by Allan Fish
(France 1927/1980 234m/324m) DVD4 (Australia only – 234m version)
Proud as an eagle
p/d/w Abel Gance ph Jules Kruger, Léonce-Henry Burel ed Abel Gance, Marguerite Pinson m Carl Davis/Carmine Coppola (orig.Arthur Honegger) art Alexandre Benois, J.Schildnecht, Eugène Lourié ph-spc Simon Feldman
Albert Dieudonné (Napoleon Bonaparte), Vladimir Roudenko (Napoleon as a boy), Gina Manès (Josephine), Nicolas Koline (Tristan Fleuri), Alexandre Koubitsky (Danton), Annabella (Violine), Edmond Van Daële (Robespierre), Antonin Artaud (Marat), Léon Courtois (Carteaux), Philipe Hériat (Salicetti), Pierre Batcheff (Hoche), Abel Gance (Saint-Just), Jean d’Yid (La Bussière), Marguerite Gance (Charlotte Corday),
There are two great miracles to take into account when examining Abel Gance’s 1927 masterpiece; firstly that it was made in the first place and secondly that it has survived to universal critical approval. The original version, which clocked in at six hours, is long lost, and even Kevin Brownlow’s 324m print with Carl Davis’ music has been unseen since Channel 4 last showed it to commemorate the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989 (and was minus the final widescreen Triptych that still amazes to this day). The only version generally available is the Coppolas under four hour print, but those who retain copies of the Brownlow restoration from TV know the real power.
The story essentially covers Napoleon’s formative years – from his schooldays at Brienne in 1781, through to the Italian campaigns in the late 1790s – but right from the first shots in the snow at Brienne as Napoleon plays at snow battles with his school friends and enemies, one is not only hooked but aware of cinema history being made. Here was a truly revolutionary film about the Revolution, and nearly eighty years on, one can safely say that there has never been a film like it. Gance lets his camera dance and move and almost go crazy in a way few have tried since, let alone succeeded; he uses multiple exposure, quick fire editing to out-do Eisenstein, split-screen (not only in two, but three and even at one point nine!!!). Not to mention the innovations such as placing cameras in huge pendulum devices to simulate the rough sea (corresponding to “the raging whirlpool of the Reign of Terror” in the film) and handheld camera for crowd and party sequences. It’s a symphony of experimentation that still influences today – the escape from Corsica paid homage by Peter Jackson (think Black Riders, Liv Tyler and waves).
Though it doesn’t make good viewing historically speaking, brushing very cosily over Napoleon’s essential imperialistic egotism and making him out to be a superman and his foes as fools, liars and cowards, both that and a certain sentimentality in the romance with Josephine are overcome not just by Gance’s visual flair as a storyteller, but by the earnestness of the performances of Dieudonne and Roudenko as the older and younger Napoleon. They are the man to his famous nose, their glances perfectly capturing the pride of his beloved boyhood eagle. All those who came after, from Barrault and Mondy to Boyer and Lom could not erase the memory of Dieudonne here, be he standing in the rain surveying the carnage at Toulon or literally playing chess without bothering to look at the board. Not so much a performance as being. Yet arguably the greatest contribution of all is given by Carl Davis, whose music is very much the heartbeat of the film and whose use of library classics is truly exemplary, from the use of Mozart’s 25th symphony hooking you in the opening scene to Beethoven’s mournful 7th symphony surveying the haggard troops of the army of Italy (perhaps a homage to its use in Gance’s later Un Grand Amour de Beethoven). The final burst into early widescreen for a split-screen high-speed montage Tricolor is the final cherry on this gorgeous bakewell, probably the single most euphoric sequence in cinema history, after which, to paraphrase Leonard Maltin’s comments on Branagh’s Henry V, you’re ready to enlist. At one point Josephine tells Napoleon “when you are silent you are irresistible.” Comparing this with the early talkies produced at the same time which now resemble museum pieces, you have to endorse that wholeheartedly. This one really is a transcendental experience.