LIKE A REVELATION that appears of its own will out of nothing, Abel Gance's 1927 film Napoleon flickers into the screen and at once flies directly into the face of the current taste in art. Not "bleak" or "austere" or "minimal" like so much of what is now published, produced, painted or composed, Napoleon is exuberantly romantic. Modernism dictates that the artist's "message" be wrapped in puzzles and conundrums. Napoleon is explicit: "From now on I am the French Revolution," Bonaparte declares, and there are no secondary or tertiary meanings implicit in the statement. Symbolism here is not subterfuge; an eagle appears on the screen and that is Napoleon. A flame is superimposed on his angular unmoving face and Napoleon is Prometheus. The film never teaches, and it never explains. Yet it speaks loudly and continuously.
When one looks beyond the style of the delivery and sees the message itself, it is not less, but more outrageous. What are to us abstract ideas, things for conversation, are the absolute truths in Napoleon. First, it is a panegyric to the transcendent man, he who honestly commands fate rather than obeys it. Yet Napoleon goes still farther and develops into a four-and-a-half hour monument to nationalism--that thoroughly obscene word--and concludes in a sweeping millenial vision. All France will find redemption in this one, unlikely man. It smell of wild irrationality, even fascism. How could anyone believe it?
But it works. It succeeds to the point of mesmerization. One is not necessarily convinced by Napoleon, yet one cannot help but be taken in by it. For a silent film originally released 54 years ago--and for all intents and purposes lost for all those years--to reappear in a different world and have this kind of power is perhaps what the phrase "enduring artistic vision" actually means.
THE GRANDEUR is all there. From the moment the young Napoleon appears on the screen in a snowball fight at military school, his face displays an extraordinary intensity. Childish only in body, he is a being apart from those around him, probably since birth. The pride and disdain in his eyes betray a spirit that will not so much mature as it will expand.
When the fully grown Napoleon reappears as a young army officer at the Club des Cordeliers, a center of radical activity during the early days of the Franch Revolution it is obvious he has begun to unfold internally. Bonaparte, played by Albert Dieudonne, exudes power as he slowly hitches up his shoulders. When he stares into the camera he peers out of dark eyes set so deeply they look like smouldering fires at the ends of two parallel tunnels. Though runty and still obscure, as Gance reiterates over and over, this is the Napoleon of the Eroica.
One episode after another illustrates the young man's strength. After an abortive attempt at insurrection on his native Corsica, Bonaparte flees the island in a dingy. The boat has no oars, but he has stolen the Tricolor from a government building and makes a jury-rigged sail out of it. Caught in a storm at sea, Napoleon at once contends with nature and embodies the destiny of France. As his boat yaws wildly amid the swells, a sign flashes on the screen saying that Napoleon is "the defiant sport of the ocean" and is being "carried to the triumphant Heights of History." One can hardly imagine a less subtle scene. On paper it is embarrassing. Reading this, you would want to dig your fingernails into the flesh of you palm, as if you were hearing some high-pitched screech. But Gance pulls it off, and the potency of the scene defies description.
The movie abounds with such scenes, and Bonaparte grows steadily larger. By the end of the battle of Toulon--in which Napoleon first receives the command of a major force and then launcnes an offensive despite a torrential storm--nature ceases to struggle with the Corsican. Instead, it pays homage to him by providing hail to beat the drums of dead soldiers to announce his victory. And although the film takes him only so far as the beginning of his campaign into Italy in 1976--a full eight years before he became emperor--it seems that at any second Napoleon may be translated into heaven.
Gancc's hero remains earthbound because he and history are inseparable. He may be the sublime incarnate, but he never transcends France. Gance portrays the Revolution as the necessary precondition to the ascendence of the man who will realize the fate of the nation. The Revolution is the "forge" France must pass through. The shadows of dozens of pikes parade across a wall in Napoleon's room. Robespierre and Saint-Just chat about whom to execute during the Terror. A florid Danton pours forth impassioned speeches, while Marat, played by Antonin Artaud, looks as if he has walked out of David's painting complete with a towel around his head. In these types of scenes the depth of Gance's vision is most evident. It is comic, for instance, when the clerk La Bussiere saves people from the guillotine by eating their dossiers. It is absurd in the garish and frenzied Ball of the Victims after the Terror. And behind it all are the masses, the People. Time and again, Gance says, the People are being prepared for Napoleon.
AS IF ALL THIS were not enough, Gance is determined to break new ground in the use of the camera. It is almost inconceivable that any 1927 film could achieve as much as Napoleon does. Gance seems unwilling to let any straight-forward shot stand by itself. He superimposes endlessly. He splices flashbacks that are projected with such rapidity that one cannot recognize everything, and to watch becomes hypnotic. Other times, the image divides itself, first into four, then into nine identical pictures. When Napoleon is thrown from wave to wave in the dingy, a shot of the National Convention suddenly appears. The entire mass of the people convulses in a wave-like motion.
Most arresting of all, though, is Gance's Triptych Polyvision at the end of the film. Images appear on two more screens and an enormous panorama is scanned. The pictures break up and reconstitute. In a frenzy the film recapitulates and progresses.
It is, in a word, spectacular.