Directed by Abel Gance. Albert Dieudonné, Edmond von Daële, Alexandre Koubitzky, Antonin Artaud, Abel Gance, Gina Manès. MGM (1929 US).
Decent Films Ratings
|?Teens & Up|
Content advisory: Battlefield violence; fleeting nudity. Silent.
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By Steven D. Greydanus
One of the crowning achievements of the silent era, writer-director Abel Gance’s Napoléon is a monumental but unfinished masterpiece, originally intended as a series of back-to-back productions covering the whole of Napoleon’s life. Unlike his subject, Gance was unable to proceed beyond the Italian campaign of 1796, Napoleon’s first major expansionist operation, at which point the shoot ran out of money. (Napoleon’s army also didn’t have any money, but he let his troops live off the land, an expedient Gance couldn’t reproduce.)
Instead of a series of films, Gance wound up with a massive, incomplete epic, reportedly six and half hours in length originally, but slashed by American distributor MGM to less than an hour and a half for its 1929 US release. Due to this butchery — not to mention the burgeoning sound revolution — Napoléon was a stateside flop, and Gance was never able to raise the money to tell the rest of Napoleon’s story.
In subsequent decades Gance kept tinkering with the film, producing versions ranging in length from 135 minutes to 275 minutes. The original six-hour silent epic, however, was thought lost, until a 1979 restoration reconstituting approximately two-thirds of the original film, painstakingly reassembled and restored by film historian Kevin Brownlow and featuring an original score by Carl Davis. Two years later, an edited version of this restoration was released in the US by Francis Ford Coppola — who had sponsored Browslow’s work — with a new score by Carmine Coppola, Francis’s father. Premiering in Radio City Music Hall, it was subsequently released on VHS.
Since then, Brownslow has completed at least two further restorations, the latest and best, his 2000 version, runs about 5½ hours. Unfortunately, due to Coppola’s exclusive US rights, this optimal version is unavailable in the US.
Even the four-hour 1981 Coppola VHS, though, remains an impressive testament to Gance’s monumental ambitions and technical wizardry. Gance creates an aura of dynamism and mythic power around his protagonist and his times with strikingly mobile camera effects, from shots photographed on horseback or with handheld cameras to footage of the revolutionary Convention taken from an overhead swing, which makes the tumultuous Convention physically heave and toss like the raging sea seen in intercut footage of Napoleon on a dinghy battling a storm.
Startling split-screen effects create a dreamlike, mythic quality about even the opening snowball fight featuring an imperious young Bonaparte (Vladimir Roudenko) at military school in Brienne. But Gance’s boldest innovation is preserved only in the climactic Italian campaign sequence, originally one of four sequences Gance shot in a technique he called "Polyvision" (the other three Polyvision sequences are lost). This was an early form of widescreen projected in triptych across three separate screens from three projectors, a technique later developed as Cinerama.
Some shots in this climactic triptych sequence are true widescreen panoramas, photographed simultaneously with three cameras and projected in more or less synchronized continuity. Others break up the screens into separate panels, often focusing on the grim visage of Napoleon (Albert Dieudonné) in the center screen. In the rousing finale, Gance tints the screens to match the blue, white, and red fields of the French Tricolor flag. It’s a robust feat of cinematic mythologizing.
This mythic quality, and the reverence with which Gance treats his subject, has unsurprisingly occasioned sharp political criticism of the film — not entirely fairly, perhaps, given his unrealized intentions of additional films portraying the later Emperor Napoleon. Still, however Gance might subsequently have nuanced his portrait, unquestionably his Napoleon is larger than life, a godlike figure whose mere presence is enough to quell rioting mobs and mutinous officers, whose words inflame populations and armies. Almost as fearsome, too, are the architects of the Reign of Terror, Robespierre (Edmond von Daële), whose striking tinted, round-lensed eyeglasses and powdered wig are somehow oddly evocative of a villain in a Matrix sequel, and Louis Saint-Just (Gance himself), dandyish and implacable.
Napoleon’s restless energy and imperious authority have their humorous sides. At his civil wedding to Josephine (Gina Manès), the impatient young general brusquely waves aside one formality after another, snapping "Skip all that!" Later, riding in a horse-drawn coach, Napoleon becomes fed up with the carriage’s pace, stops the carriage, unhitches the horses, and rides galloping off on one of them.
The imagery that surrounds Napoleon is first iconic (eagles, fire), then openly messianic, and finally, in the Italian campaign climax, a startling combination of satanic and divine, as Napoleon becomes "the tempter" showing the "promised land" of Italy to the French armies — a blending of the Devil showing Christ all the nations of the world to entice him to worship him and Yahweh leading His chosen people into Palestine.
In spite of all these worshipful over-the-top overtones, I find it impossible, at such a chronological and cultural remove from Gance, not to say Napoleon, to regard Napoléon as any kind of living political or moral document. It is an extraordinary artifact from another culture, a mythology as remarkable and as alien as the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Icelandic Eddas. For students of silent film, this is one of those indispensable landmarks you must see before you die.