A version of this article appears in the current issue of The New European:
Forget Marvel’s super heroes, JK Rowling’s fantastic beasts, Spielberg’s BFG and even Amy Adams’ alien friends in Arrival, there’s only one truly epic hero stomping across cinemas at the moment, and his name is Napoleon.
Restored, repaired, revived, Napoleon is now in a position to challenge for the claim of “the greatest film ever made”. It’s only taken about 90 years to get there.
We are talking about French film maker Abel Gance’s 1927 silent masterpiece, Napoleon, which has now, after 50 years’ work, been digitally restored and reassembled by British film historian Kevin Brownlow into a version which is as close as anything has ever got to the director’s original vision of the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte. It is the most faithful version ever shown, probably since its premiere at the Paris Opera in April 1927.
Napoleon clocks in at 330 minutes – that’s 5 and a half hours – but when the film is screened with live orchestral accompaniment, as it was at its premiere in London’s Royal Festival Hall last week, the event runs to about 8 hours, with intervals and union-sanctioned meal breaks for the musicians. Because now, it’s also two masterpieces-in-one: this Napoleon comes with an equally majestic score, composed by Carl Davis.
Quite incredibly, this might have been just the beginning. Gance, who died in 1981, had intended his film biography to be a six-parter but, so detailed, so sweeping, so passionate is his engagement with the subject, he never got past the 1796 invasion of Italy, when Napoleon fires up the bedraggled French troops and leads them “into the most fertile plains in the world, to honour, glory and riches.”
Gance spent all his budget on the first movie. “He bankrupted quite a few people along the way,” remarks Brownlow. “But he knew it was in the service of great art.”
As the film stands, we trace the life, both personal and political of Napoleon Bonaparte as he sets his eagle eyes on a united Europe. The continent has been through many iterations since both the real Napoleon and the filmed one, and watching Gance’s whirling images in the current moment, the viewer is assaulted by a barrage of thoughts, about Emperors, dictators, unifiers, war-mongerers, nationalism and revolution. Gance the director was a showman (some might say a show-off) and the visual techniques employed here are breathtaking even still, while the abiding relevance of the themes is just as striking.
Brownlow recounts with pride how there were loud cheers at the Royal Festival Hall at the scene where Napoleon barks his rallying cry: “Europe shall become a single people, a universal republic, there shall be wars but one day there will be victories without cannon or bayonet.” Concedes Brownlow: “I should mention that there were also a couple of boos.”
Brownlow fell in love with Gance’s film when he saw just two reels of the film as a schoolboy in 1954. It began a life-time obsession which continues today. “I’m not sure it will ever stop,” says Brownlow, who first unveiled his restoration in 1980 and who even now has recently uncovered some missing fragments of film he’s keen to insert. “But every time someone sends me something they’ve come across in an archive, even if it’s just 50 seconds or so, it is hugely expensive to slot in, especially if we have to record more orchestral score for it. But you’re right – we’re not done yet.”
Why has he dedicated so much of his own life to putting back together somebody else’s film, about somebody else’s life? “I never tire of great art,” he says, firmly. “Early on, I did keep thinking that with each recovered sequence, I would find the quality would take a plunge and that the critics and historians who’d previously written about the film, even on its original release, would be proved right. But the more I added to it, the better it became. I had to rub my eyes again and again. I realised nobody had seen the right version, only butchered ones. I have simply always wanted to complete the puzzle.”
With its upcoming release on DVD and Blu-Ray, and for which Davis recorded the score at his own expense, we can safely say the film has now reached the digital age and this version can now be preserved for years to come – no more disintegrating nitrate or crumbling celluloid. Also preserved will be Gance’s reputation as one of the great directors. Yet it is on the big screen that its true magnificence almost overwhelms the viewer.
I saw it – what a treat – on the BFI’s giant IMAX screen in Waterloo (the irony of that location only hitting me afterwards) and from the very first scene, it’s a rare experience, one of those sublime moments in a cinema when you sit bolt upright, the eyes widening to take it all in, the jaw slightly dropped at the action before you.
It starts with a perfectly choreographed snowball fight at Napoleon’s military school, scores of children in bicorne hats strategising their way to victory over their classmates. “This boy will go far,” says one teacher, pulling young Bonaparte from the flurry.
Then we’re in a classroom, for a geography lesson, where Napoleon learns about small islands – his pride in seeing his native Corsica on the blackboard, and the premonition when he sees St Helena on the map. It’s a rather brilliant way of showing us this man will always be an island, from birth to death.
School life is miserable, with only a pet eagle for companionship, a symbol of which Gance continues to make much throughout the film, always accentuating Napoleon’s hawkish eyes, his aquiline nose in profile and his soaring rhetoric. “He is made of granite heated in a volcano,” remarks another teacher – incidentally, the subtitle cards were translated from the French and reshot, using the original font.
One must emphasise the wit and delicate touch on display. I think I was expecting something sombre and pompous, but the amount of lightness and humour is a delight. Even when the revolution arrives, with a quick cut to 1789 and we’re in the Club des Cordeliers, Danton (Alexandre Koubitzky), Robespierre (Edmond van Daele) and Marat (the piercingly handsome Antonin Artaud) are lounging around in a deliciously louche tableau while peasant crowds – including a brute with “Mort Au Tirans” (sic) tattooed roughly across his chest – gather in a hall outside.
In this scene, a soldier dashes in with a new song that will unite the people and they all join in a rousing rendition – particularly for a silent film, remember – of La Marseillaise. It’s here that Carl Davis’ score excels, floating in strains and themes throughout the scene until building to the chorus.
The action moves outside, the young officer Napoleon spots the idle rich still going about their business, including a beauty called Josephine who’s giggling on her way to visit a fortune teller.
Then Napoleon returns to Corsica, to visit his mother and “his friend, the Ocean.” The film becomes lyrical, lost among the hills and forests of the beautiful island, from which he will eventually have to flee after in-fighting factions there disagree with his firm vision for Corsica as part of France. Following a breathless and thrilling chase scene, he escapes in rickety boat, using a captured French flag as a sail.
In an extraordinary (and apparently true) moment, a young admiral called Nelson is on a British boat, patrolling the same waters. Seeing the French sail in his sights, he asks permission to sink the vessel but is denied by his Commander who considers it “a waste of a good gunpowder.”
I could go on. I can’t remember the last time I was taking so many notes in my little critics’ notebook, scribbling with quite such glee as amazement followed upon wonder, each shot outdoing the previous one for detail or depth or daring. I learned later that Francois Truffaut, no mean critic himself, wrote: “There is not a single scene in Napoleon which does not make us think it is key to the film, no shot that is not filled with emotion, no actor who does not give his best.”
Still, there remains one outstanding ‘coup de cinema’ that cannot be forgotten. In the final act (that’s after 4 hours 45 minutes) there’s a marvellous scene in an empty, vast Convention Hall where the ghosts of Danton and Robespierre appear to the fast-rising Napoleon and listen to his plans for the Universal Republic of Europe.
Then, as he heads off to the ragged French army in the foothills of the Alps, the screen suddenly splits into three separate panels. This is the famous triptych, a remarkable feat that pre-dated widescreen by at least 25 years, using three cameras spliced together to literally expand the canvas of the screen to fit in the armies and the mountains, to cope with the sheer scope of Napoleon’s grand vision (curiously, only once is his diminutive stature referred to, when one General scorns “this little stump of a man”).
And the film continues in this almost impossibly grandiose yet staggering fashion to its climax, when the panels tint into the red, white and blue of the tricolour and the Grand Army marches into Italy, watched over as ever by that soaring eagle.
The cumulative result is rousing and exhilarating, of course, and certainly one of the film events of the decade, even if one experiences often conflicting emotions throughout. When Brownlow showed that early version of his restoration in 1980 (Gance attended the premiere but died a few months later), some critics declared it a “facist film”. And you find yourself wondering what to think at the bellicosity while admiring the ambition and passion, pondering if the old divisions of English and French views of Napoleon obtain today.
According to Brownlow, whose restoration is in conjunction with the BFI, the French have found a version of the film in their cinematheque which may be different and may have more never-before-seen footage. “There could be scenes I have only dreamed about,” he tells me, “ shots I’ve read about and imagined from original scripts but which I previously thought never made it into the film.” It would be typical if both nations now went to battle over yet another version.
“That’s surely the film’s testament,” agrees Brownlow. “Not only are the techniques still breathtaking even in this age of special effects, but thematically it mutates according to the times, both to illustrate history and the nature of the hero.”
Napoleon is without doubt a super-human as depicted (and as played by Albert Dieudonne) in the film. But we are left to make our own minds up about him, his single-mindedness, his strategy, his love, his ardour, his self-absorption and his determination.
It has been said he’s a dictator who achieved peace, prosperity and reform for a failed state. We might not fully understand the actions, yet we cannot deny their power when laid before us on screen – and surely there’s no more resonant a film around at the moment that so boldly takes us charging, lights flashing, cymbals crashing, into the era of Brexit and Trump.
Napoleon is currently touring at 40 cinemas around the UK. The world’s first Blu-ray and DVD release of Napoleon, including the music-synched score recording, is released on November 21.