Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927)


Jun-Dai and Lucía at the Royal Festival Hall in Southbank Centre at 13:30 on 30 November 2013.

Napoléon is one of the best examples of what was lost with the introduction of sound film. In his attempt to depict the scale, the chaos, and the larger-than-life nature of the French Revolution, Abel Gance seems to have used every trick he could find and he invented new ones when those didn’t suffice. There is a world of ingenuity and expressive inventiveness in those last years of silent filmmaking that has never been matched since, and no film brings as much of that to bear as Napoléon. It is painful to consider how much richer our modern cinematic language might be if sound film had not become mainstream for another decade (allowing, among other things, the possibility that Gance would have been able to film more than the first part of this intended six-part series on Napoléon).

Napoléon is not a perfect film. It is engaging for something that lasts six hours (in this case, spread out over eight hours with three intervals), but it does drag on. Some of the battle scenes were too chaotic for me to follow. The film repeats itself quite a bit, and a lot of characters don’t really seem relevant to the story. If I were editing the film, I would most certainly cut Violine out of the film—assuming of course that she does not play some vital role in the missing scenes or in the unmade sequels that Gance had in mind.

Regarding the score, I was prepared for worst. Not knowing much about Carl Davis, I imagined a repetitive, soaring, oppressive Hollywood score of the worst kind. What I got instead was a repetitive, soaring medley of mostly Beethoven, with bits of Mozart and various classical pieces thrown in, all excellently performed by London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. In particular the use of the Coriolan overture and the theme from the final movement of the Eroica symphony are expertly woven into the film. They were certainly overused, but the repetitiveness of it matched the overly repetitive nature of the film itself.

Some memorable scenes: the snowball fight at the beginning of the film, where the spatial layout and battle strategy remain fairly opaque in my mind, but the rhythm and mise-en-scène provide a very musical sort of development. It is not clear how Napoléon wins the snowball fight, but it is clear that he does so decisively.

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