Napoleon, restored

I spent much of New Year’s Eve quite rationally, watching a five-and-a-half hour silent movie at the Edinburgh Filmhouse.

I should clarify that there were three intervals. And it was time well spent: the film was a restored BFI version of Abel Gance’s 1927 epic Napoleon, telling the story of the general’s early years. Despite the feature’s length it was intended as only the first in a series of six movies covering the life of the great man. As it transpired the opening episode proved so hard to make that its successors were never made.

The film is a technical wonder, illustrating the full range of what the avant-garde filmmakers of the 1920s could do with limited means. It was one of the first movies to use fluid camera action and tracking shots, and employed a battery of new techniques including close-ups, point-of-view perspectives, multiple exposure, colour tinting and mosaic effects.

The film’s length allows its scenes to unfold gracefully. There are some marvellous sequences, some of which are available on the BFI website: the opening snowball fight commandeered by the child Napoleon; his flight from Corsica; the Battle of Toulon that established his reputation for generalship; his encounter (my favourite scene) with the spirits of the Revolution – Danton, Marat, Robespierre, Saint-Just – in an empty National Assembly hall; and the final half hour capturing the start of Napoleon’s Italian campaign, a moment of cinema history shot using a triptych effect that anticipated the era of widescreen cinema that finally arrived in the 1950s.

The film has something of a contemporary resonance given the European Union’s current troubles, Napoleon in one scene looking forward to a Europe that ‘one day will be united by neither cannon nor cavalry charge but by treaties and pieces of paper.’ So it proved, 30 years later, when the Treaty of Rome was signed. Time will tell whether that unity will hold.

There is also a superb soundtrack by Carl Davis, a skilful weaving of passages from Beethoven’s symphonies, primarily, and appropriately, the Eroica, which was originally dedicated to Napoleon, together with a composite of French revolutionary anthems, Corsican folk melodies, and excerpts from contemporary operas.