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Napoléon (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 painting.


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 subconsciously.


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.

Alex Russell

Further viewing:

Napoléon (1927/1991)
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)

Further reading:

Robin Buss, The French through their Films (London: Blatsford, 1988).
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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