When a filmmaker's creativity and ambition burns the very innards of the heart and brain, if it's done right it can be a thrilling thing to see explode on screen. A few years after Sergei Einsenstein and DW Griffith did their own epic takes on history with Battleship Potemkin and Birth of a Nation/Intolerance (among others), Gance decided to give it a try. No, not try: the guy just DID it: His film of Napoleon had to have been so circling around in his mind for so long that seeing it expunged and ready for cinematic consumption is just one of those thing that astounds some 3/4 of a century later. It's groundbreaking, it's dynamic, it gives a solid portrayal of a figure of history while painting the canvas like the tools of cinema are up for grabs. ALL OF IT!
The film, as seen today, is sadly only (or as far as I could find it) still available on the 1980's VHS box-set from Francis Ford Coppola and Kevin Brownlow's restoration (this before Brownlow's *other* restoration in 2004, which is not yet on DVD - or, I'll just say it, blu-ray). And this, I should note, is the *shortened* four-hour version that was taken after a decade-long restoration. And yet even with this it's STILL a great, revolutionary piece of cinema, much the way that Erich von Stroheim had it with Greed (perhaps any version would be great even if trimmed). There are real risks taken on Gance's end, with how he makes his world dirty and grimy, filled with mania as made by the crowds but more-so by how he stages things, moves the camera, and edits sometimes in a frenzy that would give Oliver Stone whiplash (or, more appropriately, make him feel ashamed of NBK).
It's in basic terms a biographical look at Napoleon - albeit, perhaps just in this version ending just as he's about to really hit his stride as a world conqurer (if you're expecting, say, Waterloo, forget it) - from childhood to his greatest military successes in Italy and Europe. From a young age he's a little not quite like the other kids: he keeps to himself, doesn't really have 'friends', or that many anyway, and his best companion is an eagle who as bad luck happens is let loose by one of the kids at the school. He freaks out, blames everyone, and it leaves a scar in him: throughout the film an eagle may appear from time to time, either as a reminder of old times, before his break from trusting most people, and also as a guiding light (perhaps) to his future glory. Or it's just cool to see an eagle (just as Stephen Colbert).
At first he's an ambassador of some kind (this is one of those parts of the film that feels like something was cut out, but not to too much detriment), and is reviled by fellow countrymen around him. Maybe for being a kiss-ass, or just not being strong-willed enough at the time. His family in Corsica also goes through some dire straits, and is under the thumb of the British at the time. But somehow they persevere through it, with some help from it being the French Revolution at the time and change in the air. At around this time, or after, Napoleon joins the artillery of the French army as a Captain, and is still looked down upon by the braggard French Generals who don't know crap. One of them asks Napoleon as a lark what he would do with a battle plan he has out. Napoleon's mind flashes to future glory already, but only for a moment (one of Gance's tricks), and he wows the General into befuddlement. "Really?" is his expression. And Napoleon is simply 'No, really, we should do this.'
|Marat in all his caterpillar glory|
There's a lot more drama, involving corruption in the ranks of French politics and how certain people are claimed undesirables and sentenced to execute (one of whom, a woman, may become Napoleon's future wife), and is thwarted by the heroics of bureaucrats who simply eat the papers of the death sentences. And then Napoleon's romance and (very quick!) marriage, and, ultimately, his quest for glory. Of course I'm simplifying here, as there could be a lot more to write about the film. How, for example, Gance shoots faces and captures something uniquely true to them: how true they are to either pain, agony, quiet resolve, torment, anger, rage, occasionally love, wonderment, and madness. Just in one of those big crowd scenes inside the Convention hall provides so many fantastic close-ups where people look like they're from another time but also timeless; like wicked paintings done in a court line-up, or like those distorted takes on humanity that Dreyer had in Passion of Joan of Arc. Hand each one in a museum and they could fetch a pretty penny.
Oh, and lest not forget the use of filters, which are many varied and with the focus and lenses used to make people and places in a fog or a photograph of the past, or how we might think back to something or see a moment we find happy or bittersweet surrounded in a fudged gel of some kind. And there are the dolly tracks, and the hand-held camera, and how breathtaking an image becomes when one realizes that it's being used the way one might use a camera today but in 1927.
Most iconic of all (and one of the things Napoleon is written about as its high technical achievement) is the use of "widescreen" in the last half hour as Napoleon takes his troops from Italy into the Conquering-Beyond and has three cameras shooting side-by-side to give it that BIG EPIC FEEL like one would think to see in Lawrence of Arabia or a DeMille picture. But more than that Gance STILL experiments with his own innovation by sometimes mixing it up: there are full widescreen images of crowds and people or an eagle in the sky, or he'll have three different images side by side (Napoleon surrounded by sky) or crowds moving on the right side and the left side of the screen and the middle one totally different. I have to wonder if the editors of Woodstock knew about Napoleon (it was lost at the time) or it was a coincidence and innovation finally catching up some forty years later. Who knows.
I've gone on so long about technical innovation- and, really, I could go on longer, not least of which for the (arguably) best scene in the long film where Napoleon visits the empty Convention Hall and is told by ghosts of the past revolution about going into the 'Let's Unite Europe' phase that is equally terrifying and thrilling in the fantastic-horror scope (the opposite of a Dickens' Spirit, telling to be bold instead of "for shame" like)- that I've neglected the central figure of the story. Napoleon is a striking character here, made up like Rod Stewart or one of the Rolling Stones (the nose and the hair, and something in the eyes, is what does it for me), and is heroic but not always.
|And he was all like, "I'm on a horse"|
Abel Gance's Napoleon, done up in this version with a breathtaking (if somewhat conventional) Carmine Coppola musical score and with the technical innovation of a dozen films, is wonderful to watch. It speaks volumes that it's virtues stand out despite being a compromised cut; with some exceptions to some scenes that feel a little bit shortened, and personally not knowing some of the history with Napoleon's early military battles and triumphs and the context around him (though knowing Marat and Murat make it easier), it feels complete. The goal in the filmmaking is to emulate its figure: to be bold, to do the unexpected, surprise the fuck out of the competition, and keep historians wondering about this or that years later. That it can be a head-trip at such a length (which is still long, believe me, it took two nights to watch it all) can be exhausting, but if it were on a big screen, or three that is, I would go in a heartbeat, for premium prices.