'Napoleon,' the man and mostly the myth

Special to The Times

To mark Bastille Day, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will screen Abel Gance's legendary 1927 epic "Napoleon," which has rarely been shown publicly since its 1981 restoration by film historian Kevin Brownlow, complete with tinted sequences, and presented by Francis Ford Coppola with a score composed by Coppola's late father, Carmine, that is as glorious as the silent classic is itself. (Brownlow also completed a five-hour version in 2004.)

On Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., LACMA will be screening the splendid print struck by Universal in 70 millimeter in the early 1980s, for which Carmine Coppola's orchestral score was recorded in stereo and transferred to the print.

This two-part, amazingly fast-moving and swiftly engaging 235-minute reconstruction premiered in 1980 at Radio City Music Hall with much fanfare, and soon after that at the Shrine Auditorium in L.A. Gance, who had traveled to the 1979 Telluride Film Festival for a work-in-progress presentation, complete with its famous triptych concluding sequence, was able to hear the ovations accorded "Napoleon" in New York over the phone from his apartment in Paris, where he died in November, 1981, at 92.

"Napoleon" is history as an action-filled pageant, filled with as many cliffhanging flourishes as a serial, relieved from time to time with scenes of intimacy and humor. Gance was as natural and energetic a storyteller in the silent screen medium as Cecil B. DeMille -- and could stage an orgy with similar zest. His visual flair remains awesome and richly varied. He staged complex battle scenes with ease yet could create images as richly textured as those of Josef von Sternberg.

Yet more than anything else, Gance is engaged in mythmaking in regard to his treatment of Napoleon -- as much as Leni Riefenstahl would be several years later with Adolf Hitler in her eternally controversial "Triumph of the Will." Indeed, "Napoleon" would seem the very embodiment of John Ford's famous command, "Print the legend," yet Ford's heroes were often far more complex than Gance's unflappable Bonaparte.

The film covers Napoleon's youth through his siege of Italy in 1796, and Gance was never able to complete Bonaparte's story, as he had intended. In any event, Napoleon, with his dream of a unified Europe, is depicted as the greatest of heroes, a man of stupendous vision and courage and seeming faultlessness.

"In this film," wrote Gance, "I neither judged nor prejudged what was to happen to Napoleon after Italy.... I might have become one of his detractors. My Bonaparte was in that long line of republican idealists of which Christ was the first example."

Gance's Bonaparte is played with appropriate stoicism by jut-jawed, hawk-nosed, diminutive Albert Dieudonne, blessed with an all-important piercing gaze.

It is fortunate that Gance spends 25 minutes depicting the youthful Napoleon's character-forming, destiny-determining experiences at a French military academy, where he endured much abuse as a fiercely proud native of Corsica, dismissed by a professor as "a half-savage island." (There's a dormitory scene that surely inspired Jean Vigo's "Zero for Conduct.") The adult Napoleon is unvaryingly sober, insubordinate and unstoppable in his rise in the military through the tumult of the French Revolution and its savage aftermath -- which he found deplorable in its excesses -- to become in his own mind, France itself. Talk about the ultimate revenge.

It would seem that his sole distraction -- and one that would ensure his career-making command of the invasion of Italy -- was Josephine de Beauharnais (a lush, Junoesque Gina Manes), a divorced viscountess with two children and a reputation for being able "to seduce even the most virtuous." Once the two met, Josephine, realizing her lover, who happened to be Napoleon's commander-in-chief, was tiring of her, agreed to marry Bonaparte if he in turn were given command of the Italian campaign -- a deal apparently unknown to Napoleon.

The emperor-to-be's awkward, impassioned courtship of the sophisticated, somewhat older Josephine allows for the film's most charming and amusing sequence. It leads to a stunningly revealing moment, when, envisioning Josephine's smiling face on a globe, Napoleon kisses it; clearly, conquering Josephine and the world were one and the same to Napoleon.

The roughly 20-minute triptych sequences, for which the screen image greatly expands, covers the invasion of Italy over the Alps in a format that symbolizes Napoleon's dream of a unified Europe.

Toward the end of the three sepia-tinged sequences, the left image turns a tinted blue, the right image, a tinted red, embodying visually just what Napoleon intends for Europe. It's an undeniably dramatic, highly portentous effect, but one requiring Gance's three-projector Polyvision process that ultimately doomed "Napoleon" to its long undeserved obscurity, with Gance, in between other films, driven to reworking -- yet perversely ever-diminishing -- his cherished epic in various forms as late as 1970.

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