Napoleon vu Par Kevin Brownlow

when you are silent you are irresistible.”

The Fuse is Lit

I shall never forget my first encounter with Abel Gance’s Napoleon. I was not one of those fortunate enough to see the film as it was meant to be seen, with the magic of three screens and a vast orchestra. I saw it under the most unpromising circumstances – fragments of the great original, shown on a home projector, twenty-five years after its original release. Yet those fragments changed my life. - Kevin Brownlow, Napoleon (1980)

Abel Gance and Kevin Brownlow
Courtesy: Photoplay Productions/San Francisco Silent Film Festival

KUDOS to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Kevin Brownlow, Patrick Stanbury (Photoplay Productions), Carl Davis, The Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra, The Paramount Theater for a weekend that will not be forgotten. I hazard to say that everyone in attendance during each of the four screenings in the last two weeks of March 2012 had their lives changed. I know mine has. Thanks to the lifework of Kevin Brownlow, we all had the chance to see Napoleon vu par Abel Gance as close as it was meant to be seen in 1927. It was epic, overwhelming, tender, intimate, breathtaking, and absolutely glorious.

Looking back now, two weeks later, I’m still completely gobsmacked by the film and the experience of the event itself. I’m still excited about the film. Napoleon is a film that Kevin Brownlow declares is the greatest film ever made. I do not have the chops to state whether or not it is the greatest ever, it one of the greatest in my experience, and it is pretty darn close to the top. Imperfect, epic, engrossing and a technical marvel, this film had just about everything in the five and half hour running time. The film combined with the venue made this a complete extravaganza. Napoleon vu par Abel Gance was, and is likely to remain, the single greatest cinema experience of my life, ever. What follows will likely be a rambling, incoherent mess, sorry in advance! I can’t hit on every aspect of the film, but only impressions.

Let’s begin with the Paramount Theater itself. It is a glorious art deco masterpiece. Completed during the height of the depression, the Paramount has been repurposed as a venue for the Oakland East Bay Symphony and the Oakland Ballet. The Paramount also regularly screens classic films. Like the glorious looking Fox Theater around the corner (hosts musical events and concerts), the city of Oakland is to be applauded as it has preserved two real beauties from the Movie Palace era. Something I am ashamed to say is almost entirely lacking in San Francisco save for the neighborhood theaters like the Balboa and the Castro. The photos online cannot do justice, as I told my companions who had never been, wait, wait, WAIT until you get in to the lobby, you won’t believe it. The collective gasps of wonder were pretty much worth the price of admission right there. For those visiting the Bay Area, the Paramount offers docent tours and I highly recommend it, I’ve been and need to go again.

A frisson of excitement rippled through the audience of approximately 3000 people as Carl Davis entered the pit and the Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra crashed to life with the opening notes of Davis’ score. His score relied heavily on the work of Beethoven which was not inappropriate. Beethoven’s 3rd (originally dedicated to Napoleon), the 6th and 7th symphonies were incorporated, as well as some Mozart and plenty of themes composed by Davis himself. Not to mention the French National Anthem, La Marseillaise. For this evening, everyone in the audience was a French National. I certainly felt that way.

As I watched the 1927 epic unfurl before my eyes, I could not help but be reminded of Woodrow Wilson's famous quotation about seeing D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation, "It was like seeing history written with lightening." I can attest, seeing this film was exactly like seeing history written with lightening. Granted, I will give you that it was a Frenchman's view of French history. It was also a filmmaker’s view of history, mixing myth, legend and fact. I'm not so well versed in the actualities of Napoleonic history to nitpick. Nor do I care, really. What I can say with some authority is that Abel Gance totally out-Griffithed D.W. Griffith; in really a good way.

I wish that I could translate the images from the film into screen captures for you to see here. Cinematically so many are positively seared on my brain. During the screening I tried to remain dispassionate, but it was not an easy task. It was very easy to be caught up in and sucked into the film.  In that I think I suceeded in trying to view the film with the eyes of someone in the silent era.  I was and still am agog with wonder at what I saw.

From the instant the film begins, you are captured by the young Napoleon. Napoleon, the boy, was portrayed by the haunting and mesmerizing Vladimir Roudenko. The film opens with what is now a famous set piece, the snowball fight at Brienne. Carl Davis set this to Mozart’s 25th Symphony, slightly frenetic and it worked so well. Gance’s rapid cutting during the climax of the battle left me breathless. I am still agog at the technique used in the cutting in this sequence (and many others). To think this was cut by hand, some of the fragments 1, 2 or 3 frames in length. I wonder that Gance and his editorial assistants Marguerite Beaugé and Henriette Pinson did not go blind or crazy cutting the film. The clips I had seen of this sequence on television did not do it any favors. It really does need to be seen on the big screen for you to really appreciate how masterfully it was done and how well it works in context. You become a part of the battle. The exact effect Gance was going for.

Roudenko as Napoleon

Vladimir Roudenko’s part is not a large one, but is entirely memorable as the fiercely proud Napoleon. Gance’s camera lingers on the boy’s intense gaze. His face is transparent as he is triumphant during the snow battle. Another incredible set piece and a masterful piece of filmmaking is the pillow fight. The pillow fight is checker boarded across the screen in 9 separate images, all matted by hand, rewound and re-filmed in the camera. A single mistake would have ruined the sequence. Simply mind boggling. Roudenko weeps at the loss of his beloved eagle (symbol of Napoleon throughout the film), the tragedy and then joy cross his face and light his eyes as he sees the rustle of the tree branches and the return of his loyal, beautiful friend.

Courtesy: Photoplay Productions/San Francisco Silent Film Festival

I have seen much discussion on whether or not Albert Dieudonné is effective or well cast as Napoleon. Various critics, back in the 1920’s and as recently as the last few weeks complained that Dieudonné’s portrayal consisted of little more that strutting about and posing. If that was all that was required, even in a rather nasty looking wig, he did it very well. Like so many of the close ups of other actors, Dieudonné was very effective in transmitting his thoughts with a telegraphic precision. I also thought the small bits of comedy as Napoleon was attempting to woo Josephine were charming. It was gentle laughter at so commanding a figure on the battlefield, uncomfortable in the art of romance.  Later in the story, a scene stands out to me, Napoleon and Josephine walking arm in arm, trees in blossom, it was cinematic romance at it's finest.

This brings me to two more set pieces that are well known, the dual storm at the Convention and Napoleon in the storm at sea off the coast of Corsica and the Siege of Toulon. The dual storm was everything it was intended to be, as the camera swung back and forth over the multitudes in The Convention, to the crashing waves and rocking boat at sea, you felt that you were in the midst of all the action and more than a little motion sick, as well. Dieudonné is to be commended for surviving the massive amounts of water heaped upon him during the filming of this sequence; he took quite a beating for art.

The Siege of Toulon hightlighted the brutal battle and the hard life of a soldier.  The endless rain, the battle and Dieudonné's commanding presence, all memorable.  Again, like the Convention, you almost feel yourself dying in the mud and the blood. 

It is here I really must mention Gance’s care in casting the film and casting the faces. The Three Gods of the revolution, Danton (Alexandre Koubitsky), Marat (Antonin Artaud) and Robespierre (Edmond Van Daële) each are wonderful in their roles. Again, more rapid cutting and the faces, the faces he chose, each flashed by for an instant, and all were memorable. The same goes for Gance’s casting himself as Saint-Just, he was perfectly malevolent. A handsome man, Gance could have been a matinee idol of the highest order.  The costuming in the film was beautiful.  Later on during the dinner break there was plenty of discussion on whether or not Marat really did wear a leopard skin.  Van Daële was so memorable and simply creepy as Robespierre, my heart really broke as Danton was led away in the tumbril and Robespierre watched from the window, incarnate of evil and corrupt power.

In what may well be another early first, Gance took his cast and crew to Corsica, the birthplace of Napoleon for location shooting. Cleverly covering the historical plaque on the Napoleonic residence with a convenient patch of creeping ivy, Gance then turned time back. Gance and his cameramen, and the technical wizardry of the Debrie cameras created imagery that is hard to forget. In the race across Corsica, Gance placed a camera on the withers of a galloping horse and captured this bird’s eye view of the chase that really got the heart beating.

Courtesy: Photoplay Productions/San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The only portion of the film that dragged, and really it did not drag, but it just did not move me or move the narrative was the fictional story of Tristan Fleuri (Nicolas Koline) and his daughter Violine (Annabella). I have no objections to the addition of the fictional characters, Tristan Fleuri as the early witness to Napoleon’s genius who crosses paths with the great man at varying stages of his meteoric rise much like Judah Ben-Hur crossing paths with Christ, was not objectionable. His pride at being the first to recognize Napoleon as a man with a future (snowball fight) was delightful, his friendship with the young Napoleon was tender.  It is the story of his daughter and her crush on Napoleon that goes nowhere for me. This is a Griffith-like touch that took me out of the picture.  There is no doubt that Annabella was a beautiful girl and a touching actress, but if Gance had decided in the end to cut this sequence out of the film, I would not have missed it.

Courtesy: Photoplay Productions/San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The Second Act opens with the murder of Marat, it was the painting of David come to life. Josephine de Beauharnais (Gina Manès) does a lovely job as the beautiful and somewhat earthy foil to Napoleon. Her scenes in prison are moving and in during the Survivor’s Ball she’s drop dead gorgeous. A friend mentioned during an intermission, she was a rather pudgy Josephine. I thought she hit the right note to counter with Napoleon’s inherent gravity.

Another, most memorable sequence was Napoleon in the empty Convention with the ghosts of the revolution. Danton, Marat, Robespierre and Saint-Just all dead and rise again with all the other ghosts of the revolution filling the convention before Napoleon goes off to battle in Italy. The double exposures, the triple exposures and quadruple exposures filling the scene until you are overwhelmed.

Click to enlarge the triptych

Then we come to the triptychs and you have seen a hint in the trailer. Knowing they’re coming, you’re still not prepared. When the curtains parted to reveal the 2nd and 3rd screens, a cheer and whoop went up in the audience. From that moment I was really engulfed by the emotion of the whole film and it was just a magnificent feat of technical audacity. To see the horses cross the three screens and the panoramas unfold, the pace of the cutting quickens and the images flash and change. The eagle swoops across the three screens in magnificent fashion. In the end you are left exhausted, exhilarated and overwhelmed. It was totally magnificent. When Gance’s signature appeared on the screen, the audience cheering as one, rose to their feet and continued to applaud and cheer for a good 5 or 6 minutes without ceasing. Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury did not take a bow until the final performance.  I missed seeing Kevin, but I did thank Patrick in person.  Thank you is such an insignificant phrase.  The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is to be applauded for taking the risk on such an event.  It was wholly memorable and I think, wholly successful. 

My recollections here hardly hint at the complete experience. I’ve hardly touched on the plot and stories within the film. This is silent film as it is meant to be seen, as Photoplay proclaims, “live cinema.” The film is not perfect, but in five and a half hours, two intermissions and a delicious dinner break (Le Cheval), my attention did not lag. I loved this film. I LOVED this film.

Gance spent the budget for his planned six films with this one (and then some). I cannot regret that he was not able to make the other planned films, I can’t image Gance following up anything better than what I was really privileged to see. Kevin Brownlow might well disagree with me on that.

Some might call me a heretic but I hope that the film does not come out on dvd or blu-ray.  Really.  If it did, I’d buy it in a heartbeat to have and also to support Photoplay Productions. That said, you can't recreate or recapture this experience and bottle it.  You cannot package this in a clamshell case and expect to be as blown away as the audience was. I do not care if you have three 80” televisions lined up, a home viewer cannot recreate this experience. It is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen with live music and a big audience. It’s not just a movie, it’s an event. I now define my cinematic experiences as Before Napoleon and After Napoleon. Everything has changed.

Someone I know did see Kevin during the screening and complimented him; Kevin ever humble, replied, “I did not make this film.” I have to disagree yet again, 45 years of passion, reconstruction, attention to incredible detail, and some really amazing detective work and a with more than a little bit of luck, Kevin Brownlow did make this film.  He saved this film and I am unbelievably grateful that I got the chance to see it. My only regret is that I did not see it twice.

 I liked it!


Lil said…
Thanks for sharing your love of the film. I felt the same -- so much that I *did* see it twice! Took my daughter the second time and saw much that I had missed, and realized there is still much more. I just hope there can be a next time. I still feel somewhat obsessed, a hint of what Brownlow must have felt all these years. p.s. I thought Dieudonné was perfect.
Robert said…
Fine review!

My enthusiasm for "Napoleon" is quite the same as yours.

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