Cinema review: Napoleon (1927), Royal Festival Hall

Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’, a French film from 1927, has achieved almost mythical status due to its continued unavailability to audiences on home video or DVD in a version which matches as closely as possible the vision of its director. You can of course obtain the Zoetrope sanctioned release, butchered in length and speeded up so it runs just four hours, and with a frankly obvious and pedestrian score by Carmine Coppola (which was the only version you could see live in the United States until last year, when the full restoration finally got its premiere) – but that’s not what we are looking at here.

The Royal Festival Hall, all day yesterday, showed for the third time since 2000 the full five and a half hour restoration of Gance’s film which has represented nearly fifty years of dedication and work by Kevin Brownlow, bringing together elements thought to be long lost, assembling them in the right order by means of consultation of a shooting script which has survived through the years, and presenting the finished work with a score by Carl Davis which mixes original themes with borrowings and arrangements from a range of classic composers to provide an emotional punch which really cannot be equalled as a cinematic experience.

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The film itself is presented in several parts – the first has the young Napoleon as a boy at Brienne-le-Château, a military school where he spent his formative years, a proud exile from Corsica disliked by his peers. His only friend is an eagle he had been given as a present, and his days are spent in an angry combination of writing and fighting – Gance allows us two set-pieces in this first section, both stunning: a snowball fight with some clever photography and superimposed images between Napoleon and a rival faction of boys; and a pillow fight in the dormitory which leaves the room and the film frame covered in feathers. Vladimir Roudenko plays the young Napoleon, his expressive face showing his pride and resourcefulness, and in one arresting image, his happiness in the company of his beloved eagle. He is a wonderful little actor who doesn’t seem to have appeared on camera again following this film.

Secondly, we have the seeds of the French Revolution. A section where Danton, Marat and Robespierre plot becomes a fully-fledged recital of “La Marseillaise” – at the close of this, we see a solitary figure at the edge of the crowd, in the familiar hat and profile; this is the adult Napoleon, now played by Albert Dieudonné. He will become linked with the Revolution throughout the rest of the film. The playing of the revolutionaries (Alexandre Koubitzky as Danton, Antonin Arnaud (deliberately exaggerated) as Marat, Edmond Van Daële as Robespierre) may be a little on the broad side, but this serves to place focus on Dieudonné’s quietly authoritative army lieutenant. In his close-ups and emotional responses, we see flickers of greatness – and this being a French film, it very much presents its subject as a hero figure, a saviour who eventually grows to be the one who saves France from doom and degradation. However, as the film shows, it was an uphill struggle, with Napoleon in poverty in indifferent lodgings (from which in one impressive sequence he watches the mob take over Paris).

The third part of the ‘first epoch’ is set in Corsica, where Napoleon visits his family and aims to save the island from betrayal to the English. This is perhaps the slowest sequence, although it has its moments, notably the sea-bound central figure heading for France with just the Tricolour for a sail. The pomposity and preposterous nature of this sequence is nicely underlined by a shot showing the English Admiral Nelson proposing to blow up the ship which eventually rescues Napoleon from the waters, to be told not to waste ammunition on ‘such an insignificant target’.

The second epoch is mainly the siege of Toulon, and Napoleon’s triumph as a military commander. This is the sequence mainly missing from the available version on DVD, and it is a pity – there is humour (the little boy in the inn mimicking Napoleon’s walk as he follows him), action, and a storm sequence which uses the full potential of camera tricks available to Gance at this time. By the time we find Napoleon asleep with his head on a drum, with an eagle again landing to push home the point, we are ready, if you like, for the main events to come.

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The Terror which has taken hold of Revolutionary France is presented in part three, from the quiet gallows humour of a clerk who eats indictments to prevent executions, to the unholy trinity of Robespierre, with his cruel and pinched face; Saint Just (an appearance from Abel Gance himself, his handling of a rose and wearing of earrings somehow enhancing his cruel streak); and Couthon (Louis Vonelly), a villain worthy of Bond film in a wheeled chair with a pet rabbit. We see a claustrophobic prison where Josephine de Beauharnais (Gina Manès) cheats death by the chivalry of her husband’s sacrifice. Later we see the same setting as the venue for a decadent ‘Victim’s Ball’ where despite the charms and nudity on offer, Napoleon prefers to play chess in a corner, with Josephine as the obvious prize, flirting behind a fan.

The romance between Napoleon and Josephine is perhaps the weakest part of the film, although it has clever sequences (Josephine’s face appearing on a globe caressed by her suitor), the military genius almost forgetting his own wedding. Gina Manès is a rather obvious leading lady, in typical style for the silent screen, she’s pretty, conniving, and not much more. Still, she captures our subject’s heart and his great love for her pushes him on to the final section of the film, and the one people who have seen it will talk most about, the conquest of Italy.

Not content with using camera tricks, image overlays, mirror images, and other things not tried before in silent cinema, Gance uses the final section of his film to introduce a new system of projection, Polyvision, in which images are shown on three screens at the same time, side by side. It’s a little like Cinerama in the 1950s, but with the crucial difference that where the widescreen process presented one image across a wide area, Gance’s film often presents three different images at the same time, which is almost overwhelming, and by the end, with the eagle soaring, the colours of the French flag painting the frames, and the climactic music of the Davis score, is the last word in patriotism.

According to the programme which accompanied this screening, when the restoration was first presented on an outdoor screen in 1979, Gance (at nearly ninety years old) watched from his hotel window and stood throughout. The standing ovation this screening received last night was a tribute to him just as much as for Photoplay and Brownlow, and for Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra. The greatest film ever made? Perhaps – perhaps not. But as a cinematic experience, and an example of live silent cinema, it cannot be equalled.

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