If you like your cinema to be of the passionate spectacle variety, then the BFI’s new digitally restored version of Abel Gance’s 1927 5½ hour epic Napoleon is definitely for you. It may be ninety years old, but there is still a vibrancy that makes Gance’s masterpiece weather the tides of time. Indeed, it seems so radically different to everything else in cinema both then and now.
Originally intended to be the first of six movies about the life of the French emperor, this first chapter took two years to make and came so considerably over budget that the studio called a halt to subsequent installments. It’s not surprising; you can literally see the budget on the screen at every turn. Gance throws everything he can at Napoleon, he doesn’t pause at the kitchen sink, he hurls that in along with the bathroom suite for good measure. It is the work of a passionate genius who is rewriting the rules of cinema. There is the tinting of several scenes in near psychedelic hues, which light up the monochrome with passionate flashes akin to France’s revolutionary spirit. Then there are the examples of deft editing and skilful camera work – unprecedented rapid cutting lends the action a kinetic flavour that gives it a contemporary feel even today, whilst stunts such as attaching a camera to his leading man Albert Dieudonné’s galloping horse predates the ‘jockey cam’ that has supposedly revolutionised horse racing coverage in recent years. Lastly, and perhaps most impressively of all, there is the split screen editing and the avant-garde, experimental use of triptych in the film’s closing scenes, splitting the screen into three (suitably tinted in the red, white and blue of the tricolour) as the full force of Napoleon’s armies march seemingly towards the audience.
Praise and condemnation greeted Napoleon on its release and the distributors, unnerved by the unwieldy duration of the piece, brought their scissors out, butchering Gance’s poetic vision. By the 1950s, the film had virtually disappeared. It had been death by a thousand cuts.
Thank God then for a London schoolboy, Kevin Brownlow. Possessing a precocious love of cinema beyond his years, his parents happily nurtured his obsession and bought him a film projector for Christmas. Thus began the young Brownlow’s search for old films to play on his prized present – a search that unearthed the first two reels of Napoleon. It was love at first sight and it became Kevin Brownlow’s mission to restore Gance’s epic to glory. It took him twenty years to do so and, in 1980, the film editor and historian unveiled his 5½ hour restoration to the world, complete with a new orchestral accompaniment by Carl Davis – a magisterial score that echoes Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. And now, this timeless, constantly evolving film makes its debut on DVD and Blu-ray.
The restoration is utterly sublime, a pristine work that makes Napoleon and several tumultuous chapters in France’s history come to life before your very eyes. Like all great works of art, Gance’s magnum opus lingers long in the memory with sequences that are beautifully impressive. But unlike several epics, Gance seeks to humanise and personalise every aspect of the broad canvas he paints his incredible brushstrokes upon. By commencing with Napoleon’s unhappy schooldays, we get to know the man behind the myth and legend, and we are allowed to empathise with him. The opening sequence of the schoolboy snowball fight, which shows him as the great military strategist he would go on to become, followed by his uncannily portentous, sad-eyed stare as his teacher points out the isle of St Helena on the map, culminates with the torment he faced at the hands of his bullies (who would later become rivals on the battlefield) who scorn at the outsider status of the infant Corsican and cruelly give his pet eagle its freedom. The moment when the child Napoleon lies slumped over an old cannon in the schoolhouse’s garret, mourning the loss of his only friend, is a heartbreaking one, but we’re immediately uplifted by the return of the eagle through the window, accompanied by Davis’ rousing score. Sentimental yes, but key to understanding Gance’s symbolic grasp of his subject. Repeatedly throughout the film, parallels are drawn between the eagle soaring high above France and the aquiline Napoleon’s own meteoric rise in a most satisfying, suitably iconic manner.
In Albert Dieudonné, Gance found the perfect embodiment of a young man with a not inconsiderable future. An actor who manages to convey both an arrogant cool detachment and a loyal fervour and pure warmth for his country and people, he simply is Napoleon and Gance capitalises on scenes that followed in the real man’s footsteps in Corsica and inside his actual family home.
Gance also stunningly recreates France’s reign of terror too, with many, mostly scarlet-hued scenes revolving around the duplicitous, pock-marked Robespierre (Edmond Van Daële) and the heroic, idealist Danton (Alexandre Koubitzky). One of the key sequences here is when the latter receives the first print of La Marseillaise from a young army captain, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle (Harry Krimer) and instructs him to distribute the sheet music and teach the song to the revolutionary masses in the great hall of the Club of the Cordeliers. It takes a brave and visionary man to rest a significant part of his silent film on a piece of music, let me tell you. A later scene, when the bloody in-fighting of the revolution boils over, will also remain with me; Gance’s camera fades up to what appears to be a shelf with a stack of personal files whose subjects are marked for the guillotine. Gradually, he draws the camera down and we realise that it must actually a cabinet, containing more files than we first imagined. Then we see a figure approach the cabinet as the camera continues its descent, and we see that the figure is seated upon a boson’s chair, hanging from the rafters, and we realise that what we’re actually witnessing is an overwhelming death list that stacks from floor to ceiling.
Napoleon remains a staggering and audacious work of art, but I’d be lying if I said it was always a plain sailing viewing experience. If you’re willing to put in the hours, though, you’ll be rewarded with a cinematic vision that is simply unparalleled and you will come to the conclusion that it is a tragedy Gance was not allowed a full rein to explore his ambitions with further installments.