Napoleon (1967-72)

Napoleon location slate, 1968

Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made, an 800-page compendium of completed scripts, costume designs, location photos and assorted other research materials, is evidence of just how close Kubrick got to making his epic bio of Napoleon Bonaparte. Feeling that there had “never been a good or accurate” film made about Napoleon, Kubrick spent several years post-2001 exhaustively preparing his own, consuming hundreds of books, and in the process filling a filing cabinet with 25,000 index cards mapping the French emperor’s entire life.

Jack Nicholson was to be Kubrick’s Napoleon, while some 30,000 Romanian infantry hired at $2 per man per day would play Boney’s army, in battle scenes envisaged as “vast lethal ballets”. Unfortunately for Kubrick, with historical epics going out of fashion — Sergei Bondarchuk’s Napoleon-centric Waterloo bombed in 1970 — prospective financiers MGM and United Artists pulled the plug. Kubrick filed Napoleon away into his cavernous archives and repurposed some of the themes and period research for 1975’s Barry Lyndon.

Eric Brighteyes (1982-86)

Eric Brighteyes (H. Rider Haggard, 1890) book cover

In the 1980s, Kubrick acquired a taste for European folklore, with H Rider Haggard’s 1890 Norse adventure novel, The Saga of Eric Brighteyes, taking a particular interest. A fairytale and epic love triangle set in 10th century Iceland, Kubrick’s longtime assistant Anthony Frewin ranked Eric Brighteyes in “the Premier League of unrealised projects”. Brighteyes was a Kubrick obsession between 1982 and 1986, but the director never stopped thinking about an adaptation; Frewin told Filippo Ulivieri in 2017 that “had Stanley lived, it may very well have been his next project”.

Shadow on the Sun (1988-94)

Bill Murray, Bobcat Goldthwait and Alfre Woodard during the production of Scrooged (1988)

In 1988, Kubrick purchased the rights to a 13-part BBC radio play called Shadow on the Sun. Incredibly, Kubrick had last heard the sci-fi serial, about an invasion by lizard-like aliens who block out the sun and infect Earth with a virus that sends mankind into a frenzy, back in 1961, while he was in London working on Lolita. For years Kubrick tinkered with Gavin Blakeney’s radio plays, adding notes (“A Bill Murray line!”), but when Kubrick committed to Eyes Wide Shut the project was dropped.

The Aryan Papers (1991-93)

Schindler’s List (1993)

Having sought a suitably cinematic Holocaust story at least as far back as the 1970s – at one point Mike Zwerin’s 1985 non-fiction book Swing Under the Nazis, about the Third Reich’s underground jazz scene, became an interest – Kubrick at last settled on Louis Begley’s semi-autobiographical novel, Wartime Lies, in 1991. Kubrick planned his adaptation, retitled The Aryan Papers, to the last detail, settling on locations, costumes and actors (Joseph Mazzello and Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege were cast as a Polish Jewish boy and his aunt who masquerade as Catholics to avoid Nazi persecution), but the intense, deliberate research process ultimately killed the film.

Anthony Frewin told Alex Godfrey in 2013 that “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 widow, Christiane, however has argued The Aryan Papers was canned not because of cinema-goers’ Holocaust movie fatigue but Kubrick’s, his two-year prep for what would have been an “absolutely unsurvivable” film having left him utterly drained.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (1977-99)

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

One of Kubrick’s longest-lasting obsessions, AI occupied the director’s mind for the last two decades of his life. Kubrick’s attempt to appeal to a Star Wars-sized audience, AI blended Brian Aldiss’ 1969 sci-fi short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long with The Adventures of Pinocchio (Sara Maitland, the last in a long line of writers hired by Kubrick to work on the script, only ever heard AI referred to as ‘Pinocchio’). Technology was the reason for the film’s constant delay: hesitant to use a real actor to play robot child David, Kubrick was waiting until CGI was advanced enough to bring David to life, after an actual test robot Kubrick had had built to play the part failed to convince.

Kubrick’s regular producer and brother-in-law, Jan Harlan, told Ken Plume in 2002 that AI would probably have been Kubrick’s next film after Eyes Wide Shut, though Kubrick had wondered if the right person for the job might actually be Steven Spielberg, saying: “If I do it, it will be too bleak, too philosophical.” When Kubrick died in 1999, Spielberg signed up to direct. In 2012, Harlan told FX Feeney that Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) is “very, very close” to Kubrick’s vision, with one exception: “Stanley would have used different music.”

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