"Intuitively, I feel the stirring of the Emperor’s Shadow in response to my effort. If he was alive, he would deploy this wonderful intellectual dynamite of the cinema to be loved wherever he was absent, to be everywhere at once in people’s eyes and in their hearts. Dead, he cannot object to our modern alchemy transmuting his memory into a virtual presence to better enhance his Imperial Radiation."
It happens about half way through Part IV when Napoleon is talking about a boundary-free Europe in which all people are the same… a spontaneous eruption of applause breaks out from throughout the auditorium: I think something touched a nerve…
Three years on we were back, Abel, Albert, Carl and Kevin, the fathers and sons of La Revolution Cinématographique, standing tall in the Royal Festival Hall as sure as the projections of Robespierre, Danton, Marat and Sante-Just in the Convention Centre inspiring Napoléon before his Italian expedition. Behind them stand hundreds of cast and crew, thousands of extras and tonnes of horses and when Carl waves his baton he’s channelling Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart: mighty music for colossal cinema. This was truly the greatest show in town: a European adventure examining the nature of nationhood at a time when the UK and USA are losing the plot.
Gance planned six films covering Napoleon’s life and this was to be just the first. From 1923 onwards he began immersing himself in his subject in an effort to not just tell the story but to re-create the spirit of the founding days of modern France. Watching the results is a lesson in historical contextuality: yes, Napoleon was the enemy of Britain at the time but look what he did for his country? Gance lauds his leadership, intelligence and legacy and, whilst as a modern viewer it’s hard to avoid anachronistic political referencing we should recall that Napoleon was operating at a time when Britain was ruled by an un-elected sovereign and a parliament of a few hundred rotten boroughs elected by the property-owning classes.
|The Gods of the Revolution|
In the Twenties, post-war politics were in flux with hard-left/hard-right movements across Europe – British malleability enabled the rise of the Labour Party whilst the French situation was more unstable… Gance’s contribution would be to try and remind his countrymen of where their nation-state came from: he wanted to help make France great again. Dangerous territory for sure - that was him and that was then.
But what he really achieved was cinematically game-changing – a decades-defying leap forward in technique and new ideas: ultra-fast cutting, thrilling hand and horse-held intrusions and the widest screens in history. More than anyone else from the silent era he can make the audience feel like they are right there in the picture.
Kevin Brownlow has laboured for decades over Abel Gance’s film – there’s a wonderful youthful shot of him as a youth with Gance in the late sixties – now his work has reached something of a peak with the BFI’s sparkling digital restoration (although rumour has it that the French are working on their own using different source materials…).
I’ve been lucky enough to have seen a sample of the completed work with the recorded score but to see the full film with composer, conductor and the full Philharmonia is something else entirely: I am thrilled and frazzled… once again I stand ready to invade Italy (in the nicest possible way…).
This time round I noticed the humour more… you might expect there not to be too many laughs but in Act III especially, we have a love-struck Napoleon as well as a pop star General who, having saved Paris from a Royalist insurrection, has to employ a double to distract the fans outside his humble apartment: it’s a Hard Day’s Napoleon and y’know, he looks a little like John with that fringe.
They’re selling dolls of our hero and he even has a would be groupie in the form of Violine (Annabella) daughter of the ever-present Tristan Fleuri (Nicolas Koline) - an “everyman” who follows our hero from school to Italy. Violine’s worship is a little troubling but gains some validation after Josephine (Gina Manès) discovers her makeshift shrine: Gance clearly thinks his subject is worthy.
|Making plans for Italy|
Act IV is very much a poetic tribute especially in comparison with the more fact-filled earlier sections dealing with Napoleon’s rise to power, his adventures in Corsica and the siege of Toulon. Gance crams in a lot more title cards during the Revolution and The Terror but here the triptych and music deliver crescendos showing his vision, passion for Josephine and leadership of the Italian force. The soldiers are a rag-tag bunch when he arrives but within hours he has them mobilized and up for anything.
On they march in red white and blue off into the wide fields of Piedmont and beyond; new lands to conquer good fortune assured… if only.
This film is so detailed there is always something new and whilst the snowball and pillow fights get mentioned for their hand-held immersiveness, the Victims’ Ball in the former prison cells deserves similar mention: it’s a more adult version of the same game, a blur of bodies with Napoleon as perfectly still at the centre as he would be in battle.
The Marseillaise section is equally visceral as the revolutionaries learn the tune and a young Captain congratulates its author: the song will save a few canons. The camera rocks forth over the crowd: time and again Napoleon sweeps you away with emotional intelligence far beyond most cinema.
At the heart is a resolutely centred performance from Albert Dieudonné as Napoléon following an equally impressive Vladimir Roudenko as his younger self. Gance directs them both the same way: all that Imperial Radiation…
Carl Davis’ score becomes more remarkable with time: he interweaves his source composers so well with his own themes, particularly the main theme for Napoleon/The Eagle/The Vision. Interviewed for the new BFI set, Davis recalls how Kevin Brownlow first remarked on the strength of this theme: “is that one of yours?” Most of this was composed and arranged in under three months: a remarkable feat and one that, like the film, has stood the test of time.
The Philharmonia were on fine form today with a tip of the hat to Ray Attfield, guest principal on Hurdy Gurdy, which is shown being played in Robespierre’s office as well as Sarah Oates leading the first violins. Carl Davis conducted my uncle’s band, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and I know our Duncan would have enjoyed the strings more than anything else.
Napoleon is marching across UK cinemas throughout November – details on the BFI site – and is also available on a new Blu-ray and DVD BFI set including a 60-page booklet with an excellent essay from Paul Cuff from which I lifted the above quote. More on this later but you can pre-order direct form the BFI – it’s out on 21st November.
Do not miss it!
Do not miss it!
Vive la Revolution!