Seen and Heard
Film Concert Review
(Abel Gance, 1927), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Carl Davis (conductor),
RFH, 4th & 5th December, 2004 (AR)
The London Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor-composer Carl Davis
presented screenings of Abel Gance's 1927 silent film Napoléon
by arrangement with The British Film Institute and Photoplay Productions.
In its five and a half hours it encompasses the universal themes of
destiny, desire, pride and betrayal played against the French Revolution
and its cataclysmic pan-European aftermath.
Carl Davis's superb pastiche compilation score included the opening
of Mozart’s 25th Symphony, Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture,
Creatures of Prometheus Ballet Music and Eroica
and Pastoral symphonies - the latter of which worked very
well in the storm at sea scene with Napoléon battling the elements.
Davis interwove his own music seamlessly with these classical composers.
Davis came on stage, wheel chair bound due to a foot injury, and conducted
with superb aplomb and gusto securing exquisite and fiery playing
from the LPO who were in brilliant form and were noticeably engrossed;
for instance the timpanist and bass drum often took the cues from
the action on the screen.
There are two restored versions, but it was originally conceived as
a six-part epic on the life of Napoléon which would be filmed
on location: a five hour version (a version never seen by anyone in
the 1920s) by Kevin Brownlow with music by Carl Davis which preserves
the running speed of silent movies; and a four hour version by Francis
Ford Coppola with a score by his late father Carmine, which runs at
the modern film speed of 24 frames per second.
Before the screening, by way of a prologue, Brownlow explained to
the audience that Copploa was attempting to suppress the five hour
version in favour of his own abbreviated edition, comparing his actions
to those of Dr. Joseph Goebbels. Apparently, Coppola's agreement with
Brownlow required that the film be played with Carmine Coppola's score
in the US and that score was tied to the U.S/Coppola version. Davis
reported that this could be the last performance of his compilation
score, since the Coppola family claim to owns rights to the film and
only wish it to be shown with music composed by Carmine Coppola.
Brownlow’s fuller version was first shown with Davis' score,
at the Empire, Leicester Square in 1980, amazing audiences and re-establishing
Gance's great film. The most up to date version (2000) by the British
Film Institute with additional footage and original tinting and toning
is allegedly as close to Gance's vision as is conceivable. However,
I felt instinctively that the tinted colour overlays of coarse primary
colours (mainly red and blue) were an intrusive distraction and shattered
the aura of the dream-like, monochromatic imagery.
Gance made his camera play acrobatic feats and thrust it into the
middle of the action, mounting it on a horse, suspending it from the
ceiling and strapping it to a pendulum giving the sensation of the
guillotine. Gance also pioneered what became known as Polyvision:
the split screen using as many as nine separate images at once (to
create a Cubist type-checkerboard effect) as in the early dormitory
pillow fighting scene causing a blinding snow storm of feathers -
an allusion to the future horrendous retreat from Moscow. Another
innovation was the long-held close-ups of actors, allowing them to
express innermost thoughts and states of mind, without the eye-brow
waggling and grimacing mouths so common in films of this era; Gance
realised that emotion is always best expressed in the eyes.
The boy Napoléon was not so much acted as lived by the mesmerising
Russian actor Vladimir Roudenko; his hypnotic gaze was often exploited
by Gance with long held shots, notably the tears streaming down his
face at the loss of his pet eagle, the symbol of his soaring aspiration
and destiny. The bird is released from its cage by two fellow cadets
and Napoléon lies on a canon crying, but he glows when the
eagle returns. These early scenes with the eagle have a great delicacy
of emotion. Later on the eagle’s head comes back imprinted on
Napoléon’s face. As the adult Napoléon, Albert
Dieudonné’s aquiline nose was uncannily like an eagle’s
hooked beak. Throughout Dieudonné took on an eagle’s
demeanour: stern, shrewd, with piercing eyes and slightly hunched
stance, constantly watchful and always holding everyone at a distance
(except for the women in his life).
The immediate impact of image and music made one
forget that this was a ‘silent movie’; one did not feel
any sense of words being necessary. There was something refreshingly
exhilarating and awe-inspiring in not hearing the voice: image and
music speak louder than words; or rather, sensation speaks without
words. In 1927 Gance wrote: “With Napoléon I have
made a tangible effort towards a richer and more elevated form of
cinema; let yourselves go completely with the images; do not react
from a preconceived point of view.” Abel uses the immediate
image of the face-to-face (actor to audience) relation to communicate
directly sensation without words: the faces speak through silence
and expression. The most striking face by far was that of actor-poet
Antonin Artaud playing Marat with his wild eyes and a manic mouth;
the shot of him dead in the tub was serenely surreal: a beautiful
shot of a bestial monster, closely mimicking David’s unforgettable
The glowing halo effect surrounding the dead Marat emphasises the
alienation of the figure, a device used elsewhere throughout the film.
A notableexample finds Napoléon in battle standing in the pouring
rain, alien and isolated yet surrounded by the war wounded: the rain
acted as a nimbus of glinting light, protecting and drenching him;
this was a chilling image, in every sense. Our contemporary computer
technology has not made cinema more magical but less so; it has no
aura and looks artificial, slick, flat and has no tension. Recent
films like Alexander, Gladiator or Lord of the
Rings do not have the grandeur or the glow of Gance's Napoléon.
In his recent film Alexander, Oliver Stone uses an eagle as a symbol
of his hero’s aspirations in a manner that was strikingly reminiscent
of Gance's Napoléon. Subsequent film directors have utilised
many of Gance’s cinematic innovations either consciously or
In an uncanny, strange sense the end of silent movies marked the end
of the magic in cinema; with the birth of the talkies cinema lost
its aura. Silence speaks more than words; silent film transcends language
(and cultural/political) boundaries as Carl Davis reiterates in the
programme notes: “Silent films are international. They have
little to do with language and everything to do with images.”
The image says it all and we need to return to the silent screen again
to revisit and reinvent cinema through the alien image. Images and
music enmeshed together speaks a million words and music enhances
the rhythmic flow and the sensations of the images. Artaud believes
cinema is a direct assault on the nervous system, its images, he writes,
are “an inorganic language that moves the mind by osmosis”.
Credit must go to Kevin Brownlow for realising Abel’s masterpiece
in this labour of love and to Carl Davis for his genius in juxtaposing
sound to images: a truly memorable event all round and much appreciated
by an enthusiastic audience.
Cast: Albert Dieudonne, Vladimir Roudenko, Antonin
Artaud, Gina Manes, Edmond van Daele, Alexander Koubitsky, Abel Gance.
Aspect Ratio: Full Frame
Music: composed and conducted by Carmine Coppola
Sound: Audio Dolby Digital 2.0 surround encoded
DVD: Universal Pictures Region Coding: 4 (235 minutes)
Robin Buss, The French through their Films (London:
Steven Philip Kramer and James Michael Welsh, Abel
Gance (Boston: Twayne, 1978).
Napoléon as Seen by Abel Gance, trans. Moya
Hassan (London: faber and faber, 1990).
Kevin Brownlow, Napoleon: Abel Gance's Classic Film
(New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983).
Norman King, Abel Gance: A Politics of Spectacle
(London: British Film Institute Books, 1984).
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