Sometimes a film exists beyond words (spoken or not) and there’s no description that can accurately prepare one for what they are about to see. Some films exist solely on a visual level, are so purely cinematic, that nothing anyone could ever say about them could speak as well as the images from the film themselves. Hell, but that won’t stop film buffs and writers like myself from giving it the old college try.
Recently, I was lucky enough to have someone over there at the incomparable Wonders in the Dark toss me a copy across the pond of the Kevin Brownlow restored version of Abel Gance’s Napoleon. It included the Thames Television cut of the film (which runs over five hours and is presented mini-series style in three parts) with both the TV tailored single frame version of the Italian set finale and the phantasmagoric tripped-out red-white-and-blue triptych that is unlike anything ever seen before or since. I’ve been told this is the definitive way to view the film and far superior to the Coppola produced version that came out stateside around the same time in 1980.
If a director were to compose a film today like Abel Gance composed his untethered and monstrous epic Napoleon in 1927, it would be called audaciously experimental. In some ways, the closest comparison to something current (in terms of the technological innovation) would be James Cameron’s Avatar, but that wouldn’t be fair to either film to degrade the former or uplift that latter. Thematically and visually a closer comparison might be Marco Bellocchio’s stunningly grandiose 2010 film about Mussolini’s mistress, Vincere, though even that film, with all its playful tricks and operatic moments, pales in comparison to the scope of Napoleon.
Abel Gance’s film is wholly cinematic, a work of art that defines the epitome of what was possible in the silent era before the introduction of sound forced cameras to go static until the dawn of foley editing and post-production sound design allowed for more experimentation with movement. Yet the original cut of the film ran an ungodly six hours long, and it was shot in such a way that specially designed and very expensive projectors and theater set-ups were required to showcase the film appropriately. Thus the patience of the audience and the wallets of the theater chains were stretched to their limits resulting in a box-office bomb that critics lamented as overly indulgent and would be butchered and shortened as it made its way around the world.
Luckily decades later Kevin Brownlow had the good sense to restore the film to as close to its original form as was possible. Carl Davis leant to it a magisterial music score melding some of the most famous compositions from 18th century composers and heightened one’s experience of watching the action unfold. Eerily, as the film now can only really be enjoyed in mini-series format over the course of a few nights in the comfort of one’s home, it’s almost as if Gance had a premonition of the current “home theater” movement where big, high-definition flat screen televisions and state-of-the-art sound systems offer many film buffs superior viewing experiences to visiting their local multiplexes.
With Napoleon, Gance revolutionized tricks he had developed in earlier works. His use of quick-cut editing for both flashback scenes and to mirror the inner chaos or joy of a character’s psyche was light-years ahead of its time, and quite frankly I know of no director working today who uses this technique quite so effectively as Gance used it here. Also thoroughly modern was his use of dolly shots, close-ups, super-imposed images and hand-held cameras to capture the intimacy of a thrilling chase scene or the wanton recklessness of a wild party.
But there are other tricks Gance employs that I have never seen in any other film:
- The specific way in which he uses the quick-cut editing in the opening snowball fight sequence featuring a young Napoleon (played expertly by an emotive Vladimir Roudenko) first realizing his ability to “command” an army (of children) is done in such a way that it psychically connects the viewer to the character’s inner strength and turmoil. This makes the controversial historical figure instantly intriguing and sympathetic.
- A few sequences later, there is a pillow fight in which Gance utilizes a split screen format — something that wasn’t used again successfully until nearly 80 years later on TV with 24. At one point he divides the melee into as many as nine screens!
- The end of Part One concludes with a sequence where the adult Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne, iconic) is forced to flee from his home in Corsica by dingy only to get caught in a raging storm. The amazing photography of the churning ocean waves is juxtaposed next to images of the French people working themselves up into a rage in an immense convention hall. Gance’s camera swallows the gargantuan crowd and swings violently overhead to mimic the tumultuous storm surges he inter-splices into the scene. And thus Gance turned the start of the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, which Napoleon would strategically weather and emerge triumphant as a hero of the new Republic, into a moving piece of art.
- Then there are the panoramic views Gance employs which culminate in the tri-color triptych that closes the film by showcasing on a mythical level the rise of Napoleon to power after he takes command of the army of Italy. Again, I know of no film which has tried to emulate the way in which Gance shot and edited this breathtaking sequence which could easily be described as both propaganda and psychedelic (again blazingly ahead of its time).
Due to its length, there is some choppiness to the narrative. Part One is relentlessly thrilling, with the “Storm” sequence leaving one dizzy and exhausted. Some of these experimental scenes seem like they last forever in glorious indulgence, but Gance also lets other more banal scenes stretch on painfully resulting in a rather dull Part Two, and only in Part Three’s final flourishes by way of the triptych does the film once again coalesce into something unfathomable and magnificent.
Nowadays it is generally concluded that Gance’s Napoleon is one of the greatest films of all time. Yet due to the many perverted versions out there that dilute the original conception, and the limited availability of the British Brownlow version (only Coppola’s version is available stateside) the film remains little seen. Sadly there are generations of filmmakers who have never had the opportunity to learn from Gance’s astounding efforts to revolutionize film. One gets the sense that if today’s directors finally saw how it should be done, and what could be done, their egos might deflate and many would probably run the risk of developing an inferiority complex. Maybe, like its mythic-sized and one-of-a-kind subject, Gance’s Napoleon is better left to the stuff of legend. When one can’t believe their eyes, sometimes images meld into the subconscious. Gance’s film is one of dreams. And as such, like Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc or Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it will haunt the memories of any film buff who has had the good fortune to have experienced it. One can scarcely believe a film like this was ever made.
Written by David H. Schleicher