Sunday, April 25, 2021

Napoléon (1927)

Director: Abel Gance                                      Writer: Abel Gance
Film Score: Arthur Honegger                         Cinematography: Jules Kruger
Starring: Albert Dieudonné, Vladimir Roudenko, Philippe Hériat and Gina Manès

It’s incredibly difficult at times to accurately assess silent pictures. Much of what has survived to this day has not survived intact. Add to that the necessity of the film score to survive independent of the films--only twenty minutes of Arthur Honegger’s original score for this film is extant--and this adds yet another degree of removal from what the director intended. Age, amateur editing, censorship and neglect have all taken their toll on some incredible cinematic masterworks of the early twentieth century. Napoléon, by Abel Gance, is a case in point. The original film, as intended, was massive in length and the final sequence required three cameras lined up horizontally to get the impact he wanted in his finale. But the film was cut and mangled by distributors from the moment it was released, and so what we’re really watching are portions of a masterpiece rather than the finished film the director created. For example, the film I’m reviewing here is the 1981 version edited by Kevin Brownlow and Francis Ford Coppola. It’s the only version authorized for release on home video in the U.S., and then only on VHS. It also features a score composed by Coppola’s late father rather than the original music by French composer Arthur Honegger. Nevertheless, despite its abbreviated length, Abel Gance’s genius behind the camera is undeniable.

The first section of the film takes place during the childhood of Vladimir Roudenko as Napoleon when he attended military school. One of the seminal events in his career was the famous snowball fight when, despite great odds against him, he was able to overcome a much larger force. His professors noticed this, of course. But he was also picked on at school for being Corsican rather than French, and when he was given the gift of an eagle by his uncle it was released by his jealous classmates. When the eagle comes back to him, however, it’s a sign that the young boy is destined for great things. Eight years later the action moves to Paris during the French Revolution. A young army captain teaches “La Marseillaise” to the crowd at the revolutionary club and Albert Dieudonné as Napoleon is inspired once again. While he is appalled at the destructive nature of humanity during the Revolution, he also recognizes the opportunity it will afford him. Later, on the street, he meets Gina Manés as Josephine, though she barely notices him, and eventually makes his way back to Corsica to see his family. There he learns from a family friend that the president of the island intends to give Corsica to the British, something Napoleon vows to prevent. Then he steals the president’s French flag and makes his perilous escape from the island by sea, using it as his sail.

In Part Two Napoleon, now an artillery captain in the French Army, participates in the siege of Toulon and tries to get the hopefully outmoded general to see things his way. When the general is finally replaced, the new one sees the captain’s abilities and gives him a command. But when he asks him what to do next, Napoleon says he won’t speak unless he’s given command of the entire siege, so the general gives it to him and the midnight attack he plans is ultimately successful. The final part opens on the Terror in Paris with the Napoleon’s rival Saliceti, played by Philippe Hériat, eager to put him on trial, but Robespierre instead offers him command of the forces guarding Paris. When Napoleon refuses, however, he’s jailed. Then Robespierre is deposed, Napoleon is released, but still he refuses orders, this time to fight against other Frenchmen. But when the French royalist military mounts an attack on the capital, Napoleon reluctantly agrees to defend the city and the Republic, and when he succeeds he is given command of the entire French army. At last he is finally able to attract the attention and interest of Josephine. Then he begins his quest for European union where the climatic battle of the film takes place in Italy.

Gance does some terrific work with his cinematographers, tracking shots and multiple angles that add a great deal to the artistry of the film. The snowball fight is particularly distinctive in its use of montage, which includes a mobile camera, to suggest the frenetic quality of battle. And this technique is used elsewhere to similar effect, especially during his escape from Corsica by sea. Gance also crosscuts this scene with the conflict at the General Assembly in Paris, and uses a camera on a pendulum to replicate the wave motion of the sea, as though the sea of people arguing back and forth are the same as the waves themselves. His night shooting in a downpour during the siege of Toulon is also surprisingly effective. Another innovative technique he uses is to sort of shake the camera, especially during battle scenes, to achieve the effect that comes from a hand-held camera today. But Gance’s camera never sits still for long, either moving itself or quickly cutting between shots to suggest movement. It’s a stunning piece of filmmaking, that also includes numerous types of image manipulation, with multiple images superimposed, or Napoleon himself placed in the middle of battle scenes, as well as numerous other effects. Finally, there are the sections in the Italian battle in which Gance used three screens at once. The whole thing is so brilliantly inventive that there’s nothing else like it in silent film history.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to discuss Napoléon for American audiences without bringing in Francis Ford Coppola. The director believes that Gance gave him the copyright to the film and after his 1981 truncated restoration—-at four hours this is actually the shortest version of the film—-produced by Zoetrope was released on VHS, he has blocked any attempt to release other longer versions in the United States. Fortunately, he has been unsuccessful in his attempts to do the same in Europe and a much more complete version is available on DVD with the Carl Davis score, though it must be played on a region free player. There’s only one thing to be said about Carmine Coppola’s score for the American release: too much percussion. It feels as if he uses drums in every scene, to the point of distraction. Okay, there are two things, he also does not have the kind of Romantic melodic sensibility that is needed for this kind of picture. In short, it’s a bad film score. And this is made all the more frustrating by the release on CD of nearly two and a half hour’s worth of Carl Davis’s score for Kevin Brownlow’s British restoration, which makes us realize just how much we’re missing. That said, Coppola’s score is not entirely devoid of artistry. The French Revolution sequence, for example, is done entirely with a pipe organ and the connection between the bloodthirsty revolutionaries and the murderous history of the church is a powerful subliminal association. Much of the rest, however, borders on the unlistenable.

But by far the biggest issue with the Coppola version of the film is the lack of speed correction, and because of that the film jerks along like a Keystone Cops short-—which is unfortunate in the extreme. As a result, the British edition is really the only way to watch the film. Not only is it speed corrected, but it’s a far more complete version of Gance’s vision, and has the added benefit of containing the Carl Davis score. Despite tinting that is just too saturated for my taste, it is a much more enjoyable experience overall. The five and a half hour running time may seem daunting, but at least a half hour of that extra time, if not more, is due to the speed correction. And even Coppola’s four-hour version can feels a little truncated at times during viewing. The acting in the picture is uniformly excellent throughout. Albert Dieudonné is small of stature, which makes him fit the role physically, but he also has a wonderfully distinctive face and plays the part to perfection. While Vladimir Roudenko, as the young Napoleon, might even be better. Then Gance himself plays the part of one of Robespierre’s inner circle, Louis de Saint-Just. The set design is meticulously detailed, the costumes are wonderfully realistic, and the military battles really feel like battles. In the end, however, it is Gance’s unique vision as a director that makes Napoléon required viewing—no matter which version you see.

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