BY JACK WIGHTMAN
Abel Gance was a visionary director with huge ambitions, excessive running times and lavish production values to faithfully create an expansive vision. Like Stroheim before him and Michael Cimino after, Gance was to be condemned with aspirations and demands greater than what many would dare risk. In 1927, Gance’s latest picture Napoleon premiered, but soon the complete form was seemingly lost.
‘It was 1953 and I was still at school. I’d borrowed a silent French film from the library for my 9.5mm projector. It was by Jean Epstein and it was awful. So I rang the library and asked if they had anything else. They said they had Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. “Oh that will just be a classroom film”, I said, “full of engravings and titles and all very static”. But when it arrived we played it on the wall and I’d never seen anything like it. This, I thought, is what cinema ought to be’. This was the beginning of film Historian Kevin Brownlow’s decades long dedication to reconstruct Abel Gance’s masterpiece.
As a film obsessed teen, Brownlow constructed a poor quality cut by obtaining scraps and earned a meeting with the legendary director for his efforts. In 1968, Odeon in Leicester showed Napoleon and featured a 35mm print of the iconic final act which Brownlow eagerly acquired. It was this year that a professional reconstruction began and after discovering a French copy of the original script, raiding the Cinématheque Française (earning the name Le Voleur), and twenty years diligence stitching together 35mm strips from around the world – the restoration was complete.
Or as complete as was possible in 1981. Francis Ford Coppola’s company Zoetrope acquired the rights and premiered hugely successful showings with a new score. However, Brownlow’s research has unearthed a further hour and a half of footage. Desires to create a new complete cut sparked subsequent legal battles and led Napoleon to exist in a variety of forms and qualities. Recently, Brownlow successfully unveiled his five and a half hour cut on the silver screen, thirty years since any eye absorbed the epic in the USA, but battles over rights continue. This trend seems likely to continue if the rumours of a gargantuan nine hour original run time prove true.
Regardless of the trivial restrictions, the existing Napoleon is awe inspiring cinema.
Gance naturally begins Napoleon’s story with his boyhood days at military school. Napoleon cautiously raises his admiral hatted head above a snowbank before ducking a flurry of snowballs. The scene slowly establishes necessary information before evolving from play into a blizzard of images and superimpositions of shouting, horrified faces, dashing, throwing, constructing and domination as Napoleon drags his nemesis to his base single handedly. As an idea, it is an intriguing allegory foreshadowing Napoleon’s future enterprises, in Gance’s practice, it becomes as energetic and frenetic a battle scene any war movie can boast.
‘His editing makes today’s movies look sedate’ is a quote by Scorsese, a director with films in constant motion. Gance’s editing style is the root of inspiration for the Russian Montage Theorists, but Napoleon flourishes editing superior to anything produced by Eisenstein, Pudovkin or even modern applications. Singular images may not always be individually clear, but as in the vain of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, each point produces a complex whole.
Few films match the Auteur’s levels of intelligent storytelling and unbridled passion. Viewing Napoleon’s endless innovation is close to an adrenaline rush. Maps spark numbers and battle formations to offer an insight into the mind of a strategic genius. Hand held cinematography surges and sways across the bedlam of the National Assembly whilst Napoleon clings to dear life in the heart of a sea storm. Horseback handheld camerawork, frenetic editing, grand sweeping cinematography and a wealth of intricate superimpositions (forty exposures alone were used for the Ghosts of Parliament sequence) are styles beyond the artistic daring of others.
Sadly, much is lost. In an interview, Gance referenced an excluded execution scene, the camera acted as the bullet barrelling barrelled into the victims. This scene was jettisoned with others by the reel after Gance’s dream of a Napoleonic trilogy was dashed. Instead, all footage was combined into a singular epic.
Aside from technique, Napoleon oozes passion in reconstruction of events, cinematography of the revolution and the emperor himself. Albert Dieudonné is an intriguing choice for the young conquerer, his looks not mirroring classic depictions, but he exudes a formidable power and equanimity. The raven like features demand respect and instil terror in a retreating Corsican mob, or inspiration during rallies as a halo arises. Napoleon is blatant romanticism, even during true accounts, but it is clear this figure is an idol for Gance. In brief instances of stillness, the Auteur seizes the opportunity to create filmic versions of grand portraiture. A single shot of the emperor gazing out to sea from a cliff face swept in waves is one of many which spring to mind. Napoleon belongs to a select few films able to match their legendary sources in raw experience.
Napoleon is a labour of adoration for a figure spanning 80 years and defining two careers: For Gance it was Napoleon, for Brownlow it was Gance. For film fanatics, the idols are these two men for creating and restoring one of cinema’s most inventive and inspiring masterpieces.
Gance feared audiences would expect the finale to be the battle of Waterloo. To combat disappointment, he saved his most startling device for last. Using three cameras simultaneously, Gance unveiled war and triumph across a 4.00:1 ratio. Experiments with 70mm would not begin until the thirties and Cinerama would not arrive for twenty five years. The finale unfolds across super-wide screen, depicting thousands of extras marching in montage tinted red, blue and white and the exploits of a man who changed the world, and another that changed cinema.
Jack Wightman is a script writer, film reviewer and budding film director. Jack blogs over at 1001: A Film Odyssey.