New York

Napoleon, Directed By Abel Gance

Zoetrope Studios And Image Film Archives

What becomes a legend most? In the case of Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon it’s the Francis Ford Coppola imprimatur, a 60-piece symphony orchestra, the Radio City Music Hall, and an audience with a $10–$25 investment in witnessing a masterpiece (albeit one shortened by 20 minutes and projected at sound, rather than silent, speed). Kevin Brown-low has devoted half his life to tracking down the various prints, reconstructing Gance’s four-hour-plus magnum opus, so it’s understandable that he would see it as the ultimate film: “The visual resources of the cinema have never been stretched further than in Napoleon. The picture is an encyclopedia of cinematic effects—a pyrotechnical display of what the silent film was capable of in the hands of a genius.” The fact is, though, that even as spectacle, Gance’s eccentric exercise in national chest-thumping is just not in the same league as Intolerance, October or even Metropolis.

At best, Napoleon offers an erratic excursion from set-piece to set-piece. If Gance has little interest in classical narrative construction, his greatest talent is for hand-held camera movement. Sequences like the opening snowball fight (meant to show Napoleon’s precocious grasp of military strategy) or the gauzy, confetti-strewn Bal des Victimes that celebrates the end of the Terror, start at a smart pace and escalate into breathless whirligigs. They’re not exactly fluid—when you sense the gears grinding it’s as though an amusement park ride has gone out of control—but they are visceral. Gance can sock across a banal metaphor on pure manic energy. Cross-cutting between a storm at sea and the National Convention in Paris, he hits us with everything at once: negative images, bathtub miniatures, multiple superimpositions, the camera careening over a frantic mob like a chorus girl on a swing.

But once the pyrotechnics subside, we are left to confront Gance’s mind. His uncritical hero-worship and mystical sense of national destiny, not to mention his stated desire “to sweep the spectator away,” verge on the fascistic. He turns the French Revolution into an inexplicable hodgepodge, and his sense of historical irony is on a par with Cecil B. DeMille’s. (“Captain, permit me to scuttle that pathetic vessel,” requests one British officer as young Napoleon’s getaway boat drifts o’er the horizon. “No, Nelson,” comes the reply. “We haven’t the time.”) Dance has an iconic sense of casting; his actors leave indelible impressions, but their performances are strictly out of the wax museum. Albert Dieudonné’s splendid, crescent-moon profile makes him a remarkably assured Napoleon. For the close-ups Gance can’t resist trundling out the pinpoint spot so that the Man of Destiny’s eyes light up at key moments, Count Dracula-style.

Unfortunately, only the last of Napoleon’s four Polyvision sequences has survived. Gance uses this three-screen projection both as panorama and as counterpoint. The entire French army is unfurled before us—horses wheeling, and circling the camera—then Napoleon appears flanked by two panels of sky. The orchestration of the three screens is keyed to martial rhythms, and the timing is far closer to John Phillip Sousa’s than to Charles Ives’. Undeniably powerful, the Polyvision climax is also disappointingly schematic, up until the entire film is recapped in superimposition. Then it dissolves into image soup.

It’s true that Gance managed to anticipate everyone and everything from Stan Brakhage to CinemaScope, but to what end? The audacity of his ideas is far more admirable than their execution. His fast-cutting produces little more than a simple-minded frenzy; he piles superimposition upon superimposition until the screen fairly sags under the weight. It’s not just that Gance’s technique seems rudimentary in light of Stan Brakhage, Peter Kubelka, Robert Breer, Paul Sharits, et al; his experimental film language is clumsier, less integrated and far more bombastic than that of his contemporaries Dziga Vertov or Jean Vigo. (The latter appears to have filched the pillow fight in Zero de Conduite from Napoleon and, Gance’s tic-tac-toe split screen notwithstanding, fashioned a more kinetic sequence out of it.)

Master propagandists such as Griffith or Eisenstein built their crescendos scene by scene, shot by shot. But for all Gance’s apparent frame by frame construction, he always opts for the big behavioral cue. The culmination of the Marseillaise sequence comes when a gigantic sword-wielding Liberty is superimposed over the mob. (We see her again later, exploding out of Napoleon’s brow after the ghosts of Danton, Marat and Robespierre have named him heir to the Revolution.) At the end of the film, the Polyvision screen turns into the French tricolore, as the two outer wings of the three-screen projection are shown through red and blue filters. Amazingly, this tacky effect brought down the house at Radio City.

J. Hoberman