Nether Regions 01.18.11: Napoleon (1927)
Posted by Chad Webb on 01.18.2011
The first edition of 2011 tackles the near 4-hour silent epic from Abel Gance. If you enjoy silent films, this is one article you need to read.
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Starring: Albert Dieudonne, Vladimir Roudenko, Edmond Van Daele Directed By: Abel Gance Written By: Abel Gance Running Time: 235 minutes Release Date: February 11, 1929 Missing Since: 1992 Existing Formats: Only on VHS Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Ranks with the Rarest Titles
"He was one of those rare men who move history and mold the destiny of their own times and of generations to come."
Film buffs will never see Stanley Kubrick's epic Napoleon, though a book about the unmade picture, complete with final screenplay, photographs, and much more will be available on April 1st of this year. The best, and most celebrated chronicle of Napoleon Bonaparte's life is still Abel Gance's sweeping silent epic from 1927. There have been numerous other attempts to churn out Napoleon films over the years, including a mini-series as recent as 2002, but none had the scope or ferociously exhilarating appetite that Gance possessed. Almost 85 years have elapsed since this film was completed, and it's just as impressive and astounding today as it was then.
Napoleon is most recognized for the amount of innovative techniques Abel Gance used, but I'll expand upon those later. Gance intended this to be part one of six separate installments on Napoleon's life, but after this film was completed it was discovered that the cost of such an undertaking would be impossible. He could never raise the funds anyhow. If you can fathom it, there are at least 19 different version of Gance's Napoleon, including a cut that is over 5 hours that was shown theatrically in England. The version I have seen clocks in a tad less than 4 hours. Of course, just mentioning the running time will produce an instantaneous dismissive reaction from some, but that truly is a shame considering how gripping this is from beginning to end.
A shot of the sold out Paris Opera where the film premiered
Gance starts off during Napoleon's school days where other students heavily tease him, especially it seems, because of his Corsican accent. In one of many remarkable sequences, an exciting snowball fight displays the young Napoleon's tactical genius as he overcomes tremendous odds to get the better of his enemies. Coincidentally, the two main schoolyard foes will go on to oppose him in military battles across Europe. As a student, Napoleon is often getting into trouble, but at least one professor recognizes his potential. He has an eagle as his pet, one that symbolizes liberty, independence, and leadership, all traits Napoleon strives for. The eagle, given to him by his Uncle, reappears on numerous occasions.
Being that it covers so many years and so many significant events, all before Napoleon became Emperor, Gance constructs Napoleon in an episodic fashion, but that is surely fitting, and the flow is never disrupted or disjointed as a result. From his collegiate days, Napoleon touches on his return to and flight from Corsica, the French Revolution, the Siege of Toulon, the Reign of Terror, falling in love with Josephine (Gina Manes), and concluding with the commencement of his invasion of Italy. Much is left out, such as his conquest of Egypt, his crowning, his invasion of Russia, the Battle of Waterloo, and his final exile just to name a few, but even if Gance had finished it all, one would require a recharge of the batteries after this unparalleled excursion. Imagining that Gance did indeed film everything he intended would have made D.W. Griffith's Intolerance look restrained by comparison.
Although only the score is heard, and the intertitles are displayed to inform the viewer of events and what people are saying, I have scarcely seen a silent film with a superior execution of intertitles. The descriptions given are so detailed, adept, intriguing, and memorable that I ended up taking more notes about Napoleon than I have any other film. There is an abundance to soak up while watching this, but all the necessary information is provided. It is saturated with great quotes, such as "All that results from carnage will be worth nothing" and when one soldier says fixing a busted cannon on the battlefield is impossible, Napoleon replies "Impossible is not French." And when he is promoted to General-in-Chief, he announces "From this moment on, I am the Revolution."
Sporting a permanent, unshakable, and coldly indifferent stare, Albert Dieudonne's performance as the titular character is extraordinary. One needed to believe that this little man could be intimidating, and Dieudonne never falters once. Without the use of sound, and therefore spoken dialogue, Dieudonne actually had a more daunting task of portraying a convincing Napoleon since he then had to rely on his resemblance to him and the expressions on his face. Dieudonne's emotion rarely changes, even in Napoleon's most heroic moments, but it is a look of pride, confidence, strength, and fierceness. He commands the screen, as any depiction of Napoleon should. Our first glimpse at Dieudonne is a first-class introduction to the adult Napoleon with a bold shot from the side of his face as he compliments a songwriter.
A poster of the 1981 restoration event by Francis Ford Coppola at Radio City Music Hall
The supporting cast is enormous, and attempting to afford praise to all those deserving would be a tough feat, but a few merit mentioning. Vladimir Roudenko is exceptional in his segment as young Napoleon. Gance seems to have worked well with the children performers, judging by the snowball battle at least. The connection between Roudenko and Dieudonne as the same person is never in doubt. Little is asked of Gina Manes' interpretation of Josephine, Napoleon's love, except that she must come across as exquisite. Gance captures her beauty wonderfully, so that even if the viewer is not head over heels for her, we understand why Napoleon was. Abel Gance steps into a role himself as Louis de Saint-Just. Also fabulous are Alexandre Koubitzky as Georges Danton and Edmond Van Daele as Maximilien Robespierre.
Gance's prowess lies in his ability to balance the quiet, human scenes with the large-scaled frenzied action. The transitions always unfold with composure, elegance, and suspense. The greatest historical epics are those that keep you on the edge of your seat regardless of how much knowledge you possess of the central figure beforehand. Napoleon was received with lukewarm reviews upon its arrival to the US in the late 20's, but over the years it has obtained near universal acclaim. One of the primary criticisms is Gance's emphasis on Napoleon as a hero to France. It is true that those qualities occupy a substantial portion of his film, but even if he exaggerates slightly, that approach would make sense considering how monumental his rise really was.
For example, Gance precedes Napoleon's escape from Corsica with an intertitle that exclaims the next segment as a great adventure story. In a masterful sequence, Napoleon's trip in a dinghy as a storm tosses him about close to death is intercut with another kind of storm, a political one, which shows the National Convention and the indictment of all the Girondins in 1793. Gance places the handheld camera on a pendulum that swings back and forth to induce the feeling of a violent sea storm. I cannot think of any other filmmaker during that era that got the blood racing with as much enthusiasm. The battle sequence arouse similar sentiments as we get swept up in the tumultuousness, yet magnetic activity.
Gance definitely argues that Napoleon's ascent to prominence as the savior of France and the voice of the Revolution was his destiny at an early age. He sees the adolescent Napoleon as somewhat aware of what the future holds, and how vital his contribution will be. We have to remember that we can only see Gance's version of Napoleon's rise, and even so, it's hard to contend that France would have been the same without Napoleon Bonaparte. The flaws of Napoleon as suggested here are few at this stage of his life. He is more than a bit antisocial, and radiates an apathetic aura when it comes to friendship or emotional attachment. He desires Josephine, but he wins her like he would a clash on the battlefield, as a headstrong and decisive personality. In one of Gance's many striking dissolves, Josephine's face is super-imposed over a globe that is circling round and round, equating his hope for domination with the fervor for his lady. It evokes a great deal about what goes through Napoleon's mind, and how ambitious he was.
Napoleon is certainly experimental, but unquestionably a success in terms of taking chances as Abel Gance's varied methods transform this into a spectacular and irreplaceable account of history. He tints the frames regularly, changing the normal black & white with red and blue depending on the mood and time of day. As the sole puppeteer of Napoleon, Gance has assumed the position of director, writer, producer, and editor. It's his baby, and he treats it as such. He employs every trick except the kitchen sink, but is not haphazard or careless. Every contingency contains a meticulous design. Gance does not throw the tactics out there just for the sake of trying them. He wants us to be drawn into the scenes in a unique way. With rapid-fire editing, complicated dissolves, colored tinting, split-screen photography, and even a mobile camera, all in the 1920's, it's hard not to sit back in awe and applaud his achievement. Gance is similar to how he presents Napoleon, a true visionary.
A shot of the 3-screen triptych from the end of the film
Carmine Coppola, the father of Francis Ford, conducted the music for this particular cut and it is an immense, bombastic, orchestral score that augments the broad canvas and epic atmosphere. Unfortunately it is the music that has kept this film locked up for so many years and ultimately out of print. Both Universal Studios and the British Film Institute say they own the rights to the film. These separate claims led to frequent battles over which score accompanies the film for screenings. Universal, and the Coppola family, have stuck by Carmine's score, while the BFI remains loyal to the score by veteran Carl Davis. To make the situation stranger, Coppola's score is just for the 4-hour version, while Davis' is used for the longer 5 hour cut. Why can't we just all get along? IMDB has assumed that two scores were created because of the different markets, but it is silly that this is why no one can experience the majesty of Abel Gance's Napoleon.
Gance was worried that his conclusion would not have the proper impact if confined to an ordinary theater screen, so he put three cameras next to each other in order to expand the frame. It was an early version of widescreen, the first in cinema as the aspect ratio was probably around 4.00:1. The finale left me speechless as the three-camera triptych effect is jaw-dropping to behold, and Gance even goes as far as to have each screen represent a color of the French flag. It is wholly original, and I can honestly say I've never seen anything quite like it.
The initial restoration was conducted by Kevin Brownlow over a period of 20 years. Apparently, he had purchased two 9.5mm as a boy and was entranced by what he saw. This led to a lifelong obsession with the picture. His 1980 restoration was eventually re-edited and re-released by Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope. Brownlow continued to restore it in 1983 and again in 2000 after newly discovered footage surfaced. All in all, the full cut is five and a half hours, but is screened rarely because of the difficulty in using three projectors for the Polyvision section at the end. Word has it that some scenes were filmed in 35mm dual-strip 3-D format, but landed on the cutting room floor.
The energy infused within Abel Gance's Napoleon is matchless. I was not familiar with his work except for this title, and after reading about another rare silent film from his resume, J'Accuse from 1919, I look forward to watching more of his efforts. Enjoying films like this make me happy to be a cinephile. It's hard to think of enough exuberant adjectives for Napoleon. One can quibble about which cut is better, or which score belongs, but those are minor. Through all the fuss and all the different cuts, Gance made a masterpiece. Napoleon was a larger than life person, and this feature certainly suits his stranger than fiction life. Some have stated that getting through this might be a chore. I disagree. I was glued to the screen. It is among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die for a reason.
- It's been awhile since I've done this column, but the "Editor's Note" articles need top priority. Look for more of those over the next month or so. This is the first column of 2011 and I'm glad I started with one of the handful of super long films I have been meaning to cover.
- I'm pretty much caught up on my 2010 films, though there are still several limited releases I plan on seeing such as Another Year, Blue Valentine, Buitiful, and The Illusionist. This past weekend the wife and I tried out AMC's "Fork & Screen" where they serve you dinner while the film is rolling. All in all it was a good time and the service was ok. The comfortable cushioned seats are terrific as well. If you want to test this out, I recommend doing it with a film that will require little attention. Mine was Tron:Legacy, which worked out great. I predict many more of these types of theaters to open. They have to be making a killing off the food.
- I checked out the Golden Globes this past Sunday and it was a fun telecast overall. I was happy to see Carlos pick up an award, hopefully spreading the word more about it, and was also happy to see Jim Parsons winning for The Big Bang Theory. Plus, Boardwalk Empire picked up 2, including one for Steve Buscemi. And Katy Sagal finally gets some love for Sons of Anarchy after so many years of excellent acting. It was suitable that Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro got the two standing ovations, but seriously, WTF is up with DeNiro's acceptance speech? Leave the inappropriate jokes to Ricky Gervais, Bob. By the way, Gervais was hilarious usual. And January Jones' dress...dayum.
- In other news, I hate snow. As this winter in the Northeast seems to give us a bad storm every week now, and the competency of the plowing totally continues to be disappointing. The poor plow jobs would be fine if my day job didn't demand I sacrifice everything to make into work on time. Ugh.
- Big week for DVDs, but then again that might be every week for me. Two, count 'em two, of my top 10 picks hit stores, those being Buried and Animal Kingdom. Check those out, but don't forget the 2 Samuel Fuller Criterions, Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. Also the first season of Justified is released, and I've been told by many it is a show that is a must-watch. As for music, two Jayhawks reissues hit stores, not to mention new material by The Decemberists.