Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON (1927) has plenty of brilliant bits, a few patchy bits, highly questionable politics and a touch of sleaze; nonetheless it’s an eye-popping spectacle that does the most surprising things with film.
Abel Gance’s five hour epic NAPOLEON was recently screened at the Royal Festival Hall, with a live score composed and conducted by Carl Davis and performed by the London Philharmonia. The whole experience, from arrival at the Christmassy and twinkly South Bank, to stepping into the wood-scented RFH auditorium, to the whole visual and aural spectacle of the film was a feast for the senses. This restoration clocks in at five hours 40 minutes (nine hours in total with three breaks), and the story is presented as a series of episodes from the life of one of history’s sharpest military strategists. Gance planned to make seven further films about Napoleon, but lack of funding prevented him from achieving his ambition. Gance’s passion for cinematic innovation not only matches Napoleon’s innovations in military planning, but also matches Kevin Brownlow’s passion for finding and restoring the film. Brownlow, one of the great figures in silent film restoration, found a couple of reels of NAPOLEON on 9.5mm film when he was child. He became obsessed with finding and reassembling it, and this is the third restoration. It’s an epic in every way and we are very fortunate to be able to see it.
… more of an amazing experience than an amazing film …
NAPOLEON is more of an amazing experience than an amazing film. There are some flat, even dull sections amongst the brilliance. Gance’s innovative use of superimpositions, rapid editing, hand-held cameras, flashbacks, split screens and blazing colour build the tension. He uses special effects not to show off, but as a successful way of revealing the complexities within the story. The opening scene, set in the winter of 1783, sets the tone for the entire film, in terms of Gance’s fearless use of new techniques. The action begins with a snowball fight, but it’s no ordinary playground game; this is the germination of a military career. At first look, the scene of a seemingly blank snowfield is unsettling. It’s impossible to know what the scale is until a little head pops up in the foreground, and we can see it’s a boy in a snow trench preparing to lob a snowball at the enemy. The cameraman had a relatively lightweight camera strapped to his chest so he could get right into the action. Gance’s rapid editing conveys the increasing frenzy, and when the fight is at its most intense, the screen splinters into nine blocks of individual moving images. Gance wanted to make ‘the audience into actors’ and the lively camerawork and editing do just that, provoking dizzying emotions and reactions.
Napoleon wins this battle, but the losers set free his pet eagle; he’s devastated. The image of the freed eagle pops up all through the film, until finally the man metaphorically becomes the eagle itself: strong, graceful, all-seeing and an alpha hunter. Vladimir Roudenko, a talented young actor, plays the young Napoleon: a solitary, unhappy boy at school, the target of bullies, but feisty, with a strong sense of ‘justice’. He’s driven, focused, a thinker, a military strategist in the making. He strongly resembles Albert Dieudonné, who plays the adult Napoleon, and it’s a believable transformation.
Another key scene brings us forward to the Club des Cordeliers in 1789. Danton (played by Alexandre Koubitski), Marat (Antonin Artaud) and Robespierre (Edmond Van Daele) seem to have walked out of history and on to the screen, so convincing is the casting. A young officer brings a new song: it’s La Marseillaise. He sings it and everyone is captivated: the Revolution has an anthem. What is astonishing about this scene is that it’s a silent film focusing on a song, which of course the audience can’t hear. However, the orchestra in the hall provides the sound, thus knitting together sound and vision perfectly. It was a breathtaking moment: the technique is used elsewhere in the film, but never so powerfully as on this occasion.
Gance has been grooming the audience during the previous five hours for the breadth of Napoleon’s ambition…
The final passage finds Napoleon in Piedmont, set to invade Italy with his underfed but loyal and enthusiastic rag-tag army. The stage curtains draw back to reveal the most breathtaking moment of the film: the screen splits into a triptych, giving us three different views of the army, the landscape and Napoleon’s princely profile. Sometimes the action is spread across all three screens: a horse races across, or the eagle lands on a craggy cliff top. Gance has been grooming the audience during the previous five hours for the breadth of Napoleon’s ambition and here it is, in Polyvision and in colour: it is magnificent.
As was common in the silent era, passages of classical music suffuse Carl Davis’s score, which works in perfect harmony with the images and adding complex layers of meaning to the story. The precision timing is astounding: cannons boom, hail pelts down and folk songs are played on a hurdy gurdy, bringing the film into the hall as the music is played before our eyes. The music seems to bridge the gap between modern day and the 18th century. Beethoven dominates the score: he originally planned to dedicate his Symphony No 3 The Eroica to Napoleon. For other sections, The Pastoral (No 6), especially the storm sequence, are used to brilliant effect. Other composers’ work slides in as well – Mozart, Bach and Haydn are especially effective.
Comic, almost slapstick, moments lighten the tone, and one of the funniest evokes Buster Keaton’s THE GENERAL (1926). As Napoleon paces up and down in a café, obsessing over his plans to invade Italy. Meanwhile, a little boy furtively plonks the iconic bicorn hat on his own head and mirrors the great man’s movements, just as the little boys in THE GENERAL mimic Johnny’s actions as he lovingly attends to the engine.
The glorification of Napoleon is harder to take, the militaristic fervour objectionable. This element sits very uneasily. Europe in 1927 was heading towards military dictatorships, war and chaos. Did Hitler and Mussolini see this film? One wonders whether Gance was addressing the Great War. In 1919 he had made J’ACCUSE, the first film to suggest the futility of the 1914-18 war at a time when most people didn’t think negatively about it as we do today. Did the scenes of battle carnage in NAPOLEON echo that conflict, which remained largely unaddressed even in the second half of the 1920s? The small horrors, such as piles of corpses on a cart, the man drowning in mud, his desperate, grasping hand slowing sinking into the ooze, or the cartwheel rolling over an injured man’s ankle (cue visible and audible wincing from the audience) suggest some of the nightmarish images we are familiar with from World War I.
She’s a party girl at heart, ‘immoral’ according to the intertitle, but he’s hooked.
Not everything works. The middle section, when Napoleon meets Josephine, is odd to say the least. The tone changes from the intensity of the Revolution to party time as Napoleon falls head over heels in love with the widowed Josephine de Beauharnais (Gina Manès). She’s a party girl at heart, ‘immoral’ according to the intertitle, but he’s hooked. He is an incompetent flirt and practices until he’s learned enough to win her heart. Josephine is a real 1927 fashionista and the camera in this section seems to ogle her, with her cupid bow lips and her bang-on-trend 1927 costumes. This ‘chapter’ doesn’t hang true in a film that Gance wanted to be seen as ‘history’. A monstrous party descends into an orgy in which Napoleon shows no interest; in fact he’s late for his wedding as he’s refining his plans for invading Italy. What a guy!
These few criticisms aside, Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON is a mighty achievement. What Gance does so well is visual storytelling: as a viewer you have to make an effort to be part of it, just as Gance intended. The story of its production and restoration are brilliant in themselves,and the fact that we even have this film is incredible given the huge loss and destruction of silent films over the decades. Watching NAPOLEON with a full orchestra was a truly memorable event that will stay with the audience for a long time. The perfect combination of image and sound happens rarely, and we are privileged to have the opportunity to experience it today.