Dueling Revolutions: Abel Gance's 'Napoleon'

By Jon BoorstinJuly 19, 2012

Dueling Revolutions:  Abel Gance's 'Napoleon'

The film clips from Napoleon vu par Abel Gance © Universal Pictures, All Rights Reserved.

AT THE END OF MARCH, I drove the 350 miles from Studio City to the Paramount Theater in Oakland, where I joined a provident group of 10,000 to witness the only exhibition on the continent of the five and a half hour silent picture Napoleon vu par Abel Gance, exquisitely restored by Kevin Brownlow, accompanied by the Oakland East Bay Orchestra. The older couple to my left came from Manhattan, the film students on my right from Seattle, the fellow behind me from Chicago. We sat down to start the film at 1:30 in the afternoon; with bathroom breaks and dinner, we rose to cheer the final scene at 9:40 that night.

Although everyone laughs at Chaplin and Keaton, serious silent films are an acquired taste. Not everyone in this audience had acquired it, but they gave themselves to Napoleon, and they were rewarded, in the words of Chronicle critic Mark LaSalle, with “an experience — at times, akin to taking a drug — that is unlike anything I've ever experienced in a movie theater.” This was silent film in its purest form: not story, not argument. The audience mainlines pure emotion.

While the best silent performers showed beautiful restraint, their audiences were more tolerant of the emotional hard sell. Like practitioners of modern sign language, actors often telegraphed their feelings so effectively that watching serious silents, modern audiences run the risk of overdosing. But at their best, silent films reveal a new world of feeling. Without the distraction of talk, moments slow down so the audience can savor the flux of expressions, what a modern movie writer would call pure subtext. Without synchronous sounds to knit together images the audience becomes more sensitive to their expressive content. Motion becomes emotion — horses hooves, raging ocean, dancing, fighting become their subtext just as talk scenes did. Vast tableaux, wordless, had the power to awe. Dominated by dialogue, sound film pushes the story balance away from pure emotion and toward exposition. Now instead of being over-acted, stories are over-explained. The unique power of images to tap emotion is often forgotten.

Abel Gance
Abel Gance

Gance put that pure emotional power in the service of a big idea. When the ghost of Robespierre tells Napoleon, “We have realized that the Revolution cannot prosper without a strong authority. Will you be that leader?” “Yes!” answers Napoleon, and Gance has brought the audience to a point where they flood with gratitude. Napoleon will save the Revolution! Gance built his movie from moments that force an audience to feel, cast with faces that magnify those feelings. He drew performances of eerily credible intensity, balancing epic and intimate, action and tableau in a mesmerizing blend. When critic Charles Champlin saw Napoleon the last time it was shown in this country, 30 years ago, he said it was “the measure of all other films, forever.”

Napoleon is not available on DVD and is hard to find on the web. With a handful of brief clips I will attempt to give you its essence, a glimpse of the vanished glory of silent film. Imagine these small images 20 feet high. Nitrate film stock was made from cellulose, and light-sensitive emulsion from silver suspended in albumen. The egg bound tight with the wood: Rich silver shadows leapt across the screen. Music wedded with picture like film stock to emulsion, providing solid structure for the images, as much an indivisible experience as image and soundtrack today. King Vidor, who directed some fine ones, said that music is more than half the experience of a so-called silent film. (Music in these clips is by Carl Davis for modern exhibition.)

To make his audience feel Napoleon’s unique greatness, the essential qualities that make Napoleon the one man to save France in her moment of supreme peril, Gance begins with a snowball fight. Napoleon is a young cadet defending a snow fort, “twenty against sixty” the title card tells us. A born commander, coolly calculating strategy, bravely attacking the rock-throwing bully, expertly deploying his troops, Napoleon resolutely provides his fellow cadets the will to win. Gance tells his story with tension and humor (capturing combat action with a specially designed camera strapped to the cameraman’s chest), but at the climax, in an extraordinary sequence, dense with a blizzard of images, he abandons narrative to push his audience inside young Napoleon’s head.

Napoleon and the snowball fight.

The frantic action becomes a way for viewers to share the serene pleasure that his young hero finds in combat, granting them an understanding beyond words, beyond narrative, closer to music in capturing Napoleon’s state of mind. Gance, like fellow film artists, considered himself an image composer in the musical tradition and aimed for musical fervor.

Napoleon is depicted as a “proud, fierce child, who lives in a kind of savage isolation,” disliked by masters and pupils alike, punished for writing his thoughts at bedtime: “I am very unhappy here,” he writes. “I force myself to be patient. Who knows? The destiny of an empire often hangs upon a single man.” When his barracks mates release his pet eagle, he takes them all on in an epic pillowfight, captured in nine scenes shown simultaneously (and in those days before internegatives, all captured on the same piece of film). Unrepentant, he is banished to sleep on a cold cannon. But his eagle returns! In recounting this, it almost sounds like parody. Describing Gance’s story is like describing a dream; without the emotional glue of the actual experience, it sounds arbitrary, overwrought and more than a little absurd.

Gance jumps ahead nine years, to the words “Death to Tyrants” carved on the hairy chest of a rebel Montagnard standing guard at the headquarters of the Revolution, at the moment the Revolution finds its voice, the very first singing of Liberty’s grand anthem La Marseillaise. Gance steeps his audience in massed revolutionary fervor, and at the height of the frenzy reveals the penniless Lieutenant Napoleon for the first time, detached, intensely observant, congratulating the author for a hymn that will “save many a cannon.”

Napoleon, fiercely committed to the cause, carries the Revolution to his native Corsica. But its government is in the grip of English interests, and a price is put upon his head. Betrayed by his countrymen, he’s chased on horseback by English troops across the island, and leaps aboard an empty skiff, dodging bullets, using for his sail a giant flag of the Republic. Meanwhile, in Paris, the Montagnards turn against their allies the Girondins at the Convention, launching the Reign of Terror, and the Revolution commences to eat its own.

Gance wanted to force upon his audience the contrast between Napoleon’s single-minded steadiness of purpose and the violence and volatility of the Revolution. He found his inspiration in Victor Hugo:

To be a member of the Convention is to be a wave of the ocean. There was a Will of the Convention which was that of all yet not that of any one person. This Will was an Idea, an idea indomitable and immeasurable, which swept from the summit of Heaven into the darkness below. We call this Revolution. When that idea passed, it beat down one and raised up another; it scattered this man into foam and dashed that one upon the rocks.

Gance decided that Napoleon would fight a hurricane single-handedly while the political maelstrom engulfed the Convention.

Napoleon rides two storms (selections).

“Ten times the boat is on the point of sinking,” Gance writes in his script:

the sky is lit up with lightning flashes. The tumultuous Assembly rising and falling in a terrifying swell, streaked with flashes of the guillotine blade, a head falling with each flash. WORDS CAN NO LONGER DESCRIBE THE PARALLELS. Who can try to explain music in words? Indescribable, double storm. INNER DYNAMISM. Suggestion rather than evocation.

Gance filmed the crowds from special pendulums devised for the purpose, and pulverized poor Dieudonné, who played Napoleon, with thousands of gallons of frigid water. The result is one of the great montages in the movies. (The merciless trio at the eye of the Assembly storm are Danton, Robespierre, and Marat; Marat is played by Antonin Artaud).

The real Napoleon fled Corsica, but not in a hurricane clutching the flag of France. Gance wanted less historical specificity, than, as he put it, to enter “the temple of the arts through the vast portal of history.”


Gance’s model for Napoleon by Antoine-Jean Gros (1796)

Still, his 600-page screenplay’s bibliography cited 80 works and 250 volumes; it was supported by a reference library of 3,000 pictures. He filmed in the actual locations on Corsica and elsewhere, he used Napoleon’s actual words in the title cards, and labeled the cards of actual events “(Historical).” This passion for accuracy grounds his expressive flights, seducing the audience into suspending critical judgment, yet ultimately Gance regretted what he called his “abuse of documentation.” He felt that he lost emotional impact when he forced his narrative to hue to facts.

Napoleon is finally given his chance at command when the generals, fearing failure, put him in charge of retaking the port of Toulon. He leads a bloody assault in torrential rain. Gance had fought in the First World War, and he had no illusions about the glories of battle. He has Napoleon, after his victory, a solitary figure, contemplate the battlefield. The audience isn’t so much watching the devastation as watching Napoleon watch it. Gance uses the audience’s horror to ennoble Napoleon’s mourning the dead.

Napoleon after Toulon.

When Napoleon meets Josephine, the juxtaposition is of an entirely different sort. They connect at the Victim’s Ball, a party thrown in prison to celebrate the end of The Terror. To attend “it was necessary to have been imprisoned, or prove the death of a father, brother, or a husband.” While the revelers rejoice Napoleon plays chess. The heat increases with every beat of Josephine’s fan. About a minute into the clip below, the audience isn’t just watching the dancers, it’s riding their gyrations into Napoleon’s id.

Napoleon meets Josephine.

Napoleon’s infatuation isn’t simple. Josephine is shown to be just as taken with her lover Barras, and Napoleon chooses to ignore it. As he says playing blind man’s bluff, “In love, my dear Josephine, one should not see more clearly than this.” Her dual allegiance, in turn, gives Napoleon his heart’s desire: as a favor to Barras, who wants to be rid of her, she agrees to marry Napoleon “on condition he appoints him commander of the Army of Italy.” They wed, although immersed in planning strategy, he’s five hours late to the ceremony. A night of passion, and he’s off to join his command at the Italian border. First he must stop at the Convention “to acquire new strength” within its walls. In Gance’s favorite scene, the martyrs of the Revolution appear, and entreat Napoleon to save their cause (Gance himself portrays the earringed Saint-Just). This is the scene, almost five hours into the movie, that had us cheering in Oakland when Napoleon took the torch.

Gance as St. Just

Gance as Saint-Just

Now Napoleon must transform an ill-provisioned, demoralized rabble into the Grand Army of the Revolution. The generals have no desire to help him in this task. “Imagine imposing on us this little upstart of a Bonaparte, this back-alley general,” says Augereau; Masséna and the rest agree. They don their bicornes and show their backs to Napoleon. In the next clip, Napoleon conquers them in a game of hats all the stronger, Gance would maintain, for being purely visual, sheer clash of character.

Napoleon subdues the generals.

Shortly after this scene, Napoleon finally meets his army. In the grandest moment in the movie, Napoleon takes the reins of Revolution. Screens on either side light up as the image triples in size to 90 feet across, revealing the host arrayed against craggy cliffs.


The resolute Napoleon gallops in review across all three screens; the ragged men hoist their hats atop their bayonets and cheer. “That night, for the first time, the army slept confidently.” Then, as the title card tells us, “On the morning of April 11, 1796, this ragtag crowd would awake with the spirit of the Grand Army.” Napoleon rings the change, filling the center screen, blank screens honoring him on either side; facing him, the army ranges across the three in a vast panorama.

Napoleon inspires the army of Italy.

This moment is magnified by the triple screens, but it’s magnified more by the emotional investment in Napoleon’s struggles leading up to it. Seeing it here, small and isolated, I have trouble believing the power it held after five and a quarter hours in the theater, but it did, and it propelled me through 10 minutes of marching and cannons and assault.

Napoleon Gance

Then, “April 16, 1796, having outstripped his entire staff,” the title cards tell us, and Napoleon stands “alone on the heights of Montezemolo, at an altitude of 2,700 feet.” There, his “soul soaring on a fantastic dream,” he “plays with the clouds at destroying and building worlds.” In his script, Gance describes the moment:

The broad panorama will now give way to separate action on each of the three screens, making possible extraordinary juxtapositions of images. Every symbol becomes palpable. The cinema enters a new era; from the melodic, it becomes the symphonic. The orchestration of the images on three screens will render tangible the symphonic rhythm of the overture to this Iliad: the Marseillaise of the image.


Napoloeon's final fantastic dream.

Gance spent three years making Napoleon. Before it premiered, in December of 1925, a film appeared that took only three months to make, rushed out for the 20th anniversary of a failed revolution to please the victors in a triumphant one, Battleship Potemkin, directed

by Sergei Eisenstein. “There is no story to this film,” a critic said of Eisenstein’s movie, “or no leading actors. If you weren’t told that it was staged, you’d swear it was a prehistoric newsreel.” The clip below shows the pivotal moment. Sailors in the Tsar’s navy have refused to eat rotten meat. The Captain orders the insubordinates covered with a tarpaulin and shot. (Music composed by Edmund Meisel and supervised by the director.)

From Battleship Potemkin, All Rights Reserved.

From our perspective, certainly no newsreel, but it has an immediacy that, especially after Gance, feels remarkably modern. When it appeared, one of the sailors sued for story credit, saying he’d been under the tarp. Eisenstein’s defense was to quote Goethe in a sentiment Gance would have endorsed: “for the sake of truthfulness one can afford to defy the truth.” The tarpaulin scene was invented; if the officers had used a tarp, it would have been beneath the men to protect the deck from their blood. So intense is Battleship Potemkin that it created nonexistent memories.

Battleship Potemkin feels modern because it’s constructed in our own language of cuts. D.W. Griffith, the maestro of the last minute rescue, had established a basic syntax 10 years before, but Eisenstein took film grammar to another level. Battleship Potemkin is less than half as long as Griffith’s masterpiece Birth of a Nation and has twice as many shots. Camera angles and editing rhythm build suspense and drive the story. Eisenstein said it was “montage as collision of independent shots — shots even opposite of one another … A series of explosions of an internal combustion engine which propel the machine forward.”

from Battleship PotemkinWatching a movie we experience every moment twice, from our own point of view and from the character’s. We judge the characters even as we lose ourselves in them. This dance drives the movie forward. Eisenstein intensifies the tension by choosing shots that force us to feel, then juxtaposing them with faces, so we see them through his characters’ eyes. Gance, by comparison, plays Napoleon’s game of hats almost entirely in a few static wide shots. When Gance uses flurries of shots to exploit the tension between the audience’s point of view and his character, he’s not pushing the story forward, he’s pushing the audience inside his character’s head. Gance’s climactic moment, his Marseillaise of the image, is a wildly ambitious attempt to plumb Napoleon’s soul.

Today Gance’s style seems almost abstract, as LaSalle said, like seeing the world on drugs, an alien vision, but as intense and emotionally valid as our own. As biographers James Welsh and Steven Kramer put it, “Abel Gance is the epitome of what the cinema might have become, but never did.” Battleship Potemkin on the other hand set the worldwide standard for story-telling. Charlie Chaplin called it the “best film in the world,” Douglas Fairbanks “the most intense and profoundest experience of my life,” and another critic “unparalleled for its elemental force by anything in the field of art, with the single exception of the Marseillaise.”

Yet Napoleon is closer than Battleship Potemkin to modern films in perhaps the most important way: Napoleon is built upon a character. Even if the film were less impressive, Napoleon the man would carry it, as Margaret Thatcher carries The Iron Lady or Idi Amin The Last King of Scotland. When Vakulinchuk ignites rebellion in Battleship Potemkin he is not its charismatic core, he’s the spark in the tinderbox. Eisenstein focuses the scene on the hesitant marines, and five minutes later Vakulinchuk is shot dead. Eisenstein doesn’t feature a central hero because the film’s theme, as Eisenstein puts it, is “the human urge to mass collective action.” Eisenstein makes me feel through his characters but doesn’t let me think it’s anyone’s particular story. His hero is the revolution. To make a movie where the hero is mass collective action requires a miracle of balance, pace, and structure. Potemkin had to be a masterpiece to work.

What ignites both Napoleon and Battleship Potemkin is something we seem to have lost, a burning faith in revolution. Not just change, but radical transformation, unlocking the human spirit. What drives great change? Napoleon makes an overpowering case for our fundamental need for leaders. Battleship Potemkin is just as convincing that revolution comes from below. Which is the truth? We don’t expect a movie to give us the answer to such a central conundrum of history.

But Gance and Eisenstein did. They believed in the transformative power of movies. “I don’t believe in the kino-eye,” Eisenstein wrote, “I believe in the kino-fist.” Gance thought cinema would become the universal human language, would make war impossible by instilling the finest qualities of the human spirit. As Gance put it:

For me, the cinema is not just pictures. It is something great, mysterious and sublime, for which one should not spare any effort, and for which one should not fail to risk one’s life if the need arises.

This is gone forever.


Recommended Reads:

  • The Film page





    Napoleon vue par Abel Gance was shown at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, March 24, 25, 31, and April 1, 2012. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival produced the event. 


    The version of Napoleon screened in Oakland is not available on video. Earlier versions are also hard to find. The version I used for my clips is Abel Gance’s Napoleon, written, directed, and edited by Abel Gance, reconstructed by Kevin Brownlow, music arranged, composed, and conducted by Carl Davis. Video presentation produced by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow for the National Film Archive, Thames Television Production for Channel 4, 1983. Total running time an abbreviated 3:55.

    Battleship Potemkin (1925) directed by Sergei Eisenstein, music by Edmund Meisel (1926). Kino Classic two disc special Edition. Beautifully restored by Enno Patalas with Ann Bohn, with original Eisenstein-supervised score and Russian titles. Includes Tracing Battleship Potemkin, a documentary on making and restoring the film.

    King Vidor reference from Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s superb series Hollywood, a celebration of the American silent film, for Thames Television, 1980. Alas, not available on video.


    Napoleon, Abel Gance’s Classic Film, Kevin Brownlow, Knopf, New York 1983. Fine book on the making and restoration of Napoleon.

    Napoléon, as seen by Abel Gance, Abel Gance, translated by Moya Hassan with an introduction by Kevin Brownlow. Faber and Faber, London 1990. Gance’s script.

    Abel Gance, Steven Kramer and James Welsh, Twayne, Boston 1978, cited by Brownlow, 1983.

    Eisenstein by Yon Barna, Indiana University Press, Bloomington 1973

    The Battleship Potemkin, Sergei Eisenstein, translated from the Russian by Gillon R. Aitken, introduction Andrew Sinclair. Lorrimer Publishing, London 1968. Eisenstein’s script and analysis of the film.

    Eisenstein’s Potemkin, a Shot-by Shot Presentation, David Mayer, Da Capo Press, New York 1972

    Sergei M. Eisenstein, the definitive biography by Marie Seton, Grove Press, New York 1960.       


    ©Jon Boorstin


LARB Contributor

Jon Boorstin is a writer and filmmaker who works in a broad range of media. His novel The Newsboy's Lodging House won the New York City Book Award for historical fiction. He made the Oscar®-nominated documentary Exploratorium; wrote the IMAX film To the Limit, winner of the Geode Award for best IMAX film; and wrote and, with director Alan J. Pakula, produced the thriller Dream Lover, winner of the Grand Prix at the Festival du Cinéma Fantastique in Avoriaz, France. He is the co-creator of the television series Three Moons over Milford, a comedy about the end of the world. Boorstin has written a book on film theory titled Making Movies Work and has taught film at USC, the American Film Institute, the Hamburger Filmwerkstatt, and as a Fulbright professor at the National Film Institute in Pune, India. Boorstin’s new novel Mabel and Me was published in April.


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