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Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film, plus some poetry


Occasioned by the screening of the film at the Royal Festival, London on Saturday 30 November 2013 with orchestral accompaniment composed and conducted by Carl Davis.

I first read about Gance’s Napoléon in Sadoul’s two Dictionnaires (des Cinéastes and des Films) acquired in 1965. A year or two later I bought Parker Tyler’s ‘Classics of the Foreign Film’, among which was the film Napoléon. So, it was never a lost film, merely lost from the front of the memory – or rather what was lost was the totality of the film; only marvellous fragments were visible at that point. Enter Kevin Brownlow to restore the whole, restore the Polyvision and organize an orchestral score. The version I saw is 330 minutes long, and it does not look as if any much material more is going to be found to add to this length.

Two opposing things struck me. First is a repellent quality in this portrayal of Napoléon. I call it Nietzschean, but it is not so philosophical, more to do with the idea of the solitary 19th-century Romantic hero, not of mankind yet essential to it, a God almost. (It is indicative that the young female Violine has a little shrine in her bedroom dedicated to Napoléon.) It is a ‘great man’ version of history, in which we are asked to swallow Napoléon's pursuit of Destiny as if the Holy Spirit was guiding him. Personally, my view of history is that nothing is inevitable until it happens (the pithy expression of this idea comes from the historian H R Trevor-Roper), so Gance’s deterministic, metaphysical view kept winding me up.

But the second thing, which causes an opposing emotion, is the originality of the conception of the film, its superlative portrayal of movement and speed, a pace accentuated by their juxtaposition with static tableaux and close-ups. It is tempting to call the film ‘innovative’ but in some ways the technical originality of the film remains unexplored. Let us hope that in time its techniques are taken up and it becomes innovative in the full sense.

Beside these opposing emotions, two paradoxes occurred to me as well. The 1920s were a time when literature, music and the other arts were engaged in the full encounter with modernism (e.g. Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky). It is odd therefore to find such an innovative film so backward-looking in sentiment. Second is the intriguing notion that such a monument to French nationalism – a section of the final triptych is tinted red, white and blue, the colours of the tricolore – has been resurrected by an Englishman. As Groucho Marx would have put it, ‘I’ve heard of Francophilia but this is ridiculous.’

The programme booklet quotes Gance (from 1923) as proposing to “sacrifice nothing of the immortal truth”, and stating that he would not change “one comma of history”. Watching the film, I had in the back of my mind Pieter Geyl’s remarkable book, ‘Napoleon: For and Against’, in which he shows how Napoléon comes in many versions of the truth according to the cultural and mental inclinations of the historian writing about him. So, what is this comma of history that Gance cannot change? Frankly, the punctuation is all over the place.

Gance’s Napoléon belongs to the 1920s and is in tune with the coming fashion for dictatorship. After meeting Napoléon for the first time – he has been ordered to take command of the army of Italy – General Masséna remarks, "With his piercing eyes, this stump of a man frightens me." I imagine the same sentiments were in the minds of the German generals on meeting Hitler.

There is another ideological thread too: Napoléon’s desire to create the Universal Republic, also known as the European Union, is enough to stir one’s Eurosceptic bones. The film has a number of intentionally comic (and effective) touches but the loudest laugh came when the small ship, 'Le Hasard', carrying Napoléon to safety after his Corsican flight encounters a British warship. The captain is asked for permission to destroy the ship because it looks suspicious, but permission is denied; the sailor making the request is Nelson.

I thought of it too as pro-war a film as one could imagine. Gance is defended in the programme booklet as opposed to military despotism, and his J’Accuse of 1919 famously captured the horrors of war in the French trenches. Yet these sentiments are submerged in his enthusiasm for revolutionary arms in defence of the French Republic, and for the spreading of the ideals of the Revolution – by arms – throughout Europe. And yet, the episode on how Napoléon lifted the siege of Toulon ends with the chaos of the final battlefield, bodies in the mud everywhere, including hands reaching out from the mud – an image that would be reprised in Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Pabst’s Westfront 1918, both made a year or two later. Yet another paradox: this pro-war film has the First World War tugging its coat sleeves.

The film also tested my dislike of the modern fashion to saturate a film with music, because Carl Davis’s continuous musical score is a vital part of the total experience of the film. Two things occurred to me: what would be the effect of replacing Beethoven with, say, Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony? And would it have helped underscore the power of the music if the orchestra had occasionally lapsed into silence? One very good effect at one point was to have just a string-quartet passage rather than the full orchestra.

There is one absurd lapse into sycophancy: when news is brought to Napoléon that he has been given the Italian command, he is indifferent and instead thoughtfully completes a maths problem he has been engaging with. It brought to my mind that praise of Stalin as being “the greatest philologist of all time”. But if Napoléon as superman is unacceptable to me, Gance’s achievement, beyond conventional human endeavour, is astounding. At the end, the performance was given a standing ovation: we clapped, not (I hope) for Napoléon, conventionally enough for Davis and the orchestra, but also (I hope) for Abel Gance, for his work, and for Kevin Brownlow in bringing it to life.

© Tim Cawkwell 2013