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Napoleon Movie Review

gance film shots brownlow

1927 – Able Gance –

Probably the worst luck that befell Napoleon was to have had its premiere six months before the debut of The Jazz Singer, the film that started the industry transition to sound. Gance's twenty-eight reel (or about six hour) silent epic covering the life of Napoleon from his boyhood to the Italian campaign was shown in its original form in only eight European cities. Its cinematic innovations as much as its length quickly made it one of the near-forgotten giants of the silent era. Gance's astonishing work anticipated numerous cinematic developments. The lighter French cameras of his day inspired him to create moving camera shots of exhilarating speed. In the scene that opens the film, a snowball fight between young Napoleon (Wladmir Roudenko) and a dozen or so of his friends versus sixty other classmates, Gance suggests the viewpoint of one of the boys by putting the camera in a sled and sliding it toward the snow fortress of the opposition. A blizzard of snowballs come flying at and away from the camera. In later scenes, he strapped the camera on the back of a horse to suggest the kinetics of riding. Most famously, he engineered three, parabola-like harnesses to swoop like a pendulum over the actors playing the scene of the frenzied Paris Convention on the eve of the revolution (although the finished film only uses the more dramatic shots from the highest of the three harnesses). These shots he intercut with scenes of the older Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne) tossing at sea in a skiff to connect metaphorically the storm at sea with the emotional storm of the revolution.

Gance also loved superimposing shots over each other, as when pictures of the fury of the Convention, captured by the dizzying swinging camera, are superimposed over shots of a guillotine with the blade about the fall. His most striking innovation was an effect he called Polyvision. Gance said that the first appearance of this effect in the film occurs during the pillow fight scene when young Napoleon retaliates against his classmates for setting free his pet eagle. As the fight begins, the frame suddenly divides into four images in each corner of the screen; then it divides into twelve images, each one different from the others and each changing in staccato fashion as feathers from the pillows fly. The most famous instance of Polyvision, however, occurs when Gance widens the screen to three times its regular size to project three 35mm images from three projectors side by side. A truly spectacular effect, these triptychs in effect used Cinerama in a more complex way than filmmakers would thirty years later. Gance sometimes created one panoramic vista with his three-camera shots, but often he would have the center projector show a closeup of Napoleon while the two side projectors rapidly alternated shots of the Italian campaign, thereby creating a contrapuntal effect. He also tinted the film stock at times and used Polyvision to turn the screen into the tricolor French flag, one of the film's bravura moments.

Certainly few if any other films bring an epic approach to the cinematic technique as well as to the subject matter, and so it is no surprise that for many years the uniqueness of Napoleon placed it in obscurity as the age of silent movies passed away. Future film historian Kevin Brownlow, however, when still a young student, saw some segments of the film and began hunting more in shops that sold 16mm films for home and school exhibition. Brownlow spent twenty years laboring at the job of restoring Gance's nearly lost epic to very close to its original twenty-eight reels (two earlier scenes using Polyvision seem to be the only footage that has eluded Brownlow). The culmination of Brownlow's work was an outdoor showing of the restored Napoleon with the synchronized three-projector Polyvision finale in September 1979 at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. Gance, at age 89, watched appreciatively from his hotel window.

The next two years saw more interest in touring the film. A British showing of the film followed with a new score by Carl Davis, and Francis Ford Coppola helped support a series of American performances of a slightly shortened version before an audience of 6,000 at Radio City Music Hall with new music by Coppola's father, Carmine. Brownlow writes about the reconstruction and this January 1981 debut at Radio City Music Hall in his book Napoleon: Able Gance's Classic Film. Gance had become more frail over the two years between the Colorado and New York showings, and he did not attend the 1981 premiere. But the audience's reaction was so wildly enthusiastic that Brownlow placed a call to Gance from the theater. The phone receiver was dragged on stage to the length of the cord as the audience cheered madly. “It was like telephoning heaven,” Brownlow writes, “and waking Beethoven to hear what we mortals thought of his work.” Able Gance died eighteen days later at age 91.

Cast: Albert Dieudonne (Napoleon Bonaparte), Wladmir Roudenko (young Napoleon), Gina Manes (Josephine de Beauhamais), Nicolas Loline (Tristan Fleuri), Annabella (Violine Fleuri), Serge Freddykarll (Marcellin Fleuri), Emond Van Daele (Robespierre), Alexandre Koubitzky (Danton), Antonin Artaud (Marat), Abel Gance (Saint-Just), Max Maxudian (Barras), Philippe Heriat (Salicetti), Acho Chakatouny (Pozzo di Borgo), Eugenie Buffet (Laetizia Bonaparte), Yvette Dieudonne (Elisa Bonaparte), Georges Lampin (Joseph Bonaparte), Sylvio Cavic-chia (Lucien Bonaparte), Simone Genevois (Pauline Bonaparte), Louis Dance (Louis XVI), Suzanne Bianchetti (Marie-Antoinette), Pierre Batcheff (Gen. Lazare Hoche), Philippe Rolla (Massena), Alexandre Bernard (Dugommier), W. Percy Day (Admiral Hood), Genica Missirio (Capt. Joachim Mjrat), Robert de Ansorena (Capt. Desaix), Harry Krimer (Rouget de I'llse), Marguerite Gance (Charlotte Corday), Roger Blum (Talma), Jean Henry (Sgt. Andoche Junot), Maryse Damia (La Marseillaise), Henri Baudin (Santo-Ricci), Georges Henin (Eugene de Beauharnais), Henry Krauss (Moustache) Screenwriter: Abel Gance Cinematographer: Jules Kruger, Leonce-Henry Burel Composer: Arthur Honegger (original version), Carl Davis (British restored version), Carmine Coppola (American restored version) Producer: Abel Gance for Soci-ete generale de Films Running Time: 235 minutes (American restored version) Format: VHS, LV.

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