It is as rare as an Eclipse: The performance of Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’ from 1927 with live orchestra accompaniment. This is because Gance’s masterpiece is a silent movie. There are not many orchestra’s for this purpose around and the film’s length with five and half hours requires endurance and not to forget, the last 20 minutes are actually to be projected with three projectors to create the widest widescreen format ever. In London at the end of November there was this rare opportunity in the Southbank Center. Carl Davis conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra and the last 20 minutes were really projected with three projectors. Well, it was a splendid and impressive experience indeed.
The film feels strikingly modern due to the high number of very advanced techniques and style elements, especially the ‘handcamera’ and the split screen. ‘Napoleon’ is not only an example for innovation, but also an example that film innovators heavily depend on the available technology. The widescreen image filmed with three cameras and three projectors did not allow for seamless cinemascope images. Edges of the three frames in between are visible, the image of the medium frame vibrates more than the others and there are colour and brightness differences. This shall not minimise Gance’s achievement. It only underlines how far ahead he was.
Gance managed to tell the story intimately as well as in a kind of semi-documenary style. Napoleon’s love to Josephine is allowed to portrait the future emperor as an inexperienced and clumsy seducer. The brutal self-destruction of the revolution is presented in an impressively clear manner. The thermometer revolution sequence could have come from a German expressionist film and the clerks who work on the death penalties while sitting at the high desks remind of the writers in Cabinet of Dr.Caligary. The Toulon battle scene in the rainy night does not leave a doubt about the nature of warfare. As the battle is displayed in darkness, the imagination surely produces more of the brutality than is really shown. A shot with wagon wheel moving over the leg of an sitting injured soldier is the most memorable sequence shot and ‘Heaven’s Gate’ comes into mind, where a battle in thick dust and sand clouds is portrayed.
It is said that Abel Gance, who is not only the director and author but also the actor who so convincingly personifies Saint-Just, intended to become a ‘Victor Hugo of film’. It feels more like an ambition to become the ‘Napoleon of film’. The idea was to tell the entire life of Napoleon in 6 parts and the realised part covers Napoleon’s life until the Italy campaign. And while there are surely sympathies for Napoleon as underdog, who makes his way in unpredictable and gruesome times, and finally saves the nation, the last 20 minutes are difficult to digest. Napoleon’s effort to invade Italy is glorified. Despite the critical description of the revolution under Danton, Robespierre and Saint Just, he imagined a scene where Napoleon swears to serve the revolution to the same guys (or their ghosts) who 2 film hours earlier or so almost would have made Napoleon even more shorter via the guillotine. And of course, we know that the Emperor’s track record would become ambivalent in terms of revolutionary ideals. An ambivalence which can still be felt on the island where Josephine came from: Martinique. Her statue in Fort-de-France has been beheaded and on the fresco of this sculpture depicting crown ceremony a few portrayed persons including Napoleon have their heads removed as well. It was under Napoleon that slavery was re-introduced.
With all the vigour and the achievement of the film, the very heroes of the day were Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra who played 5 and half hours. They didn’t play Carmine Coppola’s or Arthur Honnegger’s original score but Carl Davis’ own. With using Beethoven motifs it stays truthful to the music of its time and services the film so efficiently that the existence of the orchestra could be easily forgotten during the film’s performance. Long standing ovations were the wage for this brilliant show. One fine day in London town.