Sunday, August 6, 2017

Before I Die #603: Napoleon (1927)

This is the 603rd movie I've now seen out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Abel Gance

Massive and quite captivating much of the time. This is saying something for a five-and-a-half hour movie.

I'll admit to "cheating" on this one a bit. I didn't watch the entire 320-minute film in one sitting. Rather, I watched it in roughly one-hour segments over six days. This was probably wise, as forcing myself to absorb the whole thing may have done it a great injustice. The movie's title gives you the subject - that titanic force of history, Napoleon Bonaparte. French director Abel Gance, who had created the epic drama La Roue a few years prior, took on arguably the most iconic figure of his country's illustrious history. The movie really covers key moments in the man's earlier life, between Napoleon's boyhood and the moment that he achieves his greatest victories in his Italian campaigns. The movie ends here, not getting into his actual rule of France or his eventual downfall and death in exile on the island of Saint Helena.

The movie is taxing in terms of length, but it is still impressive in many places and in many aspects. The most trying element for modern viewers is likely to be just how overly long some of the sequences extend. Storytelling in film would get far leaner and more efficient over the succeeding few decades, but back in 1927 it was still commonplace for action and battle sequences to go on for five, ten, or even twenty minutes longer than was necessary to make a point or tell a visual picture. Napoleon features many such sequences, which are not helped by the fact that the visuals are not always terribly crisp. Similar to what you find in other large-scale war movies of the time, such as Griffith's Birth of a Nation, certain scenes will be obscured by massive amounts of smoke billowing for long enough to simply frustrate rather than build a sense of place. Certain pursuit scenes also tend to drag in places, in particular a long chase scene in which Corsican government officials pursue a fugitive Bonaparte across the plains of the island. If one were to use modern editing to trim away the fat, this film could probably be a very tight 180 or 210 minutes, rather than the sometimes-bloated 320 in which it clocks.

Like the man he portrays in the film, actor Albert Dieudonne
(left) was small in stature, but could exude an imperious aura
through his posture and steely gaze.
Still, the length aside, I was impressed at many moments in the film. Most obvious was the performance of Albert Dieudonne as the diminutive general. Dieudonne was rather striking as the short but supremely intense, confident, and capable Napoleon, and he often did it with a subtlety rare for starring roles at that time. There are several scenes in which Napoleon shuts down detractors or insolent suboordinates by merely staring them down. This sounds trite, but the scenes actually work, even by today's standards. And while much of movie features Bonaparte carrying himself with the imperious carriage that we associate with the man, there are a handful of scenes and moments when his posture relaxes, typically around his lady love Josephine. The contrast in physical language was essential for the silent era, and Dieudonne did it expertly, without ever overselling it in the way that most of his contemporaries did.

I'm no expert on Napoleon, but I have seen a couple of solid documentaries on the man and read a little bit. This movie was obviously meant to be something of Gance's version of Braveheart for the French - a very rousing, nationalistic look at a powerful and, at certain points, unifying figure in France's history. As such, there are some rather obviously nationalistic elements to the story. Honestly though, now that we're over 200 years past Napoleon and nearly 100 years past this film's release, it is easy to take some simple pleasure out of such scenes. One in particular features Napoleon storming into a regional government office in the island of Corsica, taking the French flag, declaring that the selfish and bickering bureaucrats are not worthy of it, and then using the flag as a sail to flee them and return to the motherland. How do you not get some kind of enjoyment out of such bald-faced patriotism?

Apparently, this movie had languished and been considered somewhat "lost" for many decades, due to there being a lack of a high-quality print. That was recently rememdied when the British Film Institute released a very nice restoration of the entire thing. It is, however, still rather tough to find outside of the U.K. If one is so inclined, though, it is worth seeking out. Fans of film history are bound to appreciate more than a few things about this old epic. Just be ready for a bit of dead weight here and there.

That's 603 movies down. Only 584 to go before I can die.