Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba

Film: Napoleon
Format: VHSs from Freeport Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television.

Most people in our society are experienced moviegoers. We’re aware of typical movie conventions and what to expect. We learn quickly what particular shots mean—what it means when we’re shown something in slow motion, or what a particular close-up means in the contexts of a film. Many of these conventions came from the earliest films, and many of these conventions were created by a handful of specific directors. Abel Gance was one of those truly innovative men behind the camera, and he showcases his innovative style in Napoleon.

This is not a film to watch lightly. There’s a lot going on here, as well as more than a dozen different cuts of the film. The one I found was the four-hour version. Evidently the original version of the film stretched to something longer than six hours, and there’s supposed to be a five-hour version considered fairly definitive. However, the four-hour version was all I could locate, and it’ll have to be definitive enough for our purposes here.

I have no idea what is contained in the hour or two I didn’t get to see, but the four hours on the two tapes I watched had plenty worthy of comment. If nothing else, Gance was an innovator and stylist as important (or far more important) than D.W. Griffith. As a real benefit here, Gance is also a much better storyteller than Griffith, or at least tells more interesting stories.

Napoleon, as the title indicates, is something of a biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte (Albert Dieudonne). It stops short of true biopic status, though, because it doesn’t come close to covering the man’s entire life or military career. It covers Bonaparte’s life as a child (Vladimir Roudenko), his early military career, the time of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror and Bonaparte’s Italian campaign. We don’t see him crown himself Emperor, we don’t see his eventual exile, or his death. What’s here is sort of a career highlight film, a “best-of,” if you will.

There’s also a lot of hero worship going on. The Napoleon character in this film is as close to a perfect human being as can be imagined. He has no real faults or weaknesses. His mere presence inspires men on the battlefield; these men want only to know the name of the brave and intrepid leader who led them before they die, happy in knowing that they served such a great man. Early in the film, when Bonaparte is sent to Corsica to help maintain French rule, he runs into a meat grinder of pandemonium. Everyone, it seems, wants Corsica to belong to a different country. Some want Spain, others Italy, and still others England. The only thing they agree on is that Napoleon should be slain. But brave and forthright Napoleon stares them all down, cowing them into submission with his noble presence, and naturally Corsica remains a French possession.

Very much the same thing happens at the start of the film. Napoleon’s biggest fault as a child is that he’s not much liked by his classmates, in part because of his genius and in part because he comes from the little backward island of Corsica. Napoleon suffers the terrible slings and arrows of these classmates, who are regularly depicted as jealous of the young man’s genius. At one point, two of these young men release Napoleon’s captive falcon, sending the boy into a deep depression and causing him to fight all of his dormitory mates at the same time. All is made well when the bird returns, justifying Napoleon’s confidence in himself somehow.

The hero worship is applied with a very thick brush throughout the film. Much of Dieudonne’s job is evidently to stand perfectly still and stare straight ahead and look impressive. This stare is not the “thousand-yard stare” of combat veterans, but more the piercing gaze of someone touched by the gods of battle. If nothing else, this is an exercise in nationalism and Gallic pride.

All of this can be overlooked. The reason to watch this film is not to see Dieudonne stare piercingly at his enemies or sit statue-still astride a steed (enjoy my kick-ass alliteration!). Napoleon is noteworthy because Gance was a true innovator in terms of how and where he used his camera. Gance believed very much in the idea of a mobile camera, which is easier said than done when cameras weighed a metric ton. Regardless, many scenes are shot with the equivalent of a hand-held camera, predating the shaky-cam visions of films like The Blair Witch Project by more than half a dozen decades. Gance mounted cameras on horses, on a guillotine, on a trapeze, all in an effort to find and create new ways of capturing the action happening before him.

Also innovative is the use of lightning-fast cuts, switching from one scene to another at a pace just fast enough to allow comprehension. Some sequences feature so many quick cuts from one image to the next that it borders on subliminal messaging, and is still visually arresting now. Gance also uses split screens and multiple images, sometimes showing as many as nine different images—a 3x3 box—to indicate confusion, chaos, and constant motion.

The real great moment is when Gance projects three images simultaneously, creating the first ever use of a wide-screen format. Originally this required three projectors, one for each image. It may seem like a nothing these days, when we have become so used to wide-screen and letterboxing, but this is one of those moments when filmmaking truly grew up.

I admit the film seems too long. The copy I found came on a pair of VHS tapes, and with the exception of that wide-screen moment, I felt like I got the point of what Gance wanted to do and was trying to do by the end of the first half. The movie slows down some in the second half only to pick up again and build to that amazing climactic moment. I was tempted to fast-forward to get there. Under further review, the build-up is worth it. But it feels too long.

The story is good, but really secondary here. What’s exciting is what Gance did with the camera and what he showed could be done on celluloid. Its achievement is its innovation.

Why to watch Napoleon: Staggering camerawork.
Why not to watch: The first half is really enough for what’s important here (except for the end).


  1. "Madam, I'm Adam."


    What a name, eh? Albert Dieudonné (God-given)!

  2. I saw this about 20 years ago (I believe it was on Public Television) and I loved it. I've been waiting for this film to arrive on DVD...it's one of my "most-wanted".

  3. @Kevin:
    A man, a plan, a canal: Panama.
    Was it a car or a cat I saw?

    And again, I'm pleasantly surprised. Maybe I should expect to hate everything, because I keep getting films that are far better than I expect them to be. It's such a nice feeling to like something more than I think I will.

  4. I've seen many dump on this movie. I first learned of it when Coppola release it in the 90s and was amazed. Since then I have looked for other Abel Gance films and feel that he learned a lot from and even surpassed Griffith. I'm sure you are ready for "La Roue" as it is the only other Gance film in THE BOOK, but I feel his film "J'Accuse"(1919) is unjustifiably absent. He was one of the truly great artistic silent film makers. I have not had a chance to look into his sound films. Only down side to Gance I have found so far is, that he had no qualms about keeping his audience in the theater for 3 + hours.

  5. Ken--I need to start going into these films with less of a pre-conceived notion of what to expect.

    I'm with you on Gance over Griffith. More of one, less of the other!

    Gance's penchant for keeping the audience in its collective seat appears to be something he shared with a number of other silent directors. There's no shortage of long silents on The List.

  6. It is a pretty remarkable piece of film making, and one of the longer silent films which really did capture my imagination - although I think La Roue is a marginally better film (at least I enjoyed it more).

    While i'm not ready to re-watch any of these silent epics yet, I think it will be interesting to revisit them with my new found patience toward these kinds of films.

    I was also wondering what the theatre experience might be like for these kinds of movies.

  7. I recently bought an "ALL REGIONS" Korean import (anything to save a buck)of this film and have not yet watched it.

  8. @Klaus: I'm with you on the rewatching. I'm not adverse to it, but right now, I think my time is better spent elsewhere.

    @Ken: I don't know what you'll think, but I was really pleasantly surprised by it. I'm curious to see your opinion on it.

  9. I have definitely seen it and was in awe. My last comment about the import is more of a observation on the availability on DVD in different formats, and I just hope that it's quality is as good as I expect it to be. Sure hope English is one of the language options.

  10. I just received La Roue today through Netflix - looking forward to how it compares to Napoleon.

  11. I'm not planning on hitting La Roue for a few months. I can only handle so many really long movies at a time (and I've just gotten a copy of another pretty long one).

  12. I've been wanting to see Abel Gance's Napoleon for almost 30 years and I finally saw it, watching it in segments over the last few days.

    Long before I ever heard of the 1001 list (long before it ever existed, I think) I was working on another movie list. I had picked up a book called The 100 Greatest Movies (or something like that) and I decided to try to see all of them.

    The authors had polled 20 or 30 international film critics and used a point system to figure out which films to include and how to rank them. There were quite a few I had already seen (Casablanca, Singin' in the Rain, Wizard of Oz ... I think I had already seen Fanny and Alexander), films I'd heard of but not yet seen (some Fellini, some Bergman, Monsieur Verdoux) and a bunch of films I'd never heard of (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Heimat, several Bunuel films).

    Little by little, I saw them and marked them off the list. I bought the book about 1990, to give you an idea how long I've been working on this list.

    (And I even flubbed my chance to see Napoleon in the 1990s when it was on A&E. It was scheduled at 1 am in the morning in a six-hour time slot. (I'm guessing the reason I didn't tape it was because I didn't want to deal with all those A&E commercials.) I watched the beginning and saw the whole snowball fight. Then I went to bed. I woke up a few hours later and watched the last hour or so. I remember thinking "Wow! This looks like a great movie. I think I made a big mistake not taping it. Oh well, I'll see it eventually." And I did. Twenty years later.)

    I got Netflix in 2006, and that helped a lot with the list! I think the first film from the list that I saw through Netflix was Tokyo Story, such a great film!

    So I eventually got it down to four films that you can't get from Netflix. I think that was about 2012. They were: Napoleon (1927), The World of Apu, The Life of O-Haru, and Voyage to Italy (with Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders).

    But one by one, I got those as well. O-Haru eventually showed up on Netflix. Voyage to Italy was on Cinemoi. I found The World of Apu on YouTube.

    And there it sat for a few years with Abel Gance's Napoleon as the only movie from that list I hadn't seen.

    (And after I saw Me and My Gal a few months ago, Napoleon was the only film on the 1001 list made before 1935 that I hadn't seen.)

    But now I've seen it and completed that particular list! YAY! I don't know the name of the Internet site I used because it's from Russia and they use the Cyrillic alphabet. But they were hosting the four-hour version with English inter-titles. A Russian guy would read the Russian translation of every English caption. And the print was a little muddy at times.

    But despite all that, it was well worth the trouble! What an amazing accomplishment for Gance. I would love to see it on a big screen someday, preferably in Paris or Toulon or Rochefort.

    I think it's kind of amusing that the actress playing Josephine looks like Thelma Todd. And the guy playing DeLisle (who wrote Le Marseillaise) looks like Dwight Frye.

    1. I agree that it's worth it. I think this could stand a pretty hefty trim. There's no real need for this to be a four-hour movie when everything Gance wants to do could be easiliy done in 150 minutes. That's still a beefy movie, but getting us there would involve cutting 3 out of every 8 minutes, and those minutes are there to cut.

      I'd like to trim about half an hour out of the first two hours and another hour out of the next 90 minutes or so, leaving the ending virtually as it is.

      But hey, it's really worth seeing.