Results 1 to 15 of 45

Thread: Abel Gance's NAPOLEON (1927)

Hybrid View

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Sep 2002
    Ottawa Canada

    Abel Gance's NAPOLEON (1927)

    With the news of this silent Epic classic being screened next March in Oakland California COMPLETELY RESTORED, at 5 and a half hours, I thought it was appropriate to watch my VHS copy and post about it.

    It is a truly Marvelous work of cinema.
    Stanley Kubrick called it crude, and didn't like it all that much, but he was also a film director. He could see how it could be much better, indeed, he was fascinated with Napoleon Bonaparte and was working on making "the greatest film never made" when he had to ditch it due to logistics and the inconvenient appearance of Rod Steiger as the French Emperor in Waterloo.
    Abel Gance's silent opus is the only real epic attempt at Napoleon's bio we have. It's odd that Napoleon hasn't been given a slew of cinematic treatments. Dracula has, and he's complete fiction!
    Indeed, Napoleon said that his life would've made a good book. Kubrick noted that "had he known about movies, he would've said movie".

    Abel Gance had some serious ambition. This was supposed to be a 6-parter, a LARGE CANVAS.
    When you realize that this film only covers Napoleon from his youth at Brienne college to the 1796 victory in the Italian campaign, you kind of wish they had the resources to make the whole film.
    Because what we have here is quite good for it's time.
    A lot of time and effort and care went into this production. It's very obvious to film students. Costumes, stagings, crowd scenes, action-packed horse chases, battles, charges with flags, storms at sea, dramatic speeches and scenarios in the convention hall and Assembly, the full spirit of the French Revolution was tried to be caught on camera. It's an admirable job here, with interesting characters. Probably nowhere near their real-life counterparts, but this is a movie. It's a dramatization or imagining of what actually took place, based on historical records.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Sep 2002
    Ottawa Canada
    Kevin Brownlow restored the version I have on VHS tapes (just shy of 4 hours) and he has restored the new 5 hour+ version that will appear in Oakland in March 2012. His involvement is essential and very interesting- he's had a long & great relationship with this film. From buying 2 reels from it on the street (paid for by his mother- he dedicates his book on the film to her) to restoring the Polyvision/russian montage multi-layered images/visuals- he's the main Champion of this film for all times.
    And so is Francis Ford Coppola, who "presented" this film at Telluride in 1981, with his father doing the live musical score, and Abel Gance himself in attendance.
    What a night that would have been.
    Why doesn't someone invent a time machine?
    Claude Lelouch is the other champion, as he owned the world rights, from Gance himself, but he is criticized a bit in Brownlow's book. Will discuss later.

    The film has been shown rarely over the years, only for special events or special screenings, and it's importance seems to be limited to film scholars or students who know about it.
    More people need to know about it's greatness, because it's actually excellent for a silent film from 1927.
    There is lots of kinetic action and energy onscreen.
    Gance devoted time to little details and set dressings, giving it genuine French Revolution flavor. I watched it straight through in one sitting and was not bored once. It does have it's lulls (what movie about Napoleon wouldn't have lulls in combat?) but it's hypnotic a lot of the time for me.
    Charles Champlin (of the L.A. Times) said "it's a film against which all others are measured".
    Maybe a bit of over-praising there, but I understand what he means.
    There are scores of shots, and the editing is brisk and crisp, for the most part. My mind has little trouble following each new scene.
    Fade-outs are used a lot, and tinting is used to excellent effect: with blues, purples, oranges, browns, whites and reds. Whoever did the tinting deserves an Oscar.
    The final shots (the triptych sequence) with the colors of the French flag super-imposed were GREAT.

    The cuts/edits are very rapid and it has it's own rhythm.
    I love the military drumming- the snares. It's great, and it's used throughout the picture.
    I also love it when Napoleon is in the heat of battle at one point and is shouting for the drums. "WHERE ARE THE DRUMS!!!???"
    And then it starts to hail, with hail pounding off the drum heads! All drums are laying in the mud, as the drummers were killed by English shot.

    The film begins at Brienne, with a snowball fight that is conducted like a real battle, a real war with young boys, with the Minim Fathers of the college encouraging the ones who show strategy or skill on the battlefield (playground).
    Napoleon fancies himself a MAN.
    Last edited by Johann; 02-13-2012 at 10:21 AM.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Sep 2002
    Ottawa Canada

    "He is made of granite heated in a volcano!"

    Part 1

    I consulted two essential books on this film: Kevin Brownlow's history of the film and it's destiny from 1983: Napoleon (Abel Gance's Classic Film) and Nelly Kaplan's great BFI classics book of the same name. I learned a lot about this film from both books and they are one-stop shopping for everything you want to know about this special Masterpiece.

    Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Pudovkin and Akira Kurosawa all cite Abel Gance as a huge influence. The 3 russian masters studied Gance's LA ROUE at the Moscow Academy, learning the craft of making films from it. Kurosawa said LA ROUE was the first film that impacted him.
    Gance may have come after D.W. Griffith, but he took "vision" to new heights, claiming patents on his cinematic inventions such as Polyvision.
    His camera is very MOBILE, with his head cameraman Jules Kruger using a camera mounted on a bicycle, pullys and trolley lines, snow sleds, anything that Gance thought might give some dynamics to his picture. The photos from the sets and on location in those 2 books I mentioned are great to peruse.

    The first 20 minutes is the section of Napoleon as a fierce youth, isolated from his fellow pupils at Brienne, proud, with strategic genius that dwarfs his mediocre contemporaries. Gance illustrates this with "creative exuberance" that isn't matched in the rest of the film. Super-impositions abound, and I love it.
    The last visual tricks in the Brienne sequences are juxtaposition of up to 16 shots on one negative, a dizzying batch of "image-clusters" according to Nelly Kaplan, some chained together in 4-way or 9-way vertical and horizontal blocks. It's Napoleon's face, displaying levels of thought and fiery spirit.
    For the 1920's it was astounding. Even watching it today makes you admire it's inventiveness. The film is peppered with such touches throughout the running time, probably the main reason I wasn't bored once. I kept waiting to see what other tricks Gance had up his sleeve.

    Kaplan's book has lots of notes and journal entries from Gance about his rough experiences in getting the film made, from financing, to losing control of the production, his spirit and determination to make the picture against all obstacles. And it looked for a while like his dreams would be crushed, by people who had no clue what he was trying to do.
    The book has a reproduction of a signed photo of Gance to Nelly in 1957, with Gance signing it:

    Be daring, said Saint-Just- modern cinema, alas, doesn't know the meaning of the word!

    The Brienne sequences show us Napoleon winning a snowball fight/battle on the school grounds, "20 against 60", with the Minim fathers taking note.
    Napoleon is forced to spend the night outside after going ballistic over other students setting his beloved eagle free from its cage.
    One of the fathers says "I maintain he will go far. He is made of granite heated in a volcano!" Pupils and Masters alike have nothing but antipathy for him.
    He cries while sitting on a cannon on the porch, and his eagle suddenly flies right onto the cannon, with the scene eventually fading out of the blue tint.
    The character of Tristan Fleuri is also introduced- he appears later in Toulon, during Napoleon's rise.
    Feisty fellow students Phelipeaux and Peccaduc also appear later in Napoleon's career.

    Cut to 9 years later, at the Revolutionary Club des Cordeliers, with the titles
    Napoleon and the French Revolution

    We are introduced to "THE THREE GODS" of the Revolution: Danton, Robespierre & Marat.
    All of them are great characters. Marat is played by the human artist Tempest himself, Antonin Artaud. I love every second he's onscreen.
    I am a big fan of Artaud.
    Robespierre is hilarious, with his powdered wig & John Lennon granny shades, played by Edmond van Daele, who was tested for the lead role but it was given to Albert Dieudonne, a Gance regular.

    The song/anthem "Le Marsellaise" is presented to the Club, and Revolutionary zeal is stirred up by it. The people love it. They cry. They cheer.
    Napoleon is there in attendance, a Lieutenant in the Artillery, and he thanks Rouget de Lisle for bringing it.
    "I thank you on behalf of France, Monsieur. Your hymn will save many a cannon".
    Next is a beautiful rapid-cut sequence of people celebrating the new anthem, with flags billowing and Revolutionary fervour swelling.
    There's a nice brief shot of a stained glass window with sunlight streaming though- a Gance touch, something I love about him.
    The Monarchy is on the ropes. The Revolution is taking hold, and Napoleon smells it. It is August 1792.
    He writes from his tiny room:
    "All that results from carnage will be worth nothing. If we are not careful, the finest fruits of the Revolution will be lost."
    Next is scenes with fire and brimstone speeches and a new Declaration of Rights.
    The Monarchy crumbles spectacularly.

    Next we are introduced to Josephine de Beauharnais, Napoleon's future flame. She goes to a palm reader/fortune teller (Lenormant) who tells her she will be Queen.
    She catches Napoleon's eye.

    Then it's Corsica, where Gance shot on location. Napoleon hadn't been back in 12 years, and he travels with his sister Elisa.
    At Brienne, Napoleon was outraged at a teacher saying that Corsica was "half-civilized".
    The island was under French rule, but the English wanted control, and Pozzo di Borgo (Attorney General to Paoli who was gonna sell out Corsica to the Brits) becomes a bitter foe to Napoleon, demanding death to the young officer for suggesting that Corsica should remain loyal to France.
    Napoleon vows that as long as he's alive Corsica will never be English. He tells his mother vehemently that he will "Take Action!" against Pozzo's death threats.

    And take action he does.

    A reward of 500 pounds is offered for Napoleon dead or alive, for being a traitor.
    As the titles tell us: "From this moment on, and until his departure from Corsica, the life of the young officer becomes the most incredible of adventure stories".

    A couple action-filled horse chases take place, with Napoleon chased like a fugitive. He steals the flag of France from Paoli, shouting It's too great for you!
    Pozzo's horsemen chase him on horseback all the way to the sea, the Sanguinaires, where Napoleon hops into a dinghy, and hoists the tri-color French flag as his sail.
    Scenes in the Assembly are chaos, with calls for public indictments of all Girondins. Total chaos, but Robespierre is cool as a cucumber during the proceedings.
    Napoleon escaped sucessfully from Pozzo & his men, but a storm at sea almost kills him. Gance has bolts of lightning and great special effects for the storm- it still holds up all these years later.
    The camera gives us the total vertigo experience of being at sea in seriously choppy waters.

    Amazingly, Napoleon survives the storm, and by "historic providence" he is picked up by the Le Hasard, a boat on which his two brothers are sailing!
    He's hauled aboard, exhausted from the sirocco. But he's not too exhausted to call for Aspreto Beach and rouse his family, where he shouts to them:
    The Bonapartes now have one country and one country only! FRANCE!!!

    British Naval Admiral Nelson sees their "suspicious-looking vessel" in his telescope and wants to scuttle it but is told to not waste shot.

    The final act of part 1 is THE SEIGE OF TOULON, a great attempt to show us on celluloid how that English redoubt was taken by the French Army, "with a whiff of grapeshot".
    Gance gives us a lot during this sequence. Napoleon goes from being a new arrival to the port, scoffed at by superiors, to demonstrating steel nerves and steel resolve, then is allowed to command, then his orders/tactics are shot down by Generals who don't know what the fuck they are doing. He accepts full responsibility for the awesome artillery attack he orders (at midnight- which horrified his fellow commanders) and what happens?
    After 76 hours of intense fighting, cut and thrust, pell mell, France has taken over the port, a port which Admiral Hood said was impregnable, that the French were prisoners in the harbour. How wrong he was.

    Napoleon is promoted on the battlefield twice. The second time his rank (Brigadier General) is given to him by Commissioners of the Army by way of an apology.
    At dawn to boot, with Napoleon sleeping in the mud, his head resting on a drum.
    He's 24 years old.

    Last edited by Johann; 04-24-2012 at 01:28 PM.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Sep 2002
    Ottawa Canada
    News of the 2012 release of the completely restored version. I'd love to be in attendance. What a fuckin' night that would be....
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

  5. #5
    Join Date
    Sep 2002
    Ottawa Canada

    "From this morning on I Am The Revolution!"

    2nd EPOCH

    Part 2 opens with the title "THE TERROR" and proceeds to show us a knife being placed in Charlotte Corday's bosom, a knife which she will use to stab Marat to death in the bath, to avenge the Girondins. Very dramatic scene.
    Then Salicetti goes to Robespierre to ask to have Napoleon put on trial.
    Robespierre says "Let General Bonaparte be offered the Command of the Paris garrison in place of Henriot. He's a man of strength, such as we lack in Paris, this Bonaparte. If he refuses, I will give him to you".

    March 1794

    Supported by Saint-Just & Couthon, Robespierre is at the height of his powers. He has complete control of the policy of the Revolutionary government. On his orders, he executes Danton for conspiracy against the Republic. People march and chant in the streets for mercy for Danton.
    He's guillotined anyways.
    Robespierre states that the representatives of the people consider that Bonaparte has lost their confidence through his suspicious actions.
    He orders him suspended and arrested. He also denounces Josephine, saying that she will seduce the most virtuous. She's thrown into prison at Carmes, Fort Carre. General Hoche comforts her as she awaits the scaffold.
    Her ex-hubby the Viscount (and father of her 2 children) is also sentenced to death. Amazingly, Josephines' dossier is EATEN by a fellow named La Bussiere. Her life is owed to him for it. Why he eats documents is a mystery- it's a funny scene.
    Robespierre is ruthless and a monster. He wants 300 heads guillotined every single day.
    The "thermometer" is heating up, and people start to demand justice for Danton's death. They want Robespierre and Saint-Just to taste death.
    "You're walking on the graves of Girondins!" Jackals!
    Saint-Just gives a rousing speech:
    Is not the Revolution a great beacon lit upon tombs? Scatter our limbs to the 4 winds. Republics will rise up from them. I despise the dust of which I am made and which speaks to you. I GIVE IT TO YOU!
    All Robespierreists are ordered executed the next morning. Their dossiers are prepared.

    Napoleon is freed from prison at Antibes, and the following year he refuses Command in Vendee, even though he is dirt poor.
    At the National Convention he is struck off the list of officers holding commissions for refusing to take on duties assigned.
    He is attached to the topographical office of the army, where he draws up formidable plans for the Italian campaign.
    Generals reject his plans. Gen. Scherer: "These plans are the work of a madman! Let him who wrote them come and execute them".

    France is in agonzing poverty. They faced starvation and mass distress. People were moving away from the Republic as a result.
    The Revolution needs a leader badly.
    A Royalist insurrection is moving into Paris, and the Convention is at risk. Bonaparte (the Victor of Toulon) is suggested as a General to put down the insurrection.
    "Does anybody know where he lives?"
    Last edited by Johann; 01-17-2012 at 12:00 PM.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Sep 2002
    Ottawa Canada
    Napoleon accepts the challenge, stating to Paul Barras: "I have no liking for those I shall be serving, but when territory is threatened, the first duty is to rally to those who hold the reins of government. I warn you, Barras. Once my sword leaves it's scabbard, I shall not sheathe it again until order has been restored".

    Then we see dramatic slow motion shots of Napoleon getting into a carriage. He orders 800 guns to be brought into the Convention Chamber, to arm members & staff as a reserve force, which alarms them all to the danger that exists.
    Napoleon's famous *future* Marshal Joachim Murat is introduced.
    Napoleon likes the cut of his Jib, and tells him he will lead 300 Cavalrymen to bring the Sablon cannon to Paris by 1 AM.

    Napoleon is 26 years old. He releases Salicetti from *citizens arrest* custody after attempting to assassinate him, firing from a window.
    Titles tell us that the majority of Parisians never knew of this, the assassination attempt or of Salicetti's being set free.
    Napoleon says he can easily forgive, but NEVER forget.

    At the Convention it's proposed that Napoleon be given the rank of "General in Chief of the Army of the Interior", which he accepts.
    Emphatically he shouts "FROM THIS MORNING ON I AM THE REVOLUTION!"
    The crowd erupts, clapping & cheering. They feel Bonaparte has saved France.

    New Title: THE REACTION

    The Thermidor Reaction:
    In a fever, people hold 644 balls, a reaction against all this life and death that surrounds them. Even a Victim's Ball, to which people had to prove they were imprisoned, or had a father, brother or husband die.
    Napoleon sees 3 ladies that he likes at a ball. One is Josephine (the beautiful actress Gina Manes), and we get a nice flashback sequence of when he first saw her, nice edits.
    She takes him to the spot where she was going to be guillotined: "It was here, Mr. Bonaparte, that I was summoned to the scaffold!"
    General Hoche loves Josephine too, and he and Napoleon have a chess match to see who is a better general.
    Napoleon says during the game: Take care, I'm about to take your Queen.
    He wins, and Josephine gazes at him with her fan, asking him "what weapons do you fear most, General?"
    "Fans, Madame".

    And guess what we see next?

    Tits and Ass.
    Gance shows us some skin! Peeps dance at the balls, and Gance's camera shows us nipples and crotches and bare asses-
    probably to make sure his audience was still with him. It's great. Made me smile.

    Then Napoleon orders all weapons seized from private citizens, with a young boy, Josephine's son, asking the General if he can keep his father's sword. Napoleon lets him.
    The next day to thank him, Josephine visits him with her dog, and love sparks fly. "When you are silent you are irresisitible" she tells him.
    He gets lessons from a young actor (Talma) on how to be romantic. He kisses a globe of the world, with Talma asking if he's kissing Paris.
    He says no. He's kissing Josephine's lips! (Her face is superimposed on the globe- a great visual trick)
    Napoleon comes everyday to Josephine's hotel. He's in love.
    She agrees to marry him. On condition that Barras appoint Napoleon Commander of the Army of Italy.
    Napoleon plays with Josephine's children, who like him.
    He gives himself 3 months to conquer Italy, and before the campaign begins, he insists on getting married immmediately- the ceremony was funny to me. He's working on tactics for Italy day in and night out, and he forgets he's keeping his bride and the Notary waiting.
    2 days later he heads to Italy.

    We're told by titles that Napoleon did not want to begin in Italy without renewed strength gained from within the walls of the Convention.
    He stopped his carriage outside the deserted Convention Hall and goes in, to meditate on his future.
    Ghosts of the Revolution appear to him: Danton, Marat, etc. and they tell him that they realize the Revolution cannot prosper without a strong authority. They ask if he will be it's Leader. He shouts YES!
    They ask if he will lead the Revolution into Europe. He shouts "YES!"
    The ghost of Marat asks: "WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS, BONAPARTE?"

    Napoleon replies that his plans are the liberation of oppressed peoples, the fusion of great European interests, the suppression of frontiers and THE UNIVERSAL REPUBLIC. Europe will become a single people, and anyone, wherever he travels, will always find himself a common Fatherland.

    The ghosts of the Revolution stand and cheer.
    Napoleon says: "To achieve this sacred aim, many wars will be neccesary, but I proclaim it here for posterity: Victories will one day be won without cannon and without bayonet".
    The ghosts sing Le Marsellaise- nice juxapositions with the French flags flying at full wind.

    Napoleon's life becomes REALLY epic after this point.
    Last edited by Johann; 01-17-2012 at 01:09 PM.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd


Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts