One of the lasting impressions left by Abel Gance’s film Napoléon (1927), now showing in a new, digitally remastered print at the BFI and the Lumière, is that it consists solely of close-ups and crowd scenes. This impression is too simple, but it doesn’t go away when you correct it with the modest, more diffuse truth. There are shots that do not linger on iconic faces, on an agitated Danton, a hazy Joséphine de Beauharnais, an unnamed dying solider, or the ever-present destiny-filled glare of Napoléon himself. There are houses and fields and mountains and oceans that are not packed with scrambling people, that do not represent a battle or a riot or a march or a pile-up of milling bodies at the National Convention. But why do we scarcely remember these exceptions?
The answer has something to do with Gance’s view of history, which hovers between forceful individual action and sheer seething mess, and even more to do with his sense of the cinema. These two elements are precisely what a movie, or Gance’s movie at least, can show to perfection. There is no place, it seems, between loneliness and engulfment among the masses.
The reconstruction of the film is the remarkable work of Kevin Brownlow, and the print we see now has a newly recorded score by Carl Davis, witty and helpful. We know when we are watching English rather than French soldiers because the soundtrack offers a jaunty version of ‘Rule Britannia’ or ‘The British Grenadiers’. As Brownlow told us in his 1983 book on the subject, Gance planned to make ‘six massive films’, but spent all his money on one – a mere five and half hours long in this reconstruction. In 1972 he also made a new version of his own, Bonaparte et la révolution, which Brownlow said ‘drastically altered the 1927 material and cast further confusion over the order of the scenes’.
The line of the historical narrative is clear enough: Bonaparte as a child at military school in Brienne; the beginnings of the Revolution, focusing on an assembly of the people learning to sing the ‘Marseillaise’; Bonaparte’s return to Corsica and his attempt to stop his compatriots from selling out to England; the fall of the Girondins and Bonaparte’s role in the siege of Toulon (this sequence alone would make several movies); the Reign of Terror, death sentences; Bonaparte’s quelling of the revolt against the National Convention; the beginning of the first Italian campaign. We end on an alp, amid literal and metaphorical clouds, as Bonaparte ‘plays’, according to a title card, ‘at destroying and building worlds’. Images of Joséphine enter the superimpositions on the screen, along with maps of Toulon, and memories of the deaths of Danton, Marat, Robespierre and Saint-Just. The sun appears among the clouds.
So in the life of this Napoléon there is no Egyptian campaign, no Consulate, no Empire, no comeback from Elba and no solitary end on St Helena – or rather all of these things are in the film, but are not shown, just hinted at by the recurring eagle and repeated silhouette of a solitary man on a rock. Some of this foreshadowing is just comic, especially at the start of the film. Bonaparte is shown at school during a class on ‘islands’ – amazing what destiny can do to a syllabus. Corsica is described as ‘half-civilised’, and Bonaparte stands up, outraged, controlling himself only with difficulty. Then the teacher says (or a title-card says for him): ‘Oh, I was forgetting. A little rock lost in the ocean: St Helena.’ The published script says Bonaparte’s ‘anxiety is acute. He does not know why. He sinks into a dream.’ The film allows us to read his face in any way we like, though we can hardly escape the thought of historical Meaning.
But as the film continues, this long perspective goes beyond anticipatory fantasy or dramatic irony, and allows for a complicated, ultimately unresolved quarrel between accident and fate, or between what just happens and what had to happen. At one point the script throws logic to the wind and speaks of ‘a mysterious accident of Fate’: this is when the names of Bonaparte and Joséphine, who have not met, appear among the files of those denounced as enemies of the Revolution.
And in a spectacular scene that almost unravels the whole saga, or at least shows how close the saga came to unravelling, the young Nelson spots what he calls a ‘suspicious-looking vessel’ off the coast of Corsica. The boat contains Bonaparte, his mother, his sister and his three brothers, although of course Nelson can’t know this. He asks his senior officer for permission to sink the boat – pour encourager les autres as we might say – but the captain says no, it’s not worth wasting powder on such a target. A title-card underscores the point for us: ‘Caesar and his destiny. A future emperor, three kings and a queen on a few square metres between sky and sea.’ I think the intention may be to say there is no stopping a real Caesar or a real destiny, but the effect is to suggest that destiny itself, to borrow the film’s logic, needs a lot of luck.
There are many moments when it seems as if Napoléon could easily have been called The Triumph of the Will. All is chaos in the school, in the inn, on the battlefield, in the political assembly, and one calm, stern remark from Bonaparte takes care of everything. A close-up on Albert Dieudonné’s face makes clear that what you need to be a Caesar is an icy gaze and drooping hair: you need to look like a piece of history rather than a person. But then the close-up is followed by, or intercut with, another squabbling, fighting crowd; the frame is full of more agitated figures than it seems any frame could take. We know theoretically, because Napoléon is Napoléon, that this disorder could be subdued. But that is not what our eyes know: they are seeing terminal turmoil, relieved only by editing.
This conflict is played out in what is perhaps the film’s most magnificent piece of montage. Bonaparte, chased by his enemies in Corsica, finally escapes to sea in a small boat. A storm arrives, and Bonaparte’s struggle with boat and wind and sea is intercut with a scene in the National Convention. ‘That same day, at the same hour,’ a title says, ‘another mighty storm was unleashed.’ We see Robespierre, Marat; then the almost sinking boat; then the crowd attacking the Girondins, with quick flashes of a shot of the guillotine in between; then the boat again. Chaos in Paris and tumult on the Corsican sea. The chaos continues, but Bonaparte survives. The script suggests that Gance borrowed the image of the Convention as a storm from Victor Hugo, but the parallel must be all his. His conclusion of the scene invokes ‘the raging whirlpool of the Reign of Terror’ and ‘a man … being triumphantly carried to the heights of history’. There are many suggestions here. Bonaparte will survive many storms, all the way to Russia and back. This is the epic view, the story of the man whose eagle always shows up when he needs it. But how much does it take for the eagle to get lost? Or what sort of storm?
Napoléon’s most famous sequence is the split-screen material at the end, where we see three different views of a single moment at once: three aspects of Bonaparte, for example, or Joséphine, a globe and a map of Italy. But there is an early scene which is in its way even more impressive. Bonaparte has a pet eagle with him at school. Two of his rivals maliciously let the bird out of the cage into the snowy night. Bonaparte discovers the bird’s absence and marches into the school dormitory. He asks who let his eagle go, no one answers, so he declares them all guilty. He starts a fight with all of them: fists fly, bodies fall, pillows burst, feathers fill the air and finally some teachers arrive, stop the ruckus and throw Bonaparte out into the snow. He walks over to a cannon at the end of the porch, and rests on it. The bird is close by, in a tree, and as if it too knew its destiny, flies down to join him. The amazing thing here, though, is that during the fight the screen multiplies, splitting first into four sections, then into nine, each with a different view of the battle. What Gance himself said of this effect was that he ‘was becoming obsessed with the idea of a fourth dimension, with the possibility of abolishing time and space: the concept of Polyvision was gradually seeping into my consciousness.’ Polyvision: it’s an attractive alternative to monovision and empire, and it is formally organised. It doesn’t entail the sheer confusion of a war or a revolution out of control.