Napoleon is a remarkable attempt by any filmmaker, by any standards to have embarked upon and at any time. Of course Balzac set out to replicate the achievements of the little corporal in literature and succeeded. Instead of a sword or pen Abel Gance set out to record the life of Napoleon on celluloid and that too during the silent era! It is only appropriate that the film was attempted by a Frenchman. The bio-pic was originally intended as a series of back to back productions in a series of six ninety-minute films. The intention was to cover his whole life. Gance however ran out of money by the time he came to the Italians campaigns of 1796 just as the subject of his magnum opus didn’t have enough to feed his army. The General could let the army live off the lands they ran over, a luxury that Abel Gance didn’t have.
Gance had managed a single film of six hours and twenty-eight minutes, taking Napoleon to the opening of his Italian campaign. The American distributer MGM slashed it to less than an hour and half for its 1929 US release. It was like the distributor upped Midas in their penchant for profits. By slashing the movie length they turned Napoleon not into gold but into iron: naturally it was a flop and killed whatever chances he may have had to raise the money to continue further. In the ensuing decades Abel Gance kept on and completed footage enough to run for 275 minutes. The original version is sadly lost but in 1979 a restoration project undertaken by Kevin Brownlow we get a chance to peek into the mind of a remarkable film-maker.
Film-making can offer few more poignant cameos than that of Gance as a very old man watching from his hotel room window an outdoor screening of Brownlow’s work-in-progress print at the Telluride Film Festival in 1979. Thanks largely to the vision and enthusiasm of Frances Ford Coppola and the Zoetrope Studio, screenings in London and New York in the early nineteen-eighties enabled Napoléon to receive the public acclaim it so richly merited. Coppola also had a laserdisc edition of the film in a shortened form – four hours as opposed to the five hours and thirteen minutes of footage than available – produced. Twenty and more years later, it is an injustice to both Gance and Brownlow that we have no possible opportunity to savour the version of Gance as he intended. Any work of genius one may tamper with at the risk of blighting it.
Technologically, Napoléon was before its time, at key points anticipating the introduction of Cinemascope thirty years later through the use of three projectors to produce a composite triptych image. Moments such as when Rouget de l’Isle teaches the “Marseillaise” to the crowd gathered in the Club des Cordeliers, when the ghosts of the leaders of the Revolution confront Napoleon in the deserted Assembly Hall prior to his departure to take over the army in Italy or when Napoleon’s eagle hovers over the army in the final triptych are unforgettable. Gance’s inspired cutting drives the action forward at an often blistering pace. He has even been lucky with his composers. Each of the three scores – the original by Honegger, the Carl Davis version used in London and, perhaps most of all, the version by Carmine Coppola used for the world tour – has been closely attuned to the imagery.
The feel of the film – its pulsating energy – cannot be better conveyed than by the final paragraphs of the scenario. The passage reads: “‘While the Beggars of Glory, their stomachs empty, but their heads filled with songs, leave history to pass into legend’ … The ragged troops are interrupted in their rhythm by the sight of a shadow on the road before them. The eagle! It stretches its wings across all three screens, and the great advance picks up its impetus. As the images become faster and faster the triptych becomes one gigantic tricolour flag, and the Chant du depart is succeeded by the Marseillaise. ‘A maelstrom fills all three screens. The whole Revolution, swept on at a delirious speed towards the heart of Europe, is now one huge tricolour, quivering with all that has been inscribed upon it, and it takes on the appearance of an Apocalyptic, tricolour torrent, inundating, enflaming and transfiguring, all at one and the same time'”.
So eloquent a passage cannot be experienced without emotion, or fail to recall the no less moving evocation of Napoleon at a very different point in his life of which Belloc wrote: “There is a legend among the peasants in Russia of a certain sombre, mounted figure, unreal, only an outline and a cloud, that passed away to Asia, to the east and to the north. They saw him move along their snows through the long mysterious twilights of the northern autumn in silence, with head bent and the reins in the left hand loose, following some enduring purpose, reaching towards an ancient solitude and repose. They say it was Napoleon. After him there trailed for days the shadows of soldiery, vague mists bearing faintly the forms of companies of men. It was as though the cannon-smoke of Waterloo, borne on the light west wind of that June day, had received the spirits of twenty years of combat, and had drifted farther and farther during the fall of the year over the endless plains. But there was no voice and no order. The terrible tramp of the Guard and the sound that Heine loved, the dance of the French drums, was extinguished; there was no echo of their songs, for the army was of ghosts and was defeated. They passed in the silence which we can never pierce, and somewhere remote from men they sleep in bivouac round the most splendid of human swords”. This passage is taken from Hilaire Belloc’s masterly biography of Danton, and which Gance may well have read.
(ack: Race Mathews, Steven D. greydanus).