Abel Gance is best remembered today for his 1927 film Napoleon, with its innovative camerawork, aggressive editing style, and the celebrated triptych that concludes the final reel. However, the historical and political aspects of the film are rarely discussed. Just as many admirers of D. W. Griffith excuse the racial overtones of The Birth of a Nation (1915) by simply stating that the film is racist and mentioning that Griffith’s father fought with the Confederacy in the Civil War, admirers of Gance often dismiss the perceived fascist discourse in Napoleon and heap praise on Gance and his experiments. In effect, we tend to depoliticize both of these filmmakers, when we should hold them both to the same standard that we hold Leni Riefenstahl, who can never escape from the historical and political context of her best films no matter how much she may have insisted that they were not political in any way. If we never fully confront the racist or fascist elements of a film, we never need to apologize for admiring a racist or fascist film purely on its artistic merits. Dismissing the political aspects of Napoleon as fascist, and thereby labeling Gance as pro-fascist, is misleading at best. While Gance certainly admired Napoleon for his role in the French Revolution and its immediate aftermath, it is not clear what his final judgement might have been.
Any attempt to decode Gance’s view of Napoleon from the film text must keep in mind that the full text is not available to us. The version that exists is still up to three hours shorter than the film that Gance completed in 1927. Furthermore, the film was intended as the first of six installments (eight according to some sources) on Napoleon’s life, the other five of which were never produced. Bearing in mind that we can only see part of one of the six planned installments of Napoleon vu par Abel Gance (the film’s actual title according to the opening credits), we cannot be sure what Gance’s final judgement of his hero might have been.
Does the existing film end with a triumphant Napoleon standing atop a mountain, envisioning a continental-, if not world-dominance for France and the ideals of the revolution? Absolutely. Does Napoleon appear to be particularly single-minded and individualistic in achieving his goals? Yes. Does his victory come without caveats and potentially preemptive warnings? No.
On his way to launch the First Italian Campaign (1796-97), the episode that provides the film’s climax, Napoleon stops by the Convention to absorb the atmosphere of the French Revolution. In the empty chamber he is confronted by the ghosts of Danton, Robespierre, Marat and Saint-Just. Robespierre and Danton challenge Napoleon to spread the ideals of the Revolution:
We have realized that the Revolution cannon prosper without a strong authority. Will you be its leader?
If the Revolution does not spread beyond our frontiers, it will die at home. Will you lead it into Europe?
Naturally, Napoleon’s response to both questions is a resounding “YES!” However, Saint-Just follows-up this exchange with a warning:
On the word of Saint-Just. If you one day forget that you are the heir of the Revolution, we shall turn ferociously against you. Will you remember?
Napoleon nods. Imperceptibly.
The extent to which Napoleon heeds Saint-Just’s warning is not immediately clear. We will have to wait to see what happens. It is important to note, however, that Gance himself plays the role of Saint-Just in the film. It is the director himself, the self-professed Napoleon admirer and filmic biographer who is issuing this warning to the film’s hero: Don’t let us down.
Perhaps Gance’s view of his hero, had he completed all six films, would have taken its cues from Napoleon’s contemporary, Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven, was an ardent admirer of the French Revolution and of Napoleon, and titled his Symphony No. 3 “Bonaparte.” When Napoleon declared himself emperor in 1804, Beethoven, disgusted that Napoleon had indeed forgotten that he was the heir to the Revolution and its ideals, renamed the symphony “Eroica” for its premiere in 1805. (Beethoven did not choose the title “Emperor” for his 1809-1811 Piano Concerto, No. 5.) Unfortunately Gance’s 1936 film Un Grand Amor de Beethoven completely depoliticizes the composer’s life, and offers no clues on how he viewed Beethoven’s feelings on Napoleon.
It is difficult to say whether Gance intended to warn us that Napoleon would, as Beethoven saw it, trample on the civil and political rights of the citizens. Saint-Just’s warning in the Convention is followed by the ghost of Marat, who asks Napoleon what his plans are. He responds:
The liberation of oppressed peoples, the fusion of great European interests, the suppression of frontiers…THE UNIVERSAL REPUBLIC”
Was Gance being ironic? It is difficult to gauge the tone in printed inter titles, but the use of capital letters invites interpretation, and certainly anybody who knows what comes next would have difficulty taking Napoleon at his word. His values proved to be anything but (small “r”) republican.
Yet none of this leads us to a deeper understanding of Gance’s own political leanings, and the issue of whether the film was intended as proto-fascist propaganda remains unresolved. We must not forget that Gance made this film at a time when many Europeans, recovering from the destruction and trying to make order of the chaos that the Great War had left in its wake (themes effectively explored by Gance in his 1919 film J’accuse) were turning their eyes towards alternative forms of government. Among them were communism, which was popular in France, and fascism. Mussolini had risen to power in Italy in 1922, and one need only to look at what happened in Germany in the ensuing years to see how this would play out. And indeed, Gance would later express admiration not just for Mussolini but also for Philippe Pétain, who transformed the Third French Republic into the authoritarian French State, and was later sentenced to death (commuted by De Gaulle to life in prison) for his treasonous collaboration with the Nazis.
It is clear that Gance had a certain admiration for some of the fascist leaders of his lifetime, and a fevered passion for Napoleon. However, clues do exist in his 1927 epic to suggest that he may have been more critical of his subject than seems immediately apparent (and I have not even addressed the episodes involving Violine and Gance’s original plans for that character). Surely, we can enjoy this film for all of its filmic splendor, but we should not minimize the importance of its political content.
Resources and additional reading:
- King, Norman, Abel Gance: A Politics of Spectacle (British Film Institute, 1984).
- Brownlow, Kevin, Napoleon: Abel Gance’s Classic Film (Alfred A. Knopf, 1983).