Notes on Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’

For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III, which runs from Sunday, May 13 through Friday, May 18, 2012, is dedicated to helping the National Film Preservation Foundation raise money to score and stream the recently unearthed reels of The White Shadow, a silent film from director Graham Cutts that young Alfred Hitchcock worked on as screenwriter, production designer, editor, and assistant director, for all to enjoy. The blogathon is hosted by Ferdy on FilmsSelf-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod, and you can make your donations to that effort at the NFPF website here.

To my mind, there is no story restoration story as glorious as that of Kevin Brownlow’s personal mission to reconstruct the glories of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, a masterpiece on a scale almost without comparison. He began the project as a teenager, after he sampled a taste of its grandeur in a digest version prepared for 9.5mm home movie projectors, and sixty years later it’s hard to say if he’s done.

I wrote briefly about his odyssey for Parallax View here, but for the full story, you can’t do better than his 1983 book “Napoleon: Abel Gance’s Classic Film” (out of print but still fairly easy to find; his updated 2008 edition is much more elusive), which both an illuminating memoir of film history and an often critical look at the sometimes competitive and self-defensive culture of cinematheques and film preservation in the 1950s and 1960s.

The definitive version we have today was completed in 2000. It has played only handful of times since then, due to a number of factors, not the least being the expense and technical demands of mounting a screening. According to Brownlow, it screened only four times before its American premiere in Oakland, where four shows played to rapt audiences over two weekends in March and April of 2012. That’s only eight showings of a film that has been called by some the greatest silent film every made. Whether or not you agree with that claim, the screenings I attended (I’ve seen three of the eight screenings) were an experience like no other: magnificent presentation, painstakingly exacting projection, live orchestra booming a dramatic score compiled, arranged, and conducted by Carl Davis.

Sunrise may the most perfect and poetic of silent films, or you might nominate The Docks of New York or The General or even Gance’s own La Roue as greater, richer, more profound films, but Napoleon has a scope and a sprawl and an ambition that is unmatched. The density of Gance’s ideas, the frisson of his images and experiments in cinematic expression, and the complicated perspectives on the legacy of Napoleon have a weight that is undeniable. And watching the full 5 ½ Napoleon with a live orchestra in a magnificent theater elevates the film to a cinematic experience without parallel, and that experience electrifies the storytelling and imagery.

Napoleon is justly celebrated for Gance’s stylistic and technical innovations and experiments: multiple screens, rapid editing, a camera swinging from the rafters, the celebrated triptych. From the opening burst of cinematic energy and invention in the grandest snowball fight ever put on screen, where rapid editing gives way to multiple screen and the action editing turns avant-garde to suggest the great totality of battle, to the final, legendary triptych, where the screen opens wide for three projectors and the grandest widescreen scale you’ve ever seen (it’s almost 4:1), the film overflows with exciting and expressive technique. In one scene he flashes a montage of faces in a rush of single frames; in another he turns a remembrance of events past into a lightning fast recap of the film. It’s like a stack of photographs being shuffled but the effect suggests of a sudden burst of inspiration and clarity. I’d seen nothing like it in silent cinema before. But with so much attention on the sheer invention, the density of his storytelling and narrative sophistication is often overlooked.

Here are a few things I’ve been ruminating on since seeing the film in March.

The Outsider Hero

Albert Dieudonné as Napoleon

Albert Dieudonné, though too old and too tall for the part of the ambitious young Napoleon, is mesmerizing in the role. Though not a handsome man, he is intense, intimidating, confident, with smoldering eyes, a ramrod posture, and a face that always seems to be contemplating a better battle plan. He is wary of politics and people, disdainful of social foolishness, and he is an outsider: Italian-born (though a silent film, his heavy accent is remarked upon some intertitles) and socially awkward in French culture.

Gance constantly isolates him in the frame. Where others are at ease, he’s always at attention. In tactical meetings, as others pace and gesture and bend to study maps, he is still and sure, the rock of conviction against the storm of indecision. His symbol is the eagle – it’s his familiar, if you will – his pet in military school and the force of nature that appears at his every triumph, an image in the sky or a shadow cast upon the battlefield.

He is every inch the outsider hero and Dieudonné plays him with the authority and conviction of a man fulfilling his destiny. Gance, however, is more ambivalent, though it can be hard to see his contradictions and complications through his stoic moral stands and rousing triumphs. Napoleon will only accept complete authority, preferring the poverty of inaction to compromising his genius to the cabinet. When he flees a conspiracy from his family home in Corsica, he does so with the flamboyance of a Zorro rather than the tactical savvy of France’s greatest military mind. And for all his dedication to the values of the revolution and the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” (his shadow falls hard across this ideal more than once), he loses his heart to the most dedicated and mercenary of aristocrats, the “beautiful but amoral” Josephine, who sees the writing on the wall and hitches her future to his rising star.

The Many Faces of the Revolution’s Heroes

Gance constantly embraces the complicated, even contradictory, natures of major historical figures. “The three gods” of the revolution—Danton, Marat, and Robespierre—are introduced as figures kept separare from the people and Robespierre, from the beginning, is seen a warped opposite of Napoleon. He’s even given his own eagle familiar, a weird sculpture that suggests a predatory, diseased nature. Only Danton wades out into the masses (he calls them “children” as he rouses their spirits), and that connection threatens Robespierre’s power enough to have him executed.

The death of Marat (modeled on the famous painting) is anticipated when wine pours from his mouth just before he’s stabbed. But far from modesty, the scene suggests a decadence of lifestyle that invites death, right down to the grotesque way Marat dribbles that mouthful of wine, a man so sated by the perks of office that he can’t bothered to swallow. It’s not paternalism that makes him defy his guards and invite the beautiful young assassin into his bath. Gance himself takes the role of Saint-Just, playing him with the tight-faced calculation of an Eisenstein capitalist villain, calculating his power with every decision.

The death of Marat

But when the Convention turns on Robespierre and Saint-Just, Gance marks their fall from power by reminding us of the good they once did, before they were corrupted by power and in turn corrupted the Revolution with the Reign of Terror.

The most ambivalent scene of the film occurs in the fourth act in the deserted Convention, long after the three gods are gone. Just before Napoleon leaves to take command of the Italian campaign, he revisits the gloomy hall and finds it “still alive with the echoes of the Revolution.” The ghosts of Danton, Marat, Saint-Just, and Robespierre appear to Napoleon and charge him with upholding and continuing the ideals of the Revolution. It’s a remarkable scene: Napoleon resurrects the disgraced leaders in idealized form, as if the power had never corrupted them, so he can imagine that they personally pass their legacy to him. Is it the revolution he believes in, taking up the mantle to preserve the tarnished dream, or his own ambition?

The elevated sense of destiny meets his rising megalomania and he justifies his ambition with a coronation from the dead. On first viewing, Gance seems to be blessing this passing of destiny, but the enormous gap between the corruption Gance so vividly dramatizes and the denial of all their failures in this fantasy creates a disconnection that will only widens in the final act.

Mirrors, Echoes, Foreshadows

Vladimir Roudenko as young Napoleon

Napoleon’s narrative journey is constructed on pairings and echoes, and they are laid in from the beginning. The snowball fight, while being a magnificent sequence in its own right, prefigures Napoleon’s gift for military planning and tactics and shows his personal fearlessness in the face of greater numbers. It also gives us the first military triumph, which will be replayed in the forge of the first real battle of the film, and Gance draws a direct line between the two with a witness to both battles. Tristan Fleury, a scullion watching the boy General at military school, becomes the innkeeper at the front, and Gance emphasizes the parallels by recreating the same compositions of Tristan watching and cheering the glories of Napoleon.

The Mutt and Jeff pair of school bullies, who put rocks in snowballs and kick Napoleon in the shins in class, are reborn as a pair of conspirators who target Napoleon for execution, and for much the same reason: his talent threatens their own advancement. They are different characters but the uncanny physical resemblances make them a continuum of eternal jealous rivals.

Napoleon doesn’t meet Josephine until after the fall of Robespierre but their destinies are foreshadowed when they cross in an early scene, and further cemented as Gance cross-cuts between their respective imprisonments and threats of execution. It is more than fitting that they finally meet in a cell in a Paris dungeon, only this one has been repatriated by the rich for a “Victim’s Ball,” with the aristocracy retreating to decadence in the face of the revolution. Napoleon’s disgust at such frivolity evaporates when he sets his eyes on Josephine, all legs and skin sex, like a jazz-age dame in aristocratic finery.

Barras, the man who will take charge of the revolution after the fall of Robespierre, seems to come out of nowhere, but in fact Gance has woven his rise from the from the beginning. Josephine is on his arm in her introductory scene, taking her to a fortune teller, and he’s at Napoleon’s first great victory as a (silent) representative of the Convention. His role in Napoleon’s destiny can’t be underestimated: he essentially hands his mistress, Josephine, off to Napoleon as he promotes the officer to defend Paris against the Royalist threat. Both Josephine and Barras seem to think they can control this brilliant tactician who is so naïve in the ways of power and society, a foreshadowing of a fatal underestimation for a sequel that, sadly, was never made.

Even the final triptych is anticipated in the battle that ends the second act. As Napoleon near victory, the screen is divided into three vertical images, with Napoleon in middle giving orders and slivers of combat playing out on the flanks.

The Triptych

The justly renowned triptych finale, where the curtains pull back to accommodate the images from three synchronized projectors, is saved for the finale. It lasts only twenty minutes but it ends the film on a scale that is breathtaking, with an image tripled in size.

It’s not mere spectacle that drives Gance’s use of this device. The three-panel sequence is a little unwieldy when it comes to actual storytelling, the canvas so vast that it’s hard to frame the action and direct the eye in a dramatically effective way. But it is superb at bowling over the audience with the vastness of landscape and scale and the magnitude of thousands of men gathered in front of a majestic range of mountains, cheering as Napoleon rouses them to battle. And it is thrilling when Gance breaks the image into a sophisticated marriage of montage and collage, supplementing, complimenting, framing with narrative on the center frame with symbolic imagery.

By the end, Napoleon quite literally outruns his army and ends up in the mountains silhouetted against the sky, once again isolated, elevated above the men and the world itself, looking down to imagine his destiny uniting Europe. The elements themselves—earth, wind and fire—flank Napoleon as he contemplates his desires and his destiny: Italy, the world, and Josephine (not necessarily in that order), the images shuffling us through a tour of Napoleon’s mind. This isn’t subjective perspective, this is an inventory of one man’s past, present, ambitions for the future, and belief in his elevation to a kind of divinity.

As the Marseilles blasts from the orchestra pit like a charge, the surface tints gives way to the deep glow of the unmistakable blue, white and red of the tricolor French flag across the triptych. This is storytelling as mythmaking, a moment of genius that marries the intellectual and the emotional with a sheen of sheer graphic beauty.


3 Comments

  • Tinky

    May 18, 2012

    I love your themes–and I long to see this film in a theater someday. Well argued…..

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  • Cecil Doyle

    June 12, 2012

    Excellent summation of the film and the Oakland event…..I was there on the day of the opening screening in Oakland (flew in from Louisiana for it) as well as for Kevin Brownlow’s talk on it at Berkeley the following Friday evening and it was an experience I will never forget. Reading you account had me facing the realization that a presentation on this scale may never again occur here in the U.S. – I now regret not catching more than one screening.

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