Napoléon vu par Abel Gance: premiére époque: Bonaparte (1927)
aka Abel Gance's Napoléon, Napoléon
Directed, written and edited by Abel Gance
235 min.; France, Black and White (tinted and toned); Silent
Filmmaker Abel Gance has been called the D.W. Griffith of the French Cinema. Though Gance entered into filmmaking a few years after Griffith, writing scenarios in 1910 before moving on to directing in 1912, similarities exist between the two: both embraced technical innovations, both were known to be fond of shameless self-promotion, both freely mixed myth and history, and both were attracted to grand subjects for their films.1 After freely experimenting with visual techniques in a trick film a la Mélies titled La Folie du Dr. Tube (1916) (see this on the DVD version of Gance's 1934 film Lucrezia Borgia) Gance directed La Dixieme symphonie (1918), described as the first major film of post-war French Impressionism (a new generation of filmmakers exploring cinema as an art and seeking to convey emotional sensations through visual devices).2 Encouraged by the technical achievements and pacifist messages in Griffith's Intolerance, Gance wrote and directed his own anti-war film, J'accuse (1919) inviting comparisons with the American master. Textbook histories seem to disagree over Gance's relationship with French Impressionism. Thompson and Bordwell's Film History: an Introduction includes a number of his films in their chronological list of the style3 while David A. Cook's A History of Narrative Film maintains that "his affiliation with the impressionists was fleeting at best."4 Regardless, Gance experimented with the sort of cinema techniques associated with French Impressionism in his 1927 masterpiece, Napoléon vu par Abel Gance: premiére époque: Bonaparte.
Napoléon is a historical reconstruction film which, according to film historian Richard Abel, was the most popular film genre in France in the 1920s. Perhaps Gance was hoping that an established genre could make his artistic experiments in cinema commercially viable. He began working on the script as early as 1924, planning not one but six separate films on the life of Napoléon. Production commenced in 1925 and continued for a year and a half at a cost estimated at up to 19 million francs. Despite the extravagant time and cost only the first of the planned six films was completed. However, when that film was ready for release it was six hours long. In October 1927, this six-hour version began a months-long stay at the Salle Marivaux theater, but the much more widely shown (in France and England) three-hour condensed version had its premiere on April 7, 1927 at the Théatre National de l'Opéra in Paris.5
In 1928 MGM distributed a trim 80-minute version in the United States; I have to wonder how these drastic cuts—perhaps the most severe amputation of a director's vision since Eric Von Stroheim's Greed (1924)—appeared to its contemporary American audience. Were the chopped one hundred twenty minutes obviously missing? Lucky for us there are voices from the past to answer that question. Mordaunt Hall, reviewer for the New York Times had this to say, "Abel Gance's picture 'Napoleon,' now at the Fifty-fifth Street Playhouse, is far from satisfying in the abbreviated form in which it is issued here...and its ending, as it is now, is far too abrupt."6
This wasn't to be the last of the changes made to the movie. Gance, and others, have made various edits, re-edits, a sound version, and even shot more footage. Kevin Brownlow bravely reconstructed the most complete version over some twenty years (it premiered in
1981 1979 at the Telluride Film Festival), but even this version was edited again by Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studios to sync with a new score composed and conducted by Carmine Coppola (who regaled his son with tales of his own awe at the orchestral accompaniment to The Thief of Bagdad (1924)).7 The Zoetrope cut is the version I saw.
A screencap from famous triptych sequence in Abel Gance's Napoléon.
The story follows Napoléon from his school days at Brienne Collage (where he is put down, bullied and teased for his Corsican heritage and accent yet somehow leads his classmates in a famous though apocryphal snowball battle that foreshadows his military prowess) to his first major victory leading French forces invading Italy in 1796. As a young man he witnesses the French Revolution first hand and is distressed by its turn to chaos and senseless violence. He briefly returns home to Corsica with the idea of bringing the island under French control but is forced to flee back to France by pro-England forces. In France he rises to command artillery laying siege to English-held Toulon. He leads these forces to victory to a cadence of marching drums played by a raging hailstorm in lieu of his dead drummers. Meanwhile, the Reign of Terror grips Paris and Napoléon is imprisoned. Fate intervenes when a Royalist rebellion threatens the city and Napoléon is called upon to command forces in defense of the city. Haunted, no, more accurately, blessed by the ghosts of dead leaders of the Revolution, he is convinced to pursue his destiny ("I am the Revolution," he proclaims). After successfully putting down the rebellion he is rewarded with command of the Army of the Alps and leads the tired troops to victory in Italy. The film closes in the middle of Bonaparte's tale (actually at the middle of the beginning) because, remember, Gance planned to make six films to tell the whole story.
Despite Gance's assurances to cast and crew that they were about to go "through the portals of history,"8 and excellent set design, location shooting, costuming, and acting, we don't get a completely factually accurate version of Napoléon's life here. Lest this post splinter off into an exposé of the film's valid and invalid inventions (as an overlong earlier draft did) suffice it to say that Gance and company, while obviously drawing on historical sources, are more interested in creating a screen history that is rich in poetry and metaphor (the mythical snowball fight at Brienne, Napoléon reuniting with his symbolic eagle while weeping on a cannon, portentous visions of his grand destiny, turning back enemies with a glance, talking with ghosts, etc, etc) than one that sticks strictly to the facts, After seeing the film at the Palace Theatre in Warsaw in 1928 one reviewer argued that "while taking a certain amount of historical license, [Gance], on the whole adheres to the facts of the story of Bonaparte's career...and when in the name of art he gives reign to the high horse of his imagination, he never allows it to take the bit between its teeth and bolt."9 Mixed metaphors notwithstanding, I think that anaylysis makes the historical value of the film clear. The film is more about Napoléon the legend than Bonaparte the man. One might argue that Napoléon is a case of history film as propaganda like Battleship Potemkin (1925), but I think it treats its subject more as a mythical hero than a political figure. Or as Squish suggested recently, this is a vision of Napoléon as a superhero. However, this treatment of Napoléon doesn't detract from the film or its subject and actually fuels our fascination with both.
The film's famous final moments are a marvel— the screen splits into three distinct images that form an overwhelming whole. However, viewing this sequence on video, even on a widescreen HDTV, is woefully inadequate. I regret that I didn't see this film in a theater if only to experience the triptych sequence in its intended format.
As mentioned at the beginning of the post Gance has been compared to D.W. Griffith because they shared a passion for historical subjects and ambitious cinematographic and editing experimentation. In the humble opinon of this viewer, however, Gance has out-Griffithed Griffith in both style and content with Napoléon. Even after spending nearly four hours in the same seat I want to watch the film all over again—which is more than I could say for Griffith's Intolerance. The film satisfied expectations that had mounted pretty high after all I had read about it. I admit it, Gance's masterpiece got to me. I suspect I'll be humming "La Marseillaise" for the next few days.
1. Alan Williams, "Reviewed Works: Abel Gance by Norman King," Film Quarterly 38 (Summer 1985): 31-33.
2. Kristin Thompson, David Bordwell, Film History: an Introduction, (New York: McGraw Hill, 2003), p. 88.
3. Ibid, p. 89.
4. David A. Cook, A History of Narrative Film, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004), p. 305.
5. Richard Abel, "Charge and Counter Charge: Coherence and Inchoherence in Gance's 'Napoléon,'" Film Quarterly 35 (Spring 1982): 4.
6. Murdaunt Hall, "The Screen," New York Times (12 February 1929): 23.
7. Alvin Klein, "Coppola's Baton Guiding 'Napoleon,'" New York Times (18 October 1981): L110.
8. John J. O'Connor, "A Documentary on Gance's Making of 'Napoleon,'" New York Times (30 June 1989): C28.
9. Alvin Klein, "France Films Her Napoleon," New York Times (4 March 1928): 120.