By Richard von Busack
Pardon me for a quick act of recycle: a comment on a 2001 film titled The Emperor’s New Clothes:
The emotions stirred by the name of Napoleon are summed up in some words by the character Marius in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables.
In the army of Napoleon, one followed "in a single man, Hannibal, Caesar and Charlemagne." The soldiers in his army felt that they had their hands on the hilt of the sword of God.
And what, Marius asks, could be a grander destiny than to follow such a leader? "To be free," answers a listener simply--and that settles that.
Playing this afternoon at Mar 24 and 25, and Mar 31 and Apr 1 is cinema at its most mammoth and yet flexible: the visionary Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon, as a special event from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival; it will be held July 12-15 this year.
Napoleon follows the leader from the military school where he is a scorned and bullied foreign child (played by Vladimir Roudenko) to the beginning of his 1796 campaigns.
Gance follows Bonaparte’s years of dejection and political disfavor during the Reign of Terror. Here are crimson tinted scenes of Napoleon, a cooped eagle, watching helplessly as a mob parades severed heads on pikes. Also here is the courtship of Napoleon and the lynx-eyed Josephine (a perfectly cast Gina Manes), as well as his misery when he has to leave her for the field. Gance superimposes her face on a globe Napoleon is examining. Emphasized here is the romantic aspect of Napoleon that makes him easier to appreciate than any other tyrant. What were women to Stalin, to Hitler, to Mao?
There are less battle scenes in this Napoleon than you’d expect. Gance filmed only two serious battle sequences: the desperate siege of Toulon in the late fall of 1793, where then-colonel Napoleon’s attack during the middle of a December storm. Falling hail rattles the drums, driving the soldiers forward. Eventually comes the film’s last battle: the commencement of the wars in Italy, among sharp rocks and blasted masonry.
Starring as the elder Bonaparte is Albert Dieudonne. This handsome and forceful under-actor may not be the God’s gift that his name implies. But he demonstrates something that can’t be laughed off, no matter how often it’s seen: the power of an actor with a mystical belief in the character he’s playing. We can be smitten by this serious striver, even if we register what he does for effect: the studied carelessness of his hair, the glitter of rhinestones or sequins on the lapels of his greatcoat.
You can’t underestimate the power of an actor with this kind of belief. (One of Napoleon’s antagonists is played by an actor infamous for that mysticism: Antonin Artaud is Marat the journalist, a malign figure with leopard-skin trimmings on his wardrobe.)
The career of Napoleon still beggars belief, so Gance has an endearing habit: certifying some of the incidents and dialogue in the title cards as “Historical Fact.” He filmed the actual fort where Napoleon was imprisoned, just as we see the house Napoleon was born in, on the island of Corsica. In a device that fails somehow fails to break either the frame or the film’s mood, Gance shows us this childhood home as it was in 1927, with a plaque over its lintel.
Of course, there’s history and there’s history. Take the anecdote of how, years before they were wed, Josephine and Napoleon’s dossiers were found next to each other in a drawer, when the Committee of Public Safety was doing its worst.
You hear tell of one La Bussiere (Jean d’Yd) eating Josephine’s file, page by page. Thus La Bussiere saved the future empress from the guillotine with this goat-like act of heroism.
More likely Parson Weemsish non-historical fact: the incident of the boy Napoleon learning a lesson on islands of the world, a lesson that stops with St. Helena. The boy is suitably pensive over it, like a man regarding a sapling that will someday provide the lumber for his coffin.
Gance charms us by focusing on lesser-known exploits by Napoleon: how he escaped a mob of partisan assassins in Corsica. And we see his early generalship during a school pillow fight, the screen splitting itself into nine parts to catch the angles of the squabble.
The section contrasting Napoleon’s little known open-boat ordeal is one of the screen’s really monumental tempest sequences: Gance’s idea was to print the negative so we can see the black gleam and malevolence of the foam at night. This perilous voyage is contrasted with Gance’s trapezing camera over the Paris Convention.
Here, the revolution is preparing to devour its own. It will send to the National Razor the headhunter Saint-Just (the quietly charismatic Gance reserved the plum role for himself) as well as the skull-faced Robespierre. In this part Edmond Van Daele, surprising us at first sight with blackout sunglasses that make him look even more like a death’s head. Later, an orgy-like “Survivor’s Ball” gives up a little to Venus after Napoleon’s lavish tribute to Mars.
Carl Davis’ score uses passages of music by Napoleon’s contemporaries, especially Beethoven. Beethoven’s 7th Symphony is a bit familiarly pathetic even for idle, starving soldiers. Almost more effective was the performance by hurdy-gurdy soloist Kevin Hughes; a character is toying with one of these instruments as a room full of revolutionaries mulls over a list of people they plan to kill. Also novel is the forceful but propulsive simplicity of the Corsican folk dances used for Bonaparte’s retreat from his pursuers.
The grand musical motif is, naturally, “La Marseillaise,” the French national anthem. No regular filmgoer can help from keeling over to it, thanks to Casablanca.
(Readying a horse-cam.)
In some respects, critiquing Gance’s Napoleon is like trying to critique “La Marseillaise” as music. Napoleon is a mammoth experience and yet ultimately it seems a fragment. Gance made the pacifist film J’Accuse. Nevertheless, he was a slave to the ideals of La Gloire, especially in a 1920s France not over the trauma of the First World War.
Even Quakers could get a chilled spine in the moments here where Napoleon writes of his ultimate aim: a united Europe. United under France, yes. But united without war: the goal was a noble one, a far-seeing one, a seemingly mad one…and one that we’ve seen achieved.
Gance’s 5 1/2 hour film shows the rise of a star, haloed by lights. In one typically audacious scene, Napoleon is a human lighthouse on a promontory over the unquiet sea, illuminated by a ray of sun piercing the storm clouds. Large as Gance’s Napoleon is, it can only hint at Napoleon’s fall. The hint comes at the end. A title card uses the diabolical word “tempter” to describe the General as he urges his hundreds of starving troops into Italy, where “the most fertile plains in the world” await plunder.
Earlier, the red-tinted ghosts of the Revolution promise to turn against Napoleon if he betrays the values of the revolution, of liberty, brotherhood and equality. This, of course, Napoleon finally did.
Plainly, Gance had a monumental design. Plainly, because of money, he was only able to achieve a portion of it. You have reveries of what it would have been like if this design had been achieved: something as huge as the Ring Cycle (and huger than Lord of the Rings.) As Will Durant put it, Napoleon is a figure awaiting his Aeschylus.
Yet this is the most complete version of Gance’s visionary biography, exhibited 31 years ago, less by an hour and a half, with a Carmine Coppola soundtrack; it’s on 35mm film with extensive tinting, which goes beyond the merely eye-pleasing values and give mood to the narrative: amber for exteriors, blue for night, red for battle or fires or scenes of great turbulence. The crimson hue shows Napoleon as the titles here describe him: “a man of fire, in his native element”.
The tinting also keeps the narrative legible during the cross cutting, as in the cuts between the natural and political storms. It augments Napoleon’s final surprise: the procession of the Grand Army in the finale in “Polyvision,” a wide-screen process of three simultaneous projectors.
This “Eagle of Destiny” section is at once timeless and modern. It’s like seeing Cinerama in the hands of Sergei Eisenstein or Dziga Vertov.
This spectacular finale suits the impressiveness of the 3000 seat, 81 year old Oakland Paramount Theater.
As Napoleon’s rescuer and Gance’s great champion, the eminent historian Kevin Brownlow put it today (Mar 24) in an interview on KCRW: even without a movie, the theater is a show.