Commentary Magazine

Napoleon Conquers America

During the royalist rising of the 13 Vendémiaire an obscure young officer of the Republic named Buonaparte turned his trained artillery on a Paris mob and cut it to pieces. The greatest mistake a military commander could make facing the “populace,” he later explained, was to fire blank ammunition; it inspired only insolence and contempt. From the first round, he said, troops facing a mob should shoot to kill. Ten days later he was made a major general. Scarcely a week after that—his skill and ruthless determination to serve the Republic proven on the 13 Vendémiaire—he was given command of France’s Army of the Interior.

One may doubt that a Bonaparte at Kent State in 1970 would have been so lionized or rewarded. But now Bonaparte has stormed and conquered New York’s Radio City Music Hall, as well as the American press in its entirety. At least the 1927 silent film epic Napoleon by France’s Abel Gance has done so. And what makes the event so bizarre is that the celebrity-studded crowds that roared, cheered, and gave the film delirious standing ovations were apparently made up of the sort of people who felt the killing of four students at Kent State would live in the annals of American villainy.

Were the crowds cheering, not Bonaparte, but the art of Abel Gance? To a degree, perhaps—particularly misled as they were by balderdash in the press about this being a “lost” masterpiece. (Gance’s Napoleon was about as lost as D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.) But would feverish throngs like this have turned out for a fuller version of Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, or the original five-hour version of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, or even Eisenstein’s (genuinely) lost and rediscovered first film Strike? A spokesman for Radio City Music Hall gave the game away with an incredulous, “Film buffs? You think there are fifty thousand film buffs in New York?” At a ticket price scaled to $25? There can be no question: these crowds were cheering to a large extent for Napoleon himself—at least for the Napoleon presented to them in Gance’s film.

And Gance’s Napoleon is not just any old figure in the heroic mold. He is no Sitting Bull, no John Henry, no Ivan the Terrible, no Lenin. Gance gives us Napoleon as Hero of Western Civilization, pure, almost sacramentalized, his eyes dreamy with the vision of his destiny, of his mission to bring France’s gift of liberty to the world (if necessary by cannon and saber). The film is a work of fervid patriotism, even gutter patriotism. And it opened at Radio City Music Hall during the frenzied weekend when the American hostages from Teheran arrived back in New York. I am normally extremely cautious about attempting to read the minds of people sitting with me in a darkened theater, but the 6,000 at the Music Hall were in such a state of vociferous exaltation that one had only to listen to what they cheered for. Patriotism, it would seem on the face of it, is back in style. And not only patriotism but liberty—old-fashioned liberty—and perhaps even the notion that liberty is worth fighting for, as in that quaint archaism, “Give me liberty or give me death.” At least the question is posed, all by an ecstatic public response to what is in many ways a very trashy movie.

The critical reception for this fifty-four-year-old silent film has been as astonishing as the audience response. Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote: “One realizes that there once was a film that justified all of the adjectives that have subsequently been debased. Napoleon sweeps, it takes the breath away, it dazzles.” He concluded—in January—that it seemed certain to be the film event of the year. Jack Kroll of Newsweek went him one better, calling it the most thrilling film in many years, “an explosion of creativity by a man on fire.” Another leading critic wrote: “For once the word ‘masterpiece’ seems too puny”; another, “The major movie experience of my lifetime.”

The rapture was virtually universal. Originally scheduled for only two performances, the film was extended for three more the weekend following, and then the weekend after that, in response to what a critic called “a ticket demand unparalleled in modern cinema.” Aided by the high ticket price, the film broke the Music Hall’s box-office records for a single showing, for a day, and even for a week—on the basis of three showings—and tickets were scalped on the street for $40. NBC devoted a segment of its network Nightly News to the phenomenon. Although it played in only a single house in the whole country, and for only three performances, trade publications ranked the movie eleventh for the week nationwide. Special showings of Napoleon are now being considered for the Hollywood Bowl, for the restored 4,000-seat Fox in Atlanta, and for Japan, after which it will go on general release throughout the U.S. with its musical score recorded on a soundtrack. It was as if someone had lit a match, and a gasoline-filled room had burst into flames.

The man who lit the match, of course, was Francis Coppola—that twelfth-hour convert to the anti-Vietnam war movement. I have already expressed in these pages my doubts of Coppola’s bona fides as a pacifist or anti-bellicist of any sort, and shall merely add that his new avocation as patron of neglected or “forgotten” film masterpieces appears to support my view. Of all the neglected masterpieces, the three he has discovered so far have been Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Our Hitler, Gance’s Napoleon, and, soon to be presented, Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will— which is to say, two films about Hitler and one about Napoleon. The list would seem to speak for itself.

But Coppola has great talents as a showman, the heart of a Mike Todd, a plunger. Already on the verge of bankruptcy again, the profits from his commercially successful Apocalypse Now gaspingly over-committed, he knew Napoleon would have to be an “event” or nothing. He invested a quarter of a million dollars in the project, which included a scholarly reconstitution of something close to the original film and a stirring eclectic score composed by his father, Carmine Coppola, performed on stage by the sixty-piece American Symphony Orchestra. The predestined locale, with an overhead cost per performance of $60,000, was the Radio City Music Hall. (“Right where Napoleon belongs,” said a friend of mine with a sense of the appropriate. “Right in there with those Rockettes.”)


There is no question but what Gance’s Napoleon deserves a place in film history. Its technical innovations alone earn it that. In 1927, when the film was released, the Germans had already put the camera on wheels, inventing the so-called “tracking shot,” and Russia’s Sergei Eisenstein, in his Battleship potemkin, in addition to setting up colossal scenes and composing screen images of unprecedented power, had carried the art of “montage”—in his view the heart of the cinema, the control of stress and timing without which all else is nothing—to a level of achievement perhaps still to be surpassed.

Most of Gance’s innovations were in the realm of camera movement. He suspended his camera from overhead wires like a miniature cable car. He strapped it to the back of a galloping horse. In what was perhaps the most sensational shot of his career, he fastened his camera to a gigantic swing which sweeps through the air above the revolutionary Convention, conveying the wild, heady turbulence of the Revolution, and at the same time suggesting the mighty waves of a tempest at sea, for crossing the Mediterranean in a storm-tossed ship from Corsica is the young Napoleon—France’s Man of Destiny.

To my knowledge, Gance was also the first to use the hand-held camera. I once saw at the Paris Cinémathèque a shot not in the present version in which this same tempestuous Convention is also shown from the point of view of the orator, the legendary Danton. The image of the assembly hall teeming with delegates is seen to rise and fall, no longer with the circular swell of the ocean’s waves but with the anthropomorphic heaving of a man’s chest. From the floor of the Convention we have already seen the great Danton holding forth in impassioned speech. Now we see this same Convention from the heaving chest of the man who for a time held the Revolution in sway. Abel Gance, in short, invented the subjective camera.

The technical novelty for which he is most famous, however, is what he called “Polyvision,” a kind of proto-Cinerama. For four sequences of the film—only one of which has been preserved—Gance goes to three cameras, expanding the pageant-like spectacle of Napoleon’s army on the march to the lateral limits of visual perception. Gance was very attached to his Polyvision, and wretchedly cast down when it failed to catch on. One thing that sets it apart from Cinerama is that Polyvision, although sometimes using its three screens simply to widen a single image as in the familiar Cinerama technique, often splits into three separate pictures—two angles of the army on the march on side screens, in one case, while on the central screen flaps the imperial eagle, symbol of Napoleon’s destiny. Gance was at great pains to explain that in Polyvision some of the images merely tell the film’s story, they are its “prose,” while the other images, laden with symbols and memory projections, are its “poetry” and Polyvision’s true glory. A flapping cardboard eagle as symbol of Napoleon’s destiny might not seem a very high form of poetry, but it is typical enough of Abel Gance.


The drive behind these technical innovations can only be understood if it is remembered—as it rarely is—that in its early days the cinema had a raging inferiority complex with respect to the legitimate theater. The cinema had no intellectual prestige. Actors who worked for it were often looked down on. (There are people still alive today who remember signs on the old Hollywood boarding houses, “No Dogs or Actors.”)

In recent decades, with the theater very much on the defensive with respect to the cinema, stage actors have been known to come gamboling down the aisle to argue with members of the audience or sit on their laps—all in a desperate attempt to “do things the movies can’t.” But in the 20’s, when the shoe was definitely on the other foot, it was the film-makers who desperately wanted to do things the stage could not. And they did so with a vengence. Eyes mesmerized by the field of vision of the magical moving camera, film audiences sailed through storms at sea, flew through the air. Griffith had already measured the dramatic impact of the closeup, but it was now put to more intensive use. The camera could see small. It could see big. Audiences could see crowds storm the real Winter Palace in Petrograd (Eisenstein’s October), could cross the real Alps with Hannibal.

I disagree with Kevin Brownlow, the British film historian who has made something of a life work of reconstituting the original Napoleon, when he says that the advent of the talking picture “consigned the innovations of Napoleon to the scrap heap.” True, most film historians consider the early “talkies” an artistic step backward. Exploration of the full visual possibilities of the medium was temporarily abandoned, spoken dialogue allowing film-makers to ape what they considered their artistic and social betters of the stage, turning the movies into a kind of filmed theater, stage entertainment for the multitudes—a development anathematized by Eisenstein, to name only one. But before long the pressure to expand the medium was on again: The Blue Angel, Le Jour sc Lève, Citizen Kane.

Needless to say, when the cinema was once more on the defensive—this time with respect not to a “higher” art medium but to a lower, television—every single one of Gance’s techniques without exception was brought out again, some of them to become, if they had not already, part of the permanent vocabulary of film language. To this day every director who aligns his camera with the barrel and sights of an assassin’s rifle, or sets it on the handlebars of a roaring motorcycle, or on the skids of a helicopter to glide and swoop over city or mountain, has as his spiritual ancestor Abel Gance. I myself do not believe that the actors who broke out of the proscenium arch to sit in the laps of the audience raised the theater to any new heights. But the film-makers who worked feverishly finding new techniques to enrich their means of expression developed a medium of vast range and flexibility and emotional power and, in my view, created a major new art. So, yes, anyone with a true scholar’s interest in the development of cinema technique should see Abel Gance’s Napoleon. Unfortunately, he will also have to put up with a lot of junk.


Napoleon was made for a 1927 Frenchman with about a fourth-grade education. It is interlarded with tatty little fictions, and the central character himself is fictionalized, at many key points—always in the direction of hagiography. As history the film lies somewhere between Parson Weems’s George Washington with his cherry tree (“I cannot tell a lie”) and D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, in which the cause of the Civil War is shown to be Abraham Lincoln’s having a mulatto mistress.

If anything, Napoleon is closer to Griffith than to Weems. The 13 Vendémiaire, for example, is not plainly represented as a royalist rising, which it was, with Frenchman killing Frenchman, but as an “invasion”—presumably by foreigners of some sort. Whether or not Gance ever shot Bonaparte’s actual encounter with the “invaders” I do not know, and in any case it is conveniently absent from the present version. Napoleon no sooner sets off to repel the “invasion” than he immediately returns and is hailed as having “saved France,” whereas what he has saved is obviously the Republic (saved it, that is, until at a later moment, not shown in the film, he sees fit to destroy it).

The movie is also loaded with shabby 1920’s mannerisms, such as Napoleon’s cutesy-pie flirtation with Josephine (Napoleon’s ways with women are now widely known, and they were direct to the point of abruptness). At the Music Hall, the most glaring 20’s coynesses and anachronisms were received by the audience with delighted laughter in a mood of High Camp, which no doubt made the movie’s servile hero-worship of Napoleon somewhat easier to take.

But what amuses American audiences embarrasses the French, and a variety of reasons, including its historical illiteracy, has always prevented the film’s successful re-release in its own country. A modern French audience would take Gance’s Napoleon about as well as a modern American audience would take Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln. The very title Napoleon is a misnomer, the central character being known during the entire period covered by the film as Bonaparte—or, actually, Buonaparte, as he only Gallicized the spelling of his name when he took command of France’s Army of Italy, an event which occurs at the movie’s very end. Culturally speaking, Napoleon, of course, was not French but Italian. He only learned French at the age of ten and even then spoke it with an Italian accent. His father had fought the French as a Corsican nationalist. He is, in fact, one of a long stream of nationalist leaders, stretching from Alexander of Macedon to Hitler of Austria and Stalin of Georgia, who came from the cultural periphery of the nations they were to lead with such fierce purpose. The viewer will glean nothing of this from the picture. For Gance, Napoleon was pure French. We are dealing here not with history but with a kind of vulgar mythology.


Those with the complacent assumption that historians have reached a consensus on most of the great leaders and events of the past should be apprised that Napoleon remains a highly controversial figure, in France as well as anywhere else. He first saved, then destroyed, the Republic. Where his armies marched, serfdom and slavery were abolished (and Jews enfranchised), the Rights of Man prevailed, all men were declared equal before the law. But he laid waste most of Europe, left hundreds of thousands dead on battlefields. He proclaimed on several occasions that his authoritarian rule was only temporary, but he was not universally believed. His messianic zeal disrupted world peace; the universality of his creed left the concept of the balance of power in shards. Charles de Gaulle, of all people, did not especially admire him, writing that he had no “sense of measure.”

Napoleon’s glory as a military commander—for a sometime pacifist like Bertrand Russell, his most sinister feature—was also his most unassailable. All his contemporaries were in awe of him. Wellington felt that Bonaparte’s presence among his troops was worth another forty thousand men. French defectors who advised the coalitions that repeatedly rose against him warned: “Never fight the French when Napoleon commands. You will be beaten. Fight his lieutenants. Only when you have the Emperor overwhelmingly outnumbered can you defeat him in the field.” The advice was prescient. Dead, Napoleon fired men’s minds for over a century.

French schoolbooks to this day give the Emperor “mixed notices,” so to speak. Nowhere on the map of Paris can be found the name “Napoleon” (although there is a modest-sized Rue Bonaparte honoring the General of the Republic). On the other hand, the same map is strewn with the names of Napoleon’s marshals (unless they betrayed him) and his victories. When the Arch of Triumph was constructed at the Etoile, Frenchmen of all political persuasions fought for sixty years under five regimes (including two republics and two monarchies) to have their ancestors’ names inscribed on the monument—a privilege reserved to officers with the rank of general and above in Napoleon’s armies. As ardent a republican as Victor Hugo died bitter that he had not succeeded in getting his own father’s name so inscribed. No French politician in his right mind would openly attack the shade of Napoleon. So on the street level, as it were, Abel Gance was certainly on the safe side in taking the pro-Napoleon side in the controversy. The only trouble is that he is the kind of hagiographer who destroys all evidence unfavorable to his saint.


But Napoleon is not the only subject about which French schoolbooks display ambivalence. The Revolution itself is a delicate episode. All French republican regimes owe their claim of legitimacy to the principles of the Revolution, and Bastille Day is still the French national holiday. But the Revolution led to the Terror, which Frenchmen are brought up to loathe and dread. Gance’s Napoleon is almost as much about the Revolution as it is about Bonaparte, and on that critical subject he wobbles incoherently from effect to effect, always fatuous, always puerile. On balance one would have to say that Gance is no true friend of democracy—a conclusion hardly surprising in view of the slavishness of his worship of the leader. He has, moreover, the dim-witted tendency to view the Revolution mainly as an auspicious prologue to Napoleon, his hero.

The opening scene of the present four-hour film shows Napoleon as a youth at a military school in France. The youngsters engage in a snowball fight. Napoleon, of course, wins. Such democratic spirit as this movie has is demonstrated by Napoleon, wherever he goes, having as his “best friend” a member of the common people. At military school it is a (fictional) scullion.

The scene now shifts to Paris in the revolutionary days. We meet what Gance calls, in a title, the Revolution’s “three gods.” Marat is played as a spastic psychopath, Danton as a blustering bully, Robespierre as an icy despot. They are an unattractive bunch. A young officer of France’s Army of the Rhine, Rouget de Lisle, comes to the revolutionary Convention with a song he has just written, La Marseillaise (actually not given this name until a much later stage of the Revolution). Rather implausibly, Danton teaches the Convention to sing it. Another young officer, an almost hieratic Napoleon Bonaparte (now played by the adult Albert Dieudonné an actor of some presence—at least he’s not ridiculous), congratulates the composer. At this point Louis XVI has not yet been guillotined and a title tells us, “As the monarchy crumbled Napoleon felt a source of light growing within him.”

Next comes a visit by Napoleon to his native island which turns the histories of France, Corsica, and the Bonaparte family all on their heads. Napoleon communes with his “best friend the shepherd Santo Ricci” when he’s not “discussing the future with his friend the ocean.” The sequence is best remembered for a cavalry chase after Napoleon reveals himself as a French patriot (“Our Fatherland is France! With me!”), and for his escape by boat when he hoists the French Tricolor in place of a missing sail. It is at this point that we have the audacious cross-cutting between the storm at sea and the storm at the Convention in Paris, while a title tells us, “Napoleon was being carried to the height of history.”

Part I of the movie closes with Bonaparte attacking in a driving rain at the siege of Toulon, where he won his spurs (in fact, catching the eye of Barras, future leader of the Directory, who became his protector). Although all the hoopla about this film is based, theoretically, on having at last reconstituted something close to its original version, Messrs. Brownlow and Coppola have another thirty-minute sequence which belongs somewhere near the end of Part I but which they did not show as it would have made the movie too long. The sequence tells the love story of Napoleon and a (fictional) serving girl, played by Annabella, who, it might be worth noting, went on to a higher station in life in Hollywood, where she married Tyrone Power.

Part II of Napoleon contains a great deal of pop-history of the Revolution, bent, naturally, to Gance’s purposes. It opens with one of the most celebrated assassinations in history, that of Marat in his bathtub by the young royalist Charlotte Corday (played by the beautiful Mrs. Gance). The Terror still rages. The tumbrels roll. The tyrant Robespierre offers Bonaparte a military command, but he refuses and is jailed. (The actual Bonaparte was jailed not for having defied Robespierre but—when Robespierre fell—for having been subservient to him.)

But the 9 Thermidor approaches. Robespierre is shouted down by the Convention. Saint-Just, his handsome young disciple, described as having “the beauty of chiseled marble,” rises to speak. It is one of the most embarrassing things in this entire movie that Abel Gance, never a good-looking man, chose to play Saint-Just himself. Moreover, having given himself a starring role and powdered himself up to look as pretty as possible, he could not resist the narcissistic temptation to make Saint-Just—a cold, bloodthirsty fanatic if ever there was one—a much more appealing character than he was historically.

Suddenly the tempo changes. A “beautiful,” languid Saint-Just gestures gracefully, speaks with divine eloquence. In the gallery, a lovely woman cries rapturously, “They are too good for us!” Thrown for a loop by this incomprehensible about-face, the author of the official plot synopsis in the program writes, “With fiery oratory, Saint-Just brings the Assembly ’round to his side”—whereas, on the 9 Thermidor, Saint-Just (1) did not speak with fiery oratory; (2) did not speak at all; and (3) certainly did not bring the Assembly around to his side. The next day, at seven o’clock in the afternoon, he was guillotined with Robespierre. The Terror was over. For those interested in the cast, the handsomest actor of the lot in real life was the great if somewhat mad poet Antonin Artaud, but Gance had him play the twitching, nearly demented Marat.

Our pop-history billows along. We are now under the Directory. When Barras offers Bonaparte his command on the 13 Vendémiaire (misrepresented, to repeat, as a foreign invasion), Napoleon says, “I do not like those whom I serve” (a strange remark for a man to make to his protector), “but when the homeland is invaded, the government must be defended.” Also, “I shall not sheathe my sword until order is restored.” Instantly he is (title) “THE MAN WHO SAVED FRANCE.” “From this morning on,” he declares, “I am the Revolution!”

One of the movie’s big scenes, with wild dancing, gay abandon, is the Bal des Victimes, one of many balls held by those who narrowly escaped the guillotine. A suddenly puritanical Bonaparte lectures a giddy, suspiciously flapper-like merveilleuse, “With imbeciles and layabouts like you France is heading for the abyss!” (Actually she is the kind of girl the real Napoleon rather liked.) But Bonaparte soon meets Josephine (a distinguished layabout herself and one of the period’s great power groupies), marries her, and secures the command of France’s Army of Italy.

It was in his first Italian campaign that Bonaparte won the startling string of victories that swiftly spread his fame throughout Europe and, above all, made him the idol of the French army. When he next returned to Paris, with the army at his back, the Republic survived for exactly three weeks. The final sequence of the movie, already referred to, is the ambitious eighteen-minute triptych with its marching men, cannons, imperial eagle, visions of childhood, the Revolution, Josephine, the shadow of the eagle as the army advances joyously, Napoleon’s head with a halo effect strongly suggesting divine guidance.


The ideology Gance attributed to this conquering army and this conqueror is pretty clearly spelled out in the film’s penultimate sequence, when Bonaparte, before leaving to take up his command in Italy, visits the empty hall of the Convention at night to commune with the ghosts of the Revolution’s leaders: Danton, Robespierre, Marat, and Saint-Just. The inclusion of Saint-Just in this group (still played by Gance) is a further example of the director’s vanity. Given the antipathy toward these men expressed by Gance in earlier scenes of the film (except for Saint-Just played by himself, of course), one is surprised at the dignity of their bearing now. The antipathy, moreover, is not without historical justification. Danton had a far more engaging personality than the others, but there is general agreement that Robespierre, Marat, and Saint-Just were doctrinaire fanatics of an especially pitiless kind. Their speeches were filled with appeals to purify the nation with seas of blood. “To insure public tranquility 200,000 heads must roll!” cried Marat. “The vessel of the Revolution can arrive in port only on an ocean reddened with torrents of blood!” proclaimed Saint-Just. The Revolution had its moderate wing, but its extremists, architects of the Terror, remain the most famous—so Gance, having shown marked distaste for them earlier, in a dazzling display of incoherence now exalts them as keepers of the sacred flame of the Revolution.

Their exchange with Bonaparte is interesting. “The Revolution needs a strong authority,” they say solemnly. “Will you be it?” Napoleon answers (title in upper case): “YES.” “If the Revolution remains within France, it will perish,” they affirm. “Will you carry it beyond her frontiers?” Again Napoleon replies: “YES.” He then makes a speech declaring his intention to liberate all the oppressed and eradicate all frontiers (“Every man will have a common Fatherland”), ending with the revelation of his ultimate goal, the “Universal Republic.” Since other states could hardly be expected to acquiesce peacefully in the abolition of their sovereignty, this amounted to a program of world conquest.

Gance no doubt expected the French public to find this a rather winning trait on Napoleon’s part (and heaven knows what the audiences at Radio City Music Hall thought of it). But suddenly, amid the wallowing in hero worship and bad history, an odd note of truth has been struck. “No frontiers.” World dominion. Simply that. This was exactly the perception of Napoleon’s intentions formed by his enemies, which was why coalition after coalition rose against him on the Continent, until at last they brought him down.


After this enormous two-part movie, Gance had planned to make five more films of comparable length covering Napoleon’s career all the way to St. Helena. I cannot believe his failure to do so was a great loss to the cinema.

After Napoleon, Gance’s career was pitiable. In 1936 he made Beethoven’s Great Love. His stock in trade, such as it was, was mining history, and pseudo-history, for heroic figures. In the 50’s he made the appalling La Tour de Nesles, about France’s notorious 16th-century Queen Margot, and in 1963 the equally appalling Cyrano and d’Artagnan, about the joint adventures of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac and Alexandre Dumas’s d’Artagnan of The Three Musketeers, an attempt to exploit the work of more successful fictionalizers than himself. These last were dismal failures in France, but Cyrano and d’Artagnan was received with great respect at the New York Film Festival.

To my knowledge, Gance’s only substantial success in the last fifty years has been his Austerlitz, in about 1960, which returned again to his beloved Napoleon. A completely nondescript work, bearing no trace of even the young director’s audacity, the film is a succession of historical scenes loosely organized around one of the Emperor’s most brilliant victories, which destroyed the Third Coalition. Now over ninety, Gance is dreaming of still another epic movie, this time: Christopher Columbus.

But despite the feebleness of his later works, it is a plain falsehood to claim that Gance and his Napoleon were forgotten. They are in all the film history books, and usually with very high marks. Napoleon, if in a truncated yersion, has played regularly all these years at the Paris Cinémathèque. Gance has been an honored member of the French delegation to more international film gatherings than I would care to count. In 1967 the New York Festival presented a version of Napoleon that ran a full four hours, though it lacked some footage included in the present version. A great highlight of the 1971 New York Film Festival was a new sound version of Napoleon put together by Gance himself, with some footage freshly shot. Honored in New York, this version, called in French Bonaparte and the Revolution (a more accurate title), was a fiasco in France. Napoleon, in any event, far from being forgotten, is one of the best remembered “masterpieces” in film history. I would probably not be writing about it, in sum, if it were not for the frenzied reception it is being given.


Why, then, were the crowds at the Music Hall cheering so wildly? I, again, refuse to entertain seriously the notion that they were cheering for a silent film masterpiece. A revival of Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite, with an unknown score by Virgil Thomson, performed on the stage by a sixty-piece orchestra, would have received warm, Lincoln Center-type applause, but nothing like this. These people were cheering for Napoleon.

Their cheering, on the other hand, was quirky. When Bonaparte, at one point in the film, orders no smoking in the building, there was a gleeful roar of approval. In the movie the danger is from gunpowder being moved, whereas the audience was thinking of the Surgeon General’s warning. Another roar of anachronistic applause, this one thunderous, wall to wall, came when Bonaparte orders all private citizens to turn in their firearms. Napoleon is concerned for the security of the state, keeping weapons out of the hands of potential insurgents, while the audience was protesting against Saturday-night specials used by such anti-social elements as the man who had just killed John Lennon.

Say what you will, there is something a little odd about an audience afraid of delinquents on Central Park West and secondhand cigarette smoke cheering so madly for one of the boldest and most devastating war chiefs of history, a man not afraid of gunsmoke or any other kind of smoke and so little in fear of death by firearms that the Imperial Guard once refused to attack until the Emperor had retired from the front line.

There was, of course, the mood of High Camp that pervaded the evening, the audience giggling and laughing delightedly not only at Gance’s fictional inanities but at a number of Bonaparte’s authentic remarks. When, during an attack, one of his lieutenants reports to him that an assigned military task is impossible, Napoleon cries, “‘Impossible’ is not French!” The audience shrieked with laughter. But Napoleon meant it. It was once said in his presence that one of his generals, Kléber, was not French but a German-speaking Alsatian. Napoleon dismissed the remark with a sardonic, “Il sabre en français” (“He sabers in French”). When the accolade was repeated to Kléber, who knew the smell of gunpowder and the price paid on the battlefield for all these liberations and these French ideals, he did not giggle, but was filled with pride. Such is the power of a patriotic creed at its apogee.

The night I saw Napoleon at the Radio City Music Hall, many members of the audience were already seeing it for a second or third time, their cheers and gales of laughter synchronized responsively in a manner suggesting nothing so much as an audience of teenagers at a Saturday midnight viewing of The Rocky Horror Show.

But through this screen of camp, just what are we witnessing? It is a point on which reasonable men may differ. Some will say it is a revival of true patriotism, for which view a solid case can be built: Teheran, Afghanistan, the freeing of the hostages, the Reagan victory, the “born-again hawk” stances of even the Carter administration, the indubitable new groundswell of nationalism that has swept the country. I myself tend to a more skeptical view—at least for the specific audience I saw in action.

I believe there is such a thing as a pornography of patriotism—people whose channels of true patriotism are blocked must express this emotion in other ways, often in a debased form. It is not unrelated to what George Orwell called “transposed nationalism.” Now Abel Gance’s Napoleon is probably the most rabidly patriotic movie in film history. It is French! French! French! France’s mission! France’s destiny! Everthing good is French. I propose a simple rule. Could the members of the audience at the Music Hall use the word “American,” without embarrassment, and with anything like the exorbitant passion given the word “French” in this film? Do they feel their own nation has freedoms and other values that are worth defending, let alone spreading throughout the world, even by force of arms? Do they have the smallest, tiniest part of Napoleon Bonaparte’s relentless, seething will to prevail? Do they have it now? Is it growing within them? The future will tell.


“Coppola’s Folly,” October 1979.

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