A silent masterpiece years ahead of its time. Napoleon by French director Abel Gance has been lovingly restored by Kevin Brownlow, with a new score by Carl Davis.
Emperor Concertoby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Abel Gance’s magnificent five-and-a-half-hour silent masterpiece has been restored by Kevin Brownlow and redigitalised, with additional footage restored and a newly recorded orchestral score composed by Carl Davis, based on the music of composers of Napoleon’s time.
Production on Napoleon started over 90 years ago. Gance wanted to create a new alphabet of cinema and the film is still innovative and fresh. The version on release now is in four acts. Act 1 opens with a prolonged snowball fight between the boys at the military academy where Napoleon (played as a boy by Vladimir Roudenko) is a student, Gance’s camera is right inside the flying snowballs, between the opposing sides. It’s a long scene and it’s intended to set the scene for Gance’s biography of a planned six films covering Napoleon’s life and to show that even at such an early age, Napoleons’s grasp of military strategy and leadership as he commands his team. His only friend is a pet eagle and this symbol of the imperial eagle is superimposed throughout. Through the beginnings of the French Revolution and its triumvirate of Robespierre (Edmond Von Daele), Danton (Alexandre Koubitsky) and Marat (Antonin Artauc) and his first meeting with Josephine to his return to Corsica, we see the beginnings of the chaos through which Napoleon rose. Contrary to preconceptions, Gance’s camera is always on the move. In a riotous national assembly, it swings above the crowd like a pendulum, something no director had attempted before.
Acts 2 and 3 take us through the Siege of Toulon and Napoleon and Josephine’s relationship. In Act 4, Napoleon has risen to almost god-like status as he aims to form the ‘universal republic’. As Napoleon, Albert Dieudonné’s hawklike face combines pride, ambition and a kind of sensitivity as he deals with the prejudice against him as a provincial Corsican until he is leading conquering armies. Gance’s innovative use of split or fragmented screens, multiple cameras. and occasional coloured red and blue filters culminates in the glorious tricolour, triptych finale of the triumphant Napoleon.
Napoleon is an extraordinary film. It is ambitious, absorbing, intriguing and both historical and contemporary. Kevin Brownlow’s labour of love in restoring it over many years in association with the BFI has brought a nearly neglected epic masterpiece to our screens. It is timeless and it is a must-see.
Napoleon is released on 11 November 2016 in the UK.