Stanley Kubrick: Inspired by chess

by André Schulz
3/7/2019 – Stanley Kubrick was a giant in film history. Almost all of his films were milestones in their genre. He was also a great chess lover. In almost every one of his films, there is at least an allusion to the game of chess. He died 20 years ago today, on March 7, 1999, at the age of 70. We take a brief look at his career use of chess and chess imagery. | Photo: On the set of Dr. Strangelove | SK Film Archives LLC, Sony Colombia, the Kubrick family, and University of the Arts London

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"Sit there calmly and think"

Stanley Kubrick was born on July 26, 1928 in New York. His parents were both children of Jewish emigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire around the turn of the 20th century. His father Jack Kubrick was a doctor and young Stanley grew up in a middle-class home in the Bronx. His father passed on two passions to him: Kubrick learned chess at the age of 12 and got his first camera from him.

After a mediocre school career marred by truancy, Kubrick took evening classes at a city college with an eye toward perhaps becoming a doctor or physicist, but then began to work as a photographer for a magazine and showed his artistic talent. Since he was fascinated by the medium of film as well, Kubrick began to produce a number of documentaries, but without great financial success. Even his first two feature films, produced by himself, did not bring him much.

Kubrick, now 27, earned some money playing chess at New York's Washington Square, just a few minutes' walk from his apartment on 16th Street, near 6th Avenue. At that time, as today, the "masters" could be found playing for money against passers-by at the permanently installed chess tables. The usual bet was 50 cents per game and Kubrick earned about USD $3 a day on average — a modest source of income, but enough to keep himself fed. Apart from Kubrick there were about ten other regulars who came every day and usually played twelve hours. When there were no customers, the chess players played against each other. Kubrick saw himself as one of the stronger players in this circle. 

Kubrick founded a production company with a partner, and at last attracted some attention from larger film studios with his feature films. His big breakthrough came in 1957 with "Paths Of Glory" starring Kirk Douglas. The film portrayed the French Army in the First World War. Douglas' character defends three unjustly charged soldiers in a court-martial for not following orders and now face a possible death sentence. The film was mostly shot in Munich. In the final scene, a German prisoner of war stirs the French soldiers to tears with a song. For a moment there is peace — a powerful final scene:

The girl was played by Christiane Susanne Harlan. She and Kubrick were married the following year and stayed together for 40 years until his death. The couple had two daughters together.

Christiane Harlan was the daughter of opera singer Fritz Moritz Harlan and Ingeborg Harlan. Her uncle was the director Veit Harlan, who filmed the propaganda films Jud Süß and Kolberg in the Nazi era. After the war, Veit Harlan was charged with crimes against humanity for his directorial work but was acquitted. Kubrick's life, but also his film-making, is closely linked to the Harlan family. Christiane Harlan's brother Jan Harlan was the executive producer of the Kubrick team starting with "A Clockwork Orange" (1971). 

Paths of Glory received good reviews, but was not a great hit with the public. Kirk Douglas then invited Kubrick to direct Spartacus (1960). During that time, he and his partner James Harris bought the film rights to Nabokov's novel "Lolita". Considered difficult to film due to its subject matter, Kubrick succeeded by radically revising Nabakov's treatment, although in retrospect Kubrick's version feels quite tame. In one of the scenes, the writer Humbert Humbert plays chess with the mother, while the girl gives him a bedtime kiss. 

Chess with the mother, kisses from the daughter

Kubrick had moved to London to produce the film, both for financial reasons and also to avoid censorship on account of it's risquée plot. About 85% of Lolita was shot in England. Soon afterwards Kubrick chose to make the country his permanent home and in 1978 he bought a large old country house, Childwickbury Manor, near London.

In his next film "Dr. Strangelove", a "nightmare comedy" (as he called it) on the nuclear arms race during the Cold War, Kubrick also included a chess scene. During the shooting he played real life games against actor George C. Scott.

Stanley Kubrick and George C. Scott

"Do not touch"

On the set of Dr. Stranglove: Kubrick playing against George C. Scott

His most famous chess scene and one of the most famous chess scenes in film history comes from his monumental work 2001: A Space Odyssey. To prepare for the film, the perfectionist Kubrick watched all science-fiction made to date. In 2001, a godlike computer, the HAL 9000, controls a giant spaceship and plays chess against one of the astronauts, Frank Poole.

Kubrick based the game and final combination on a real precedent, Roesch vs Willi Schlage, Hamburg 1910.


Here's a great clay stop-motion version of this game:

There are also allusions to the game of chess in other scenes of the film:

2001 frame

From 2001: A Space Odyssey — A room with an 8x8 floor

Both a profession and a passion, almost all of Kubrick's films are regarded today as monuments of film history. He was nominated for an Oscar thirteen times, but won only once. His second passion, chess, he also kept until the end of his life. If he found a chess partner during the shoot, he always took the opportunity to play a game.

He tended to incorporate chess in all his films, either directly or as a half-hidden allusion.

Scene from the early movie "The Killing" (1956)

Checkerboard pattern in A Clockwork Orange

Sometimes the chess fields are shaped a bit differently, as in The Shining (1980):

His last film "Eyes Wide Shut" is even arguably set up in its entirety like a chess game, with two sets of 16 people as chess pieces.

“You sit at the board and suddenly your heart leaps. Your hand trembles to pick up the piece and move it. But what chess teaches you is that you must sit there calmly and think about whether it's really a good idea and whether there are other, better ideas.”

Kubrick died on March 7, 1999, at the age of 70, after a heart attack, just days after wrapping up editing work on "Eyes Wide Shut". 

Films by Stanley Kubrick

1953: Fear and Desire 
1955: Killer's Kiss 
1956: The Killing
1957: Paths of Glory 
1960: Spartacus 
1962: Lolita 
1964: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
1968: 2001: A Space Odyssey 
1971: A Clockwork Orange
1975: Barry Lyndon 
1980: The Shining 
1987: Full Metal Jacket 
1999: Eyes Wide Shut

Compilation of chess quotes in Kubrick's films:

Translation from German: Macauley Peterson


André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.


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