Napoleon (1927) Blu Ray (BFI)
Abel Gance’s landmark account of the early years of Napoleon Bonaparte (from 1783 to 1796) was originally intended to be the first of six films spanning the historical figure’s lifetime. That was until the director realised that the costs of doing so would have been prohibitively expensive (indeed, even this one covered less than its intended historic stretch which was to go as far as 1798 rather than -96). It was originally shown in a version of over 9 hours in length. However, the film was deemed lost until film historian Kevin Brownlow managed to put together a 4 hour version with snippets culled from various sources. In 2001 he managed to assemble a larger 5 1/2 hour version with digitally-restored and tinted footage along with a new score by Carl Davis. This is the version we get here.
It starts with the boy Napoleon (played by Vladimir Roudenko) being schooled at the College of Brienne in 1783. While ostracised by his peers it is clear that his persona is one of extreme boldness. In one moment he leads his fellow pupils to victory in a snowball fight. In another, upon finding that a pair of his classmates have caused his beloved pet eagle to fly away, he takes on every one of them in a feather-drenched dormitory scuffle.
Moving forward one decade and the fully-grown Napoleon (played by Albert Dieudonne) is a young upstart in the French Revolution instigated by the “Three Gods”: Danton (Alexandre Koubitzky), Robespierre (Edmond Van Daele) and Marat (Antonin Artaud). However, he disagrees with the level of brutality being perpetrated towards the wealthy classes - and indeed falls in love with one named Josephine de Beauharnais (Gina Manes).
We see him move back to his birthplace in Corsica to stay with his family. However, they are all soon forced to flee due to their opposition to the governor Paoli, who leaned towards British rule at the time. When Napoleon is left adrift in a storm when trying to escape out to sea, his brothers happen across him in their own ship and come to his rescue. We then follow Napoleon through the brutal Siege of Toulon, the Reign of Terror, his suppression of a Royalist insurrection at Paris in 1795, his courting and marriage of Josephine and, in the final act, him heading to rally the troops at the Italian front.
Watch a trailer:
Napoleon is considered one of the best films of the silent era (and arguably of all time) and genuinely deserves its acclaim. While a lot of the historical details have since been debunked as inaccurate it tells its story with such brilliance that it barely matters. Much has been said of the innovative “triptych” finale - shot in a widescreen format called “Polyvision” that involves three cameras projecting simultaneously side-by-side, allowing for numerous vast vistas bedecked with thousands of extras, alongside some hypnotic use of “parallel montage” as images from across time and space are shown simultaneously to represent the titular character’s vast impact on history. That said, although this section of the film does fully deserve the praise heaped upon it, I would fail in my duty as a reviewer to point out the innovation in the camerawork throughout the film.
Many of the shots, while easy enough to pull off in today’s computerised world, were incredibly difficult to do so back in the 1920s. Some of them look like they were performed with a hand-held camera, a device that in the 1920s didn’t exist. Instead, they achieved the effect by strapping the 1920s camera to a cuirass worn by the operator. When we see a horse rider’s POV shot the cameraman used a brand new “compressed air” crank as he was unable to hand-crank the device while simultaneously holding the reins. There are numerous scenes that make use of superimpositions and split screen. In both cases since the studio technology didn’t exist to combine images in this way Gance had to re-expose the celluloid each time a new one was added to the shot - an incredibly painstaking process. Even today, the sheer inventiveness and artistry of the camerawork is breathtaking, and not just because of the technical challenges of the time. For instance, there is some excellent use of soft-focus to bring out the dreamlike romantic atmosphere of Napoleon’s walks with Josephine. The clever use of colour tinting is evident in the fiery reds that mark the Reign of Terror, and the Blue/White/Red of the Tricolore marking one part of the triptych. Effective framing and Iris Shots are used extensively to establish a sense of intimacy with the protagonists.
There are many memorable scenes and symbols throughout the film. The action sequences (the frenetic opening snowball fight, a lengthy day-and-night horse and sea chase in Corsica, the mud-and-rain-soaked Siege of Toulon) are classically thrilling setpieces filled with movement and memorable shots. Napoleon repeatedly appears in silhouette, distinguished by his iconic tricorne hat. Gance makes the four elements uncredited stars in themselves; Napoleon being tossed about by the watery waves at sea is paralleled by the swinging camerawork in the Paris Convention as Le Revolution gets into gear; the great man’s head is often framed, divinely, by the fire of the sun and other light sources; his symbol (the eagle) takes to the air as his stature in history soars to greater heights; earth turns to mud amid the oppressive welter of death that is the Siege of Toulon.
Other qualities worth pointing out include Gance’s shameless cross-referencing of history and film fiction. Some intertitles are annotated “history” in brackets when they are attributed (albeit sometimes incorrectly) to historic quotes. When one scene is shot at Napoleon’s actual birthplace in Ajaccio, Corsica, an intertitle is followed by a glimpse of the present-day commemorative plaque. For all of the serious and sombre subject matter, there are elements of lightness and humour, often provided by the bumbling antics of a recurring bystander character called Tristan (Nicolas Koline) who often happens to end up in the vicinity of Napoleon throughout his journey. There are also a few chuckles to be had at Napoleon’s clodhopping awkwardness at seducing Josephine (he was clearly a man stronger at leading groups to victory than he was at social graces). On the other hand, there is a surprising level of violence and nudity for those who would normally view silent films as being coy in their presentation; we get to see a man blown apart by cannon fire during the Toulon sequence, guillotine-decapitated heads during a couple of sequences, and some bare breasts during an orgy amongst the Parisian elite.
It’s a stunning piece of cinema, enthralling throughout its colossal runtime and essential for anyone with a genuine interest in the history of the art.
Runtime: 332 mins
Dir: Abel Gance
Script: Abel Gance
Starring: Albert Dieudonne, Vladimir Roudenko, Edmond Van Daele, Alexandre Koubitzky, Antonin Artaud, Abel Gance, Gina Manes, Nicolas Koline
It is inevitable that we will get some ineradicable visual fuzz with such an old film but this presentation does about as well as it can. Tinting, contrast and detail convey what must have been an exciting time in the 1920s cinema very well. The images are often so clean and vivid that they take on an almost three-dimensional quality.
Carl Davis’s classical score sounds warm and dramatic.
The box of 3 discs (one of Act I, the second for Act II-III and the third for act IV) we get a 58 page booklet containing the following essays:
Living History: Abel Gance’s Napoleon by Paul Cuff
Cuff takes a look at the production and Gance’s approach to cinema. He also addresses some of the more negative critiques that were applied to the film at the time.
My Discovery of Napoleon by Kevin Brownlow
Brownlow talks about his youthful hobby of finding old film reels to run on his home projector - including (as the title suggests) his first discovery of Napoleon. It’s a delightfully passionate three pages of reflection on his experiences.
Napoleon on Film: Legend, Prejudice & Manipulation by Herve Dumont
A brief look at the original, genuine Napoleon and how he contrasts with the icon wielded by filmmakers and politicians alike throughout Europe in later centuries - functioning as both Christ and Antichrist figures. Another revealing three page essay.
Abel Gance’s Proclamation
A rather overblown appeal by the director to his cast and crew asking them to evoke the original spirit of Le Revolution. It is accompanied by coloured prints of a period promotional booklet, which in itself is well worth a look.
Making Music for Napoleon: An Interview with Carl Davis
The longest section of the booklet, taking up around 20 pages. The interview covers the musical choices (mostly compositions from the period) along with the gruelling experience of playing it as a live accompaniment to the film. A lot of the interview assumes a knowledge of classical music that I admittedly don’t possess. There is the odd snippet of interest for non-buffs of the musical genre however, including some discussion of a “rival” score for the 1981 re-release composed by Carmine Coppola (which was used for the American market). While the European re-release had Carl Davis’s score, some fans of the Coppola version turned up for a rather heated protest outside of a screening of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which Davis had also composed.
On the disc itself we get the following extras:
The scholarly feature-length commentary by Paul Cuff is an essential accompaniment for those interested in finding a wealth of background information about the film, and is even recommendable as a guided tour for first-time viewers. He points out the historical details (including inaccuracies), directorial touches of note, missing sequences, the symbolism on display and much more. He reveals countless production tidbits: the fact that many Russians (who fled the Revolution of 1917 and started a new life in France) were involved in production (from Roudenko who played the boy Napoleon to the many Cossack horsemen who were used during the Corsican chase); the challenges in getting those incredible camera shots; the fact that the final triptych scene was originally proposed to be full-colour and 3D.
Composing Napoleon: An Interview with Carl Davis
A 45 minute interview with the composer which overlaps heavily with the one included in the accompanying booklet. While the printed form of the interview is somewhat dry and dull, Davis’s evident passion makes this video version far more enjoyable to watch. The best section comes when Davis discovers the challenges in accompanying a film live as the orchestra has to keep in synch with it for as long as the film runs (in this case 5 hours) and hence avoid slowing down despite the inevitable feelings of exhaustion.
Napoleon Digital Restoration Featurette
A short 5 minute look at the restoration process with Brownlow plus some BFI staff members. The restoration was involved approximately half a million frames of celluloid culled from various disparate sources, and thus having considerable discrepancies in quality to iron out. Looking at the finished product it is clear they did an excellent job.
The Charm of Dynamite
A British-made 1968 documentary about Abel Gance, narrated by Lindsay Anderson (director of If... and Oh, Lucky Man!)
It combines run-throughs of key sequences in Napoleon and a couple of his earlier films (J’Accuse and La Roue) with behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Gance himself plus star Albert Dieudonné. The director talks about his pacifism which was forged after losing many of his friends during WWI. He then goes onto the making of Napoleon, including the revelation that shooting was stopped for six months after the original financier passed away. Amongst the other eye-openers learnt include that Gance used revolver shots to get attention while directing (we see a photograph of him holding the weapon) and that the sea storm/convention montage was originally, like the finale, filmed in triptych.
Some of the information here is out of date (Anderson states that most of the Corsica chase sequence has been lost, when after viewing this version of the film we can clearly see it running at length) but on the whole it’s a great primer for one of cinema’s greatest directors.
We also get a single screen version of the ending, individual triptych panel runs, and a stills and special collections gallery.
Essential. Don’t forget to leave a day or two free to work your way through it.