Thursday, 9 August 2012

Napoleon (1927)

We are back in the department for heavily edited history lessons. You know, the very patriotic kind where your heroes can do nothing wrong and those you do not like range from being misguided sheep to demonic monsters. Judging from the list this was a very common genre in those olden days with Eisenstein being maybe the most famous example.

Now it is the French’s turn to get a patriotic boost by celebrating their great hero Napoleon. That the same Napoleon is reviled in almost any country outside France is entirely beside the point. According to this history lesson he was from childhood destined for greatness and without a miss headed straight for the position as top dog in which function he saved the country, hurrah!

Okay, I am mocking it. But this so shamelessly thickly done that it at times actually gets funny. This dude never takes off his hat. He is wearing the classic Napoleon hat even as a child and, say, 60% of the time we see him he is standing with one arm on the back staring imperiously into the horizon. He is a caricature more than a portrait really and the prime quality of the actor is that he looks like him. Only when he gets involved with Josephine in the second half is he starting to show traits different from stoic heroism and patriotism (and he actually for ones take off his hat!.

The first hour we can easily skip. Nothing much happens here except for establishing the stereotype Napoleon. But that is okay, there is plenty of movie left, three more hours to be precise. Abel Gance does not seem to deal in short flimsy features.

But an hour into the movie we get the first glimpse of what Napoleon, the movie, is famous for: Napoleon’s wild ride across Corsica (being chased by soldiers with funny hats) and subsequent escape in an open boat. When the speed picks up Gance shows that he has learned something about filming and editing. The storm at sea matching the storm in the French parliament is wild and crazy and woke me up after almost drifting to sleep.

Throughout the movie there are a number of these technical highlight. The storm of Toulon, a ferocious battle at night in a storm, the subsequent storm in the parliament during the reign of terror with everybody chopping off the head of everybody else and to top it all Napoleon marching into Italy heading a grand army covering three screens. Something for which my television is hopelessly inadequate, but must have looked really awesome in the cinema and a fitting reward for the audience who at this point would have sat through 3½ hours of praise of all things Napoleon.

My personal highlight was Robespierre. Gance equipped him with super cool sunglasses. In his big white wig he looks ultra hipster with them and I got totally envious. I hope to find a picture of it.

This movie has many faults, but most of them are so obvious that I do not really have to mention them. Suffice to say it is quite an ordeal to sit through it, especially if you are not a French patriot. Cut down to half length it would win a lot. Then it would fall into the category of technically brilliant pieces of surreal propaganda (read: Eisenstein). Now instead it is a very very long technically brilliant piece of surreal propaganda.

When Napoleon raises his sail on his little boat, what does it look like? The tricolore, of course!


  1. I saw this one in a theater because it was the only way to see it. Looooooooooong. There were interesting parts, and, as you point out, Gance had improved his directing skills. I will say this for it, though. The finale with the triptych effect, the pseudo widescreen, that was pretty cool.

    There was an intermission, by the way. There has to be.

    1. Still, how did you manage to sit through 4 hours of this in a cinema? I know I could not.

  2. As a Napoleonic scholar, I was not amused by this. I'm pretty sure there is no complete version of this--although Francis Ford Coppola did a restoration. So freaking long and boring, and the historical inaccuracies are criminal.

    1. I doubt this is supposed to be historical. Instead its aim is to be patriotic and awe-inspiring. That was very much the general agenda in the twenties.
      Renoir did a better movie on the revolution a decade later, perhaps you know it.

  3. La Marseillais? It's much better than this, but Renoir was a much more gifted, and restrained, filmmaker than Gance.

    1. That is the one. It is almost as if Renoir saw "Napoleon" and thought: "Not like that!"