Milo Garner reviews Abel Gance’s 1927 epic, Napoleon.
On the 6th of November Royal Festival Hall was home to one of cinema’s great rarities – Abel Gance’s Napoleon, a 1927 silent epic that follows its eponymous hero’s first great achievements. Totalling at around five and a half hours it isn’t the kind of film one would expect to sell out huge concert halls, but since Kevin Brownlow’s restoration first debuted in 1980 it has become a sort of cinematic Holy Grail and has attracted such crowds for decades. And it’s no surprise. Presented here with a live orchestra (the resident Philharmonia) and a score conducted and composed by the celebrated Carl Davis it was an event with few equals in the cinematic world.
The film itself was initially envisioned as the first of six extensive films tracing Napoleon’s life from Brienne to St. Helena, possibly the most ambitious project in cinema at the time, or perhaps any time. But economic realism and a disappointing box office meant that this first instalment would be the only one made, ending as Napoleon marches beyond the Alps and into Italy, though this is by no means an anti-climax for reasons that will be detailed later. Regardless of being a mere sixth of Gance’s original dream, the longest form of Napoleon to have been shown still clocked in at about nine hours, and even if only a little over half of this material is still surviving it makes for an enormous biopic with some incredible detail. It opens with young Napoleon (Vladimir Roudenko) at Brienne, a military school in France where he grew up and was forged into the man who would later conquer much of Europe. This is foreshadowed in a beautiful sequence in which the children are taking part in a snowball fight and Napoleon’s military mind leads his side to victory. What is most remarkable is, however, the cinematic techniques at play here – fast cutting, image overlays, quick pans, handheld shots – in 1927 this wasn’t just unusual but revolutionary. Even today the innovation at work here remains astounding, despite the technological handicaps suffered by Gance being now distant memories (to capture the handheld shots the camera needed to be strapped to someone’s chest, and all the while they had to hand-crank the thing).
This opening sequence, presented in typical black and white, is an appropriate introduction to a film that will constantly introduce and experiment with new techniques throughout its runtime. An older trick of silent films is also employed – that of toned frames. That is to say, filters over certain scenes that transform them from black and white to various other colours to reflect ambience and mood. For example, the sun piercing the windows of the Club des Cordeliers results in a warm orange colour being used, whereas the violent siege of Toulon warrants an aggressive red. Absent from many older restorations of the film, the reintroduction of this element is far more effective than might be imagined. But on the topic of the Club des Cordeliers, this is where the film next ventures, now with an adult Napoleon (Albert Diendonné, who is the spit of young Roudenko) encountering the ‘Three Gods’ of the Revolution – Danton (Alexandre Koubitsky), Marat (Antonin Artaud), and of course Robespierre (Edmond Van Daële).
From here Gance’s conception of history becomes increasingly clear, and despite his later claims, it is not one of near-documentary. This is a story that holds the Revolutionary principles dear, and sees Napoleon as an almost flawless arbiter that could, and should, defend and propagate these ideas. The film does make efforts to be accurate, at least in part, such as marking intertitles with ‘(historical)’ that contain genuine quotations or use real locations. Regardless, Napoleon and France come out as particularly exalted, much in the way that the Soviets are heralded as selfless heroes in Battleship Potemkin, so giving the film a very nationalistic tint – though not one that diminishes its quality.
After establishing the Revolution and some of its key players, Napoleon travels over to his ancestral home in Corsica to incite the Revolution there (filmed in the real locations). Though a slight slowdown in pace this sequence is notable for two brilliant scenes. The first involves Napoleon being chased on horseback by gendarmerie set on taking his head. The sequence cuts together both a long, silhouetted shot of the riders bolting across the landscape, as well as some tracking shots both mounted on cars and indeed one mounted on a horse itself, giving a unique point of view seen rarely even in modern films. This fast-paced action results in Napoleon making it out to sea on a lone boat, and with nothing else stringing up a French flag to act as sail (really), to the booming sound of the Marseille. He later finds himself caught in a storm, and Gance intercuts this with the metaphorical storm then taking place in the Convention between the revolutionaries in Paris. A simple combination but incredibly effective. To give a comprehensive account of such moments in a film of this size would be impossible, but they are many, and each as astounding as the last – from Brienne to Corsica is merely the first of four acts.
One of the most important reasons for the film’s success, however, does not lie with Abel Gance. Instead Carl Davis, the foremost composer for silent films, deserves ample credit. His score for Napoleon, one of the longest ever commissioned, is a masterwork in its own right. Thrity-six years in the making since an early version was played at the first screening of the Brownlow edition of the film in 1980, Davis has created an essential counterpart to the film, even if originally added fifty years after it initially premiered. Like many silent film scores do, it weaves both original composition and classical pieces together seamlessly, and ‘remixes’ many recurring themes across the very long runtime of the film. The central motif would be Beethoven’s Eroica symphony (No. 3), with the theme appearing in other Beethoven pieces used in the film. The choice of Beethoven came about due to him being a huge supporter of Napoleon, at least before he declared himself Empereur des Français. In fact, Eroica was originally dedicated to Bonaparte, only for the dedication to be scratched out after his imperial nature was revealed. Surrounding this Eroica theme are many of Beethoven’s other pieces (such as the sixth and seventh symphonies, The Creatures of Prometheus, Piano Sonata Op 10, No. 3 etc.) and also pieces of other contemporary composers such as Mozart (Symphony No. 25) and Haydn (La passione). Many of these pieces are also attached to the narrative – for example, Mozart’s No. 25 is used in the initial snowball fight and whenever Napoleon remembers back, the theme returns. Another interesting use is with extremist revolutionary Saint-Just, whose theme is derived from Bach (Passacaglia in C minor) and so feels notably unlike the rest of the soundtrack due to the distinction between that Baroque style to the Classical and Early Romantic genre elsewhere, therefore symbolising the character’s extremism. Davis also adds music of his own to the mix, with Napoleon’s ‘Eagle of Destiny’ motif being particularly catchy, often appearing alongside an actual eagle who acts as an abstraction of his ambition. It should go without saying that the Philharmonia did an outstanding job playing this alongside the film, though their recorded score is near as good.
Napoleon’s apogee, however, is left until last. In what must be among the finest finales to grace the silver screen, about half-way into the fourth and final act the curtains surrounding the 4:3 open up, and in a moment of magic the screen widens to triple its original width. Napoleon stands atop a mountain looking down on his grand army, and we too can see it expand across a ludicrous aspect ratio (4:1) that can be better experienced nowhere else. This ‘triptych’ finish, even when anticipated, is something that must be seen. Gance achieved it by using a setup of three cameras perfectly lined up (notably without any technology to aid him) to achieve a contiguous image across three separate reels. In most scenes it is not a perfect fit, but this doesn’t diminish the effect whatsoever. Not content with inventing Cinerama a few decades early, Gance pushes his own innovation (that he would come to call ‘Polyvision’) to its logical extreme. Beyond simply expanding the field of view he also uses it to create effect. For example, the central screen might have Napoleon riding toward the camera, while the two auxiliary screens have a mirrored shot of soldiers being panned by. This twenty minute sequence finishes as it would, and indeed should, with the Tricolore splayed across the film, one colour per screen, and the brass delivering a perfect cadence as loud as they could manage. Cue the standing ovation.
Ebert called Napoleon ‘the last great silent epic’, and he may well be right. Films of this scale and ambition are rare and at this quality, rarer yet. Therein lie the workings of a masterpiece. With a spectacle that in many cases is yet to be bettered, Gance’s Napoleon is without a doubt one of the finest films the medium has yet produced, and one every cineaste should see.