Directed by Abel Gance

France, 1927

HOME, 28 January 2017

Napoleon: like Michaelangelo, Galileo, Leonardo – all Renaissance figures, curiously enough – we know him by his first name.

Abel Gance’s film, masterfully reconstructed by Kevin Brownlow and accompanied by Carl Davis’s fine score (where Davis references La Marseillaise and Ludwig’s – sorry, I mean Beethoven’s – Eroica symphony) was a valuable experience, well worth seven hours of anyone’s life.

There is Napoleon looking down upon the raging ocean, like a figure in a Caspar David Friedrich painting. Now we see him routing the English at Toulon. Here is a ball for victims of the Terror, where Napoleon meets Josephine.

Early on, Napoleon is identified with an eagle (he has one as a pet when a child) and we come to see him as a hooded, cloaked onlooker: a patient predator. The film ends with Napoleon marching triumphantly into Italy, having expressed an ambition to export the Revolution beyond France’s borders and so free the oppressed peoples of Europe. What a hero!

This sort of rhetoric indicates perhaps a sympathy with the Bolshevik regime in Russia or the internationalist ideals of the League of Nations, both of which had come into being a few years before. Then again, Gance supported Petain in the ‘40s, so perhaps he had a thing for strong leaders. And, indeed, it is as false and self serving as Hitler using concern for the Sudetendeutsche to invade Czechoslovakia or (in our own day) Obama using the United Nation’s Responsibility to Protect doctrine to intervene in Libya and topple Gadhafi. And what a bright idea that was: let’s create a failed state and see how many refugees die drowning trying to reach Europe.

Napoleon may have been a general of genius but at root he was an opportunist tyrant. Gance’s film, while uncritical of the myth – indeed, he aims to sustain it – has enough going for it to merit an attentive viewing.

And the best actor in it is… Gance himself. He plays Saint Just as a cold aethete indifferent to human suffering.