Movie Fan Man: Cinema Connoisseur

Traditional, Artsy, Genre-Within-Genre: A Little Something for Everyone

The (Genuine) First Masterpiece

by Tony Nash

(The Long Epic Mini-Series Part 1)

(Mild Spoilers)

(All opinions are of the author alone)

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Napoleon (Napoleon vu par Abel Gance/Abel Gance’s Napoleon) (1927) ***** PG

Albert Dieudonne: Lt./Capt./Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte

Gina Manes: Josephine de Beauharnis/Josephine Bonaparte

Edmond Van Daele: Maximilien Robespierre

Alexandre Koubitzky: Georges-Jacques Danton

Abel Gance: Louis Saint-Just

Antonin Artaud: Jean-Paul Marat

Nicolas Koline: Tristan Fleuri

Annabella: Violine Fleuri/Desiree Clary

Pierre Batcheff: Gen. Lazare Hoche

Acho Chakatouny: Pozzo di Borgo

Max Maxudian: Barras (as Maxudian)

Philippe Heriat: Antonio Salicetti

Marguerite Gance: Charlotte Corday

Vladimir Roudenko: Young Napoleon Bonaparte

Written & Directed by: Abel Gance

Synopsis: The life of Napoleon Bonaparte chronicled from his education at Bienne College to his major role in the French Revolution to his romance with Josephine de Beauharnis to his conquest of Italy.

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A little over a decade after D.W. Griffith shocked and disgusted the world with his Birth of a Nation, Abel Gance gave dignity back to the Epic and the War Epic with a grand scale take on the early days of Napoleon Bonaparte. Set before his time as Emperor and Tyrant, Gance’s biopic looks at Napoleon as he fights for respect in both boyhood and manhood, his ups and downs as he rises through both the Corsican and French Armies, how he met and fell in love with Josephine, and how he became a hero to the people of France. How Gance imitated Griffith in camera technique and editing was the use of experimental angles, hand-held shooting, pre to early Eisenstein Montage, and allegory via the use of tinting and images, but how he differed was his respect he showed to the various people involved. While the masses were shown living in squalor, Gance never showed them in derogatory lights, the same with the upper crust slowly being replaced, again never showing them in an offensive light.  Mixing both Historical sources and conjecture from various biographies and textbooks, Gance paints a very intriguing and exciting tale of a man before absolute power corrupted him and how it landed him an infamous place in history.

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Albert Dieudonne, a French actor turned Historian, gives a powerhouse performance as Napoleon himself. Interestingly enough, Dieudonne would briefly be hospitalized in a Mental Institution when he became so absorbed in playing the part of the infamous Military Emperor that he came to believe he was Napoleon. Dieudonne really is the perfect embodiment of Napoleon, almost perfectly capturing his charisma, personality, his genius as a military tactician, and his occasional romantic and loving side. Dieudonne does go a little into the melodramatic side in trying to convey Napoleon’s attitude regarding the Revolution as his Destiny, but he sticks to the historic texts and research into who Napoleon really was and brings the man to life in an extraordinary way. His most tender moments are with his family, and his early courting of his wife Josephine, showing Napoleon had a humane side, and even was once like many other people. Vladimir Roudenko, a one-time young actor of Russian and French origins, does an equally good job in showing off Napoleon as a child. Tormented because of his Corsican heritage and seen as half-savage, the young Napoleon is forced to work extra had to prove himself as a capable student, military man, showing even at a young age, the ambition and determination he set for himself.

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Gina Manes, a somewhat forgotten French actress, does an excellent job as Napoleon’s girlfriend and wife Josephine. Manes is very faithful to the real-life Josephine, portraying her as a genuinely decent, but very worldly woman. Having had several lovers before, and after her first marriage, Josephine was a woman who enjoyed the good life, but also dearly loved the children from her first marriage, and is shown as heartbroken being separated from them when she’s jailed with the other royals. Josephine’s first husband, who was the one that abandoned the family, offered his life in exchange for hers, though more as an act gallantry in the face of the revolting people, though she was a fine mother to their children. She too sees her life with Napoleon as Destiny as she was told by a Gypsy fortuneteller that her future included becoming the Queen. While wanting to have the best for herself and her children, she does have a genuine affection for Napoleon, though probably not to the same degree as he for her, though it is this romance that helps Napoleon with his success.

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French character actors Edmond Van Daele, Alexandre Koubitzky, and Antonin Artaud portray the three heralders of the French Revolution as Robespierre, Danton, and Marat respectively. Robespierre is the practical, straight to the point type, Danton loves giving speeches and inspiring hope in the people to support the Revolution, and Marat is the philosopher bringing sanity and reasoning to the cause. While all three men are for the Revolution, their ideologies regarding it will soon have them quarreling and at each other’s throats regarding who has the right way of doing things. Marat becomes the Revolution’s martyr when he’s murdered by a Royalist sympathizer, but Danton and Robespierre turn on each other, Robespierre having Danton executed as a failure and traitor to the cause. Robespierre gets his comeuppance when he begins turning into a tyrant, executing people at will because they don’t agree with his ideas.

(Author’s Note: Actor Artaud beautifully recreates the famous painting depicting how Marat was found after being killed.)

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Director Gance and his wife Marguerite also play small, but pivotal roles in the film, as Louis Saint-Just and Charlotte Corday respectively. Saint-Just is the fourth head man of the Revolution and, like Robespierre, loses sight of what the Revolution is about, and turns into a tyrant along with Robespierre, and is also denounced and executed with his comrade. Charlotte Corday got into the history books as being the murderess of Marat, feeling she was helping the Royalists in her actions, but was caught and executed for her crime Ironically the revolutionaries would have Corday to thank as she, like Marat being a martyr, helped bring the Revolution to its earliest fruition.

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Like many great films, Gance’s Napoleon also had its problem. The original producer, Giuseppe Barattolo, was forced to exit production when the Italian film industry was hit with its first financial crisis, leaving the production without money or a way to continue. Star Dieudonne had to enter a mental hospital when, midway through filming, Napoleon’s larger than life personality and ego overwhelmed him and led the actor to believe he was the man himself (as stated in Dieudonne’s section), again production having to halt so he could get well. Many of the technical aspects, while completed and successful, had Gance in argument with some of his crew and the new producers due to budget constraints and time. Money was the key issue, as producers were coming and going, always worrying Gance’s vision wouldn’t give them a profit or be fully realized. The financial strain eventually became too much, and even when the film proved to be a success, Gance made the decision to burn more than a dozen canisters of unedited footage, depriving both viewers and historians of what else he had accomplished with the film.

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While plagued with behind the scenes problems, and the loss of much footage, Gance’s take on the life of Napoleon is still spectacular to behold. Gance’s meticulousness in shooting and how his actors were in front of the camera was a testament to how historically accurate he tried to be in telling the true story of a man. His inventive use of camera movements and angles, the first experiment with the widescreen process would become early staples of what the film industry would expand upon and use to this day, proving that film could be both a form of entertainment, and a form of art.

(Not only is this a film that I highly recommend to film fans to check out, this is a must film for any fan of cinema to see at least once in his or her life. Everything about this film is so amazing, from the performances, especially that of Albert Dieudonne, to the amazing experimental cinematography and camera angles, to the amazing use of locations. That Gance also tried to be as faithful to history as he could is also amazing, as both lovers of cinema and lovers of history will find things to love about the film. The British Film Institute, in collaboration with the film’s restorer Kevin Brownlow, did a fantastic job in the reconstruction and restoration of this almost lost classic piece of Silent Cinema.  The image and sound are so crisp, it feels like the film could’ve been made in the last ten years. There are signs of age in some scenes as Brownlow spent thirty plus years looking all over the place for footage, some of which were in bad shape when he located and preserved them. This doesn’t take away from the film however, as the majority of it is pristine.  It’s well worth any film lovers time.)

All images courtesy of Images and their respective owners, including the BFI

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Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics

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