Triumph of Napoléon

2nd December 2013

I’m coming rather late to this, but I want to make a short contribution to the Napoléon discussion. Back in 1980 I was among those who thrilled at the London Film Festival screening of Kevin Brownlow’s reconstruction of Abel Gance’s 1927 film. And on Saturday, thirty-three years later to the day, I was on my feet in the Royal Festival Hall applauding composer and conductor Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra at the end of a further screening of the full five-and-a-half hours.

There is no question that watching the film with a live symphonic soundtrack is a great experience. Nor is there any doubt that Kevin Brownlow, the late David Gill, Carl Davis and others have been heroic in their reconstruction efforts, as last Friday’s Guardian article details. Since Saturday, I have read a number of thoughtful responses to the showing, including Rick Burin’s review of the screening and a post from the estimable Silent London website, as well as Luke McKernan’s discussion – and there is much in these with which I agree. But there’s one aspect of the film (and its effect) that seems rarely to be discussed explicitly, which is its politics.

As Luke notes,

To express dislike for Napoléon can be close to heresy in silent film circles, given the heroic story of the film’s production and the still more heroic story of its restoration by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill… But one can be grateful and still be critical at the same time. Napoléon is not a good film; it is a very long film with some good things in it.

Do read the whole of Luke’s argument, which I think nails quite precisely a feeling that, to a significant degree at least, I share – and which concludes (referencing a screening that I was also at last week):

The cult of the silent cinema restoration with live full orchestra that the 1980 restoration ushered in has led to many ecstatic reviews that suggest that here is the quintessence of cinema, but I beg to differ. Earlier this week at the British Library we showed a ten-minute film from 1910, A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner, with a single pianist, to an audience of thirty. There was more truth in that film’s simple exposition of people, time and place, than in all of Napoléon‘s strutting bombast – and finer technique too, if we want technique to have purpose. I prefer my films human-sized, and about ordinary humans, not about the heartless visions of world conquerors. Small is beautiful.

So, yes, there is spectacle galore in Napoléon and there is much mastery of complex and advanced filmic techniques. But there is not too much humanity. All of which we might also say about, well, Leni Riefenstahl’s hymn to the force of Hitler, Triumph of the Will (1935). Not that I want – quite – to argue that Napoléon is a fascist film (whatever that might mean), but as parts three and four unravelled on Saturday I became more and more uncomfortable about the depiction of a hero that I was expected not just to admire but to adore.

After just forty-eight hours of, it is suggested, wedded bliss with Josephine, Napoléon leaves Paris on his way to lead the French army in Italy. On the way he stops off in the deserted Convention, where the ghosts of the leaders of the revolution – Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just – urge him onwards with the message that now France, and the revolution, is in desperate need of a strong leader.

Which is exactly what our man sets out to be as he heads a conquering army trampling across the Piedmont plains on the way to the brutal domination of Europe. And which is exactly how the film and the score (with great bleeding chunks of Beethoven) portrays him – to electrifying effect, especially as the single screen splits into the famed triptychs of the final fifteen minutes or so (above). There’s not a frame of doubt or debate, not a moment of concern or of questioning. This is a profoundly powerful expression of militaristic nationalism – which one might suggest had its problems back in 1927 just as it does today.

I’m not a silent film historian and I am certain that others have explored in detail the politics of Napoléon. Indeed I would welcome a reference or two to help me think about this further. Maybe I’m just stating something so obvious that no-one worries about it, but as I say I am struck that in much of the journalism and the blog posts that I have read recently, amongst all of the celebration of the film’s technique and its impact, the film’s politics is rarely engaged with. So does anyone else feel similarly uneasy – or is raising this question something that, like Luke McKernan’s qualified dislike of the film, is ‘close to heresy’?

Comments

  1. The politics did bother me. There is this shift (which is an honest enough, if simplistic, reflection of the history) where Napoleon turns from being champion of the Revolution to a man with the mission to unite Europe, the first stage of which is to invade Italy. The title announcing the European vision caused some wry smiles among the audience; the unquestioned need to advance into another country and in doing so to take Napoleon entirely at his own estimation will have worried some.

    There’s an interesting discussion of Napoleon’s politics here: http://primaryshadows.com/2012/05/14/abel-gances-napoleon-1927-a-fascist-masterpiece-not-so-fast/, which makes the argument that “any attempt to decode Gance’s view of Napoleon from the film text must keep in mind that the full text is not available to us.” I’m not convinced that Gance, had he made his intended parts 2-6, would have gone on to produce a more critical portrait of his hero, and in any case we must judge what we have, not what might have been. But the piece does identify some potentially questioning elements within the film. I’m not aware of printed critical literature that discusses the film’s politics.

    • John Wyver says:

      Thanks Luke, that’s a very useful reference, which – along with the uncertainty about how the politics of the final six-part film would have turned out – includes the following:

      ‘…the issue of whether the film was intended as proto-fascist propaganda remains unresolved. We must not forget that Gance made this film at a time when many Europeans, recovering from the destruction and trying to make order of the chaos that the Great War had left in its wake (themes effectively explored by Gance in his 1919 film J’accuse) were turning their eyes towards alternative forms of government. Among them were communism, which was popular in France, and fascism.

      ‘Mussolini had risen to power in Italy in 1922, and one need only to look at what happened in Germany in the ensuing years to see how this would play out. And indeed, Gance would later express admiration not just for Mussolini but also for Philippe Pétain, who transformed the Third French Republic into the authoritarian French State, and was later sentenced to death (commuted by De Gaulle to life in prison) for his treasonous collaboration with the Nazis.’

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