Yesterday I saw the five-and-a-half hour restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), which was shown at the Royal Festival Hall between 13:30 and 21:30 (there were three intervals), with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Carl Davis conducting his music. It’s the third time I’ve seen the film (not counting the DVD of the US version of the restoration with Carmine Coppola’s music), though of course it is now longer than any of us have seen up to now, as the restorer Kevin Brownlow has found more footage since the restoration’s original premiere in 1980. To judge from the titles at last night’s screening which described a missing section, we are missing a sequence where an impoverished Napoleon makes boots for himself out of cardboard. The recent additions to what we now see are mostly sequences in Corsica.
It is not a film that I care for that much. To express dislike for Napoléon can be close to heresy in silent film circles, given the heroic story of the film’s production and the still more heroic story of its restoration by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, which is generally argued to have overturned decades of prejudice against silent films and to have ushered in a new appreciation of silent film art, as well as the (expensive) vogue for seeing such films as they were originally presented, with full orchestral accompaniment. But one can be grateful and still be critical at the same time. Napoléon is not a good film; it is a very long film with some good things in it.
Abel Gance, its director, originally planned for six films to cover the entirety of Napoleon’s life, and this first episode takes us only to Napoleon on the verge of conquering Italy. The remaining five parts never got made, though a German film directed by Lupu Pick from Gance’s script for the sixth part, Napoléon auf St Helena was made in 1929. Film history is lettered with bombastic attempts to film the life of Napoleon – Charlie Chaplin and Stanley Kubrick never made theirs; Gance filmed only a sixth of his. The lesson from all three is that the directors maybe saw something of themselves in Napoleon, and what they wanted to film was not so much the man as the idea of absolute vision, absolute control.
Abel Gance’s Napoléon (what we have of it) makes little sense as narrative. It presents episodes (the snowball fight from his childhood, the siege of Toulon, the Terror), not a story that grows organically and logically. It offers little in the way of characterisation. The named figures are no more than portrait paintings – only the excellent Vladimir Roudenko playing the young Napoleon gives us any sense of a rounded character, though this time around I found more to admire in Albért Dieudonné’s hypnotic impression of the adult Napoleon. Those scenes which require some interaction of the characters are among the poorest, notably the romance between Napoleon and Josephine (Gina Manès), and the lovelorn Violine (played by Annabella) with her unrequited, quasi-religious worshiping of her hero. Epic events such as the siege of Toulon are rendered incoherent through a lack of narrative skill, while others, such as the orgy sequence, just go on and on to little purpose, or interest.
But it is wrong to expect Napoléon to work in terms of story, character, or as conventional cinema at all. It is better to think of it in musical terms, with its themes, impressions, transpositions, recapitulations and codas. Its episodic nature points to symphonic structure; its contrapuntal technique with themes introduced, answered and repeated echoes fugue. Music is fundamental to the film’s exhibition, of course – Arthur Honegger wrote the original score (now lost), while Carl Davis’ efficient score combines original music with pieces from contemporary French compositions and parts of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony (‘Eroica’) which was originally dedicated to Napoleon. However, there is not an exact correlation – rather Gance is playing with images as a composer might play with musical ideas. This is why the film’s most powerful sequences are those where images of the past are recapitulated in visionary form – Napoleon’s recall of all his encounters with Josephine (an extraordinary rapid montage), a complementary vision of her in multi-superimposition form as Napoleon recalls different aspects of her, and of course in the famous final triptych, which deliver a rapid, ever-changing swirl images of Napoleon’s past, present and future.
This musical use of images does not always work. The intercutting between the revolutionary turmoil at the Convention and Napoleon in a boat on a stormy sea (which originally was to have concluded in tritych form) is an overblown irrelevance – the visual correlation is banal and fatuous, reminiscent of D.W. Griffith’s weaker 1920s efforts to repeat the cross-cutting bravura of Intolerance (the quintessential fugal film). Far better is the recurrent use of the eagle motif, not least because the film’s emotional high point comes early on the childhood sequence where Napoleon’s pet eagle returns to him. It is a fundamental weakness of the film that this thematically, emotionally and musically satisfying moment occurs so soon, and is never bettered.
If you forget story, and character, and dramatic logic, and think of Napoléon as a visual symphony, then for the most part it works. There is not a dull nor a false image in the entire work. It reaches apotheosis in those points where it abandons conventional cinematic narrative techniques and delivers the abstract – the nine-image pillow fight, the ghosts of the Revolution revisiting Napoleon at the Convention, the absolute avant garde of the concluding triptych. But that is not enough. You have to fill your five-and-a-half hours with more than that, or at least Gance tries to, so the failure of the romantic scenes, for example, is down to poor technique, not to any misunderstanding of what he was trying to do. He wants us to care for Napoleon in the way that he does; and we don’t.
In part it’s just that I don’t like grand film gestures. Big is not better, and the grandiosity of Napoléon makes for a great event, but not necessarily great cinema. The cult of the silent cinema restoration with live full orchestra that the 1980 restoration ushered in has led to many ecstatic reviews that suggest that here is the quintessence of cinema, but I beg to differ. Earlier this week at the British Library we showed a ten-minute film from 1910, A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner, with a single pianist, to an audience of thirty. There was more truth in that film’s simple exposition of people, time and place, than in all of Napoléon‘s strutting bombast – and finer technique too, if we want technique to have purpose. I prefer my films human-sized, and about ordinary humans, not about the heartless visions of world conquerors. Small is beautiful.
- I produced an overview history of the film’s production and restoration at the time of its 2012 screenings in San Francisco for the Bioscope blog
- Two good reviews of the Royal Festival Hall screening that have appeared already are those by Rick Burin at Advice to the Lovelorn and Pamela Hutchinson at Silent London