213. GANCE: Napoleon (1927)

From the website FAQ: Q: But will there be a DVD and BluRay release of the restored version in the near future? A: No. The cost of recording the 5½ hour Carl Davis score is prohibitively expensive for the DVD/BluRay market… and of course you wouldn’t have the dramatic Polyvision finale that you’ll experience in the theater. The triptych would merely be letterboxed onto your television — no matter how big it is."


When I read that, I knew that I had to see this film! Traveling to SF by myself would be difficult -- but hopefully not impossible ... with my eldest daughter, Sarah, ready to pick me up at the airport and take me to my friend Robert's house in Oakland -- six miles from the Paramount Theatre, where the film was being shown.


We left Robert's house at 12:20 PM -- plenty of time to drive six miles and make the 1:30 PM show...

... NOT!

We got to downtown Oakland and proceeded to make several wrong turns and finally -- just one short block away from the theatre -- we got caught in a gridlock traffic jam.

It appeared there were only two parking garages which the cars were snaking into, snail-like ...

It is now 1:25. The thought of missing even three minutes of this marathon (the actual running time of this film is 5:40) made me feel sad.

We're finally in (1:35). All the lower-level handicapped spots are taken, so we end up on the roof of the garage. Four separate areas marked "Stairs." Nothing with the word "elevator" anywhere to be seen.

Sarah had to carry the wheelchair down the steps (someone helped her). City of Oakland -- YOU ARE BREAKING FEDERAL LAW (see federal Disability Act) ...

Postscript 5/29/12:
Sarah checked into it -- and they actually are in compliance with the three or four handicapped spots on the lower level. Awfully nice of the fellas at the gate to tell us that there were no elevators after we asked about handicapped parking! not


A long line is curling around the theatre. Where is Will Call? Three different answers.

Finally, we get inside to pick up our tickets. Complete pandemonium. Our seats in Row VV actually no longer exist. The soundboard now occupies the space where those seats used to be.

We are moved and told that they'll try to find the right spot for us. Just a minute or so later, Carl Davis -- the conductor and score-creator -- takes to the podium and the movie begins -- just a few minutes late.

An usher is behind me whispering something -- I turn and tell her that the film has started and there is no way we are moving. It seems she was just trying to tell me that we could stay in these seats. The Department of Redundancy Departmental Redundancies.


This was the schedule:

ACT I 1:30 - 3:30
ACT II 3:50 - 4:50
Dinner Break
ACT III 6:45 - 8:35
Act IV 8:55 - 9:40

First -- the score.

Carl Davis has taken music from Beethoven and Mozart (plus a very brief Tchaikovsky quotation at one point) and stitched it all together to form this massive score of non-stop music. There is no point in the film where the music stops.

I would estimate that at least 50% of the score comes from the 3rd and 4th movements of the Third Symphony ("Eroica"), which was initially dedicated to Napoleon and written in the first decade of the 19th century -- a good 10-15 years after the events which take place in this film.

Also stitched in is the Seventh Symphony, Second Movement. (I wondered why he didn't choose to use the second movement of the Eroica -- the funeral march!)

The rest was Beethoven Overtures (Leonore, Prometheus); Mozart Symphonies (not sure, but think #38 or #39); C Minor Fantasia for Piano (orchestrated by Davis); and at one point a snatch of something by Tchaikovsky.

The Oakland East Bay Symphony was splendid; well-rehearsed and focused (no easy feat for nearly six hours of blowing, piping and scraping).

Try to imagine sitting through four or five complete performances of the third and fourth movements of the Eroica -- that's what it seemed like!


I wanted to take notes, but it was took dark and I would have risked missing things. So here are my memories of last Sunday afternoon, on this early Tuesday following:


The film opens with the young Napoleon engaged in a serious snowball fight. His side consists of around ten young fellows who are ensconced in a circular fort-like structure in the middle of the scene, throwing their projectiles outwards towards their enemies -- who outnumber Napoleon and his buddies by at least four or five to one.

Both sides escalate the battle by inserting objects into the snowballs -- stones, twigs, etc.

At some point, Napoleon (the young Vladimir Roudenko) mounts a mirror on a stick and uses it as a kind of periscope, in order to see his enemies without presenting his head as a target.

In a relatively wide shot, Napoleon holds up the mirror and we see the reflection of the enemy gang. I was completely shocked to see that the image seen on the small mirror was so crisp, clear and visible. It had to be a composite shot. If so, it was a technical marvel which barely registered, but was important. And we see how Napoleon was already a great strategic thinker.


My ignorance compels me to admit that for the next several hours, the film covered history that I was only vaguely familiar with.

On the other hand, one must remember that Abel Gance was making this film in 1927 for the people of France, and I imagine that the average middle-school student was completely fluent with this history and Gance probably felt no need to drive home biographical details that were common knowledge among the French people.

Nevertheless, the action in Corsica -- where Napoleon must contend with Paoli (Maurice Schutz) and his own cantankerous family -- is quite compelling.

Certain characters just jumped off the screen with their astonishing silent presence:
  1. Napoleon (Albert Dieudonné). I would need to see the film at least two more times to register all the amazing performances; scene by scene. I can hardly think of a scene in which he does not appear. Although all of the actors bring a grandiose, stylized manner of acting -- completely typical of the period -- I felt that Dieudonné was particularly reserved for the most part. When he needed to project that authority and power, he was never over-the-top. At one point he is asked whether he is prepared to defend France. His YES is a powerful moment.
  2. Napoleon as a boy (Roudenko). In addition to the snowball scene, the kid is great as he interacts with an eagle (a potent symbol in the film, which Gance frequently superimposes over other images in gorgeous double-exposures).
  3. Robespierre (Edmond van Daële) who almost always is wearing the coolest pair of sunglasses you'd ever imagine existed in 1927!
  4. Joséphine (Gina Manés). Always gorgeous and her appearance (many hours into the film) marks the beginning of several humor-driven chapters, which gives the film an amazing burst of sorely needed energetic comicality. (One of my favorite scenes: Napoleon has just met Joséphine. She is fanning herself vigorously as she asks him, "What is the weapon from the other army that you fear the most?" Napoleon responds immediately: "Your fan, madame.")
  5. Louis Saint-Just (Abel Gance). One of Robespierre's buddies, he met the same fate in 1794. Reportedly, he was the only one that walked to the guillotine, "accepting his death with coolness and pride. At a last formality of identification, he gestured to a copy of the Constitution of 1793 and said, 'I am the one who made that'" (Wikipedia). Gance -- a young-looking 38 at the time of this film -- is a handsome devil. He wears an earring and shakes his head regally. Looking at him as Saint-Just -- try as one might to strip away the costume -- it is hard to believe that this young man conceived and directed this monumental masterpiece!
As the film progressed, history seemed to move in a tight ratio of film time to real time -- recall that this film covers a period of only seven years (1789-1796) in a nearly six-hour film. That's nearly one hour per historical year!

I noticed right away that Gance seemed more concerned with the feel of things rather than the specific historical facts or situations (although the title cards all had the notation "historical" in parentheses after a note or quote from the history books) as far as making all the history sine qua non, if you know what I mean! There was a sweeping feeling inherent in the cinematic medium (Gance was big on moving back and forth between regular black and white, and the blue and red tints) and the filmic techniques used to show the history.

At the first intermission, I was finally able to read the program and came across this note taken from Gance's original program notes of 1927:

"With Napoleon I have made a tangible effort toward a richer and more elevated form of cinema; let yourselves go completely with the images; do not react from a preconceived point of view. See in depth; do not persist in confusing that which moves with that which trembles, discern behind the images the traces of tears which often imbue them. Only after this effort will you know whether or not the journey into history that I have given you is a lesson or a poem..."

I was astonished, because the film was indeed more poetic than I had ever imagined. (The only other Gance I had ever seen was Beethoven (1936), a fascinating bio-pic, but not necessarily revolutionary in film technique.) I was beginning to feel that I was really watching something very very special.

Gance continues:

"In climactic sequences, I created a new technique, based on the strength of rhythm dominating the subject and violating our visual habits. I speculated on the simultaneous perception of images, not only of a second's duration but sometimes of an eighth of a second, so that the collision of my images causes a surge of abstract flashes that touch the soul rather than the eyes. Then, an invisible beauty is created which is not apparent on the film and is as difficult to explain as the perfume of a rose or the music of a symphony."
Skipping ahead to Act IV:

Suddenly the curtains on each side of the screen were drawn fully back away from the stage and


we are now watching three separate screens, each image projected by a separate projector, all timed with computer precision. The screen-shots in the above-scanned program will give you a general idea of what the three-screen format looked like -- but nothing of its unbelievably powerful effect!

The audience was roaring in approval. From this moment until the end of the film, you could just feel the excitement! The crowd frequently broke out into cheers and jubilant cries.

The final moments of the film were extremely powerful.

Gance has Napoleon -- on Screen #2 (center) -- galloping his horse towards the camera; while on Screens #1 and #3 (left/right), he has filmed what might be the side of the road, but in an astonishing trick of visual sleight-of-hand, he has simply reversed the image on Screen #1 and projected it onto #3. The effect is -- as my daughter leaned over and whispered -- almost 3D!

At times, Gance projects Joséphine on Screens #1 and 3, with Napoleon in the center.

At the end, with the exciting live music pounding out a live fortissimo which rocked the hall, Gance projects the same image on all three screens -- a rush of water, a torrential pounding -- and gradually, the image on the far left is tinted blue -- the far right, red, and the center, regular black & white (i.e., "white") -- the colors of the French flag -- blue, white and red!

The audience was on their feet, cheering, whooping.

No plain "The End" for our young director. After several moments of the raging waters, his name in cursive signature is displayed across all three screens! A B E L G A N C E

Thank you, San Francisco Silent Film Festival. What an experience!