‘So,’ said the Significant Other, the ‘LadyQJ’ of my Twitter feed, ‘how do you fancy going to see a five and a half hour French silent film made in 1927?’
Or words to that effect.
Actually, it wasn’t five and a half hours: it was just two of the four acts, and the Byzantine intricacies of what some deluded optimists still laughably describe as ‘the British railway system’ meant that we had to miss the second one. But it was French, it was silent, it was made in 1927, and we duly went to see a press screening at the BFI on Monday night. (How did we get to go to a press screening at the BFI? A long story…) Now, I’m not allowed to provide a full review of the new version of the film, so all I’ll say is this – a restored digital version of Abel Gance’s legendary epic Napoleon, complete with sound track by Carl Davis, also calling on the work of such little-known lightweights as Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, out in UK cinemas in November, and available on an almost simultaneous DVD release? What’s not to like?
OK, I might not be able to provide a full review, but let’s face it, seeing a film about Napoleon means one doesn’t have to bother about spoiler alerts (so when the boy Bonaparte’s Geography teacher dictates a note about the island of Saint Helena, we all GET IT, right?) Watching the first couple of hours made me want to know a lot more about the film, and fortunately, the lovely people at the BFI had provided copious and superbly detailed handouts. One standout fact was that Gance was able to watch a partial restoration of his epic in 1979, when he was ninety. 1979!! So, in theory, there’s no reason whatsoever why he couldn’t have seen Close Encounters or Star Wars, the first of the great generation of modern epics that are with us to this day (in some cases, literally so, given that Star Wars: the Force Awakens was, in many respects, a remake). What astonishing changes he’d have witnessed in cinema during the last half-century of his life, starting just a couple of years after Napoleon with the arrival of talkies, not to mention changes in history – for France, World War Two, defeat and occupation, De Gaulle, and so forth. One wonders if he saw other attempts to portray his hero on screen; what might he have made, for example, of Rod Steiger’s bizarre, mumbling Napoleon in Waterloo, a sort of Kevin the Teenager in a bicorne hat? And if he was still around now, would Gance be amused by the fact that the length of modern films is creeping inexorably back towards Napoleon-like proportions?
For any British naval historian in the BFI screening room, though (OK, yes, that would be just me, then), there was a standout, and very nearly LOL, moment at the end of the first act. The ship Le Hasard is sailing away from Corsica, carrying Napoleon and his family – or, as the screen caption reminded us, one future emperor, three kings, and one queen (and yes again, I’d be willing to stake good money that I was the only one present who could recite which ones were monarchs of where – and I do know about the need to get a life). She’s sighted by a British warship, with an officer studying her carefully through his telescope. The officer asks his superior for permission to sink her.
‘Don’t be silly, Nelson,’ comes the reply, or silent speech to that effect, ‘it’s not worth wasting shot on it’.
Carl Davis’s score swells to a climax, the Eagle of Destiny that Gance uses as Napoleon’s symbol settles upon the topmast of Le Hasard, and the Great Man sails on, un-blasted to smithereens by Norfolk’s finest.
I have to admit that as soon as we got home, I had to get out my copy of Sugden’s Nelson: a Dream of Glory, aka ‘What Nelson had for breakfast on any given day’, to see if such an incident occurred. Of course, I knew that in 1793, Horatio wouldn’t have had any superior officer with him on the quarterdeck of HMS Agamemnon, but was it just possible…? No, it wasn’t: Gance was employing artistic licence, and having used more than enough of that in my own novels, I have no problem with that. But Gance might have been truer to history than he knew. Napoleon and his family fled from Corsica in June 1793, while Nelson had arrived in the Mediterranean aboard Agamemnon in May, immediately joining the blockade of Toulon. So in theory, at least, there’s no inherent reason why the paths of the two ships couldn’t have crossed, for Captain Nelson not to have trained his telescope on a small French merchantman, and to have decided she simply wasn’t worth the bother.
History has a habit of doing that sort of thing when it feels like having a laugh.
There’ll be no new post on this site for at least a couple of weeks as I complete work on my new non-fiction book Kings of the Sea: Charles II, James II and the Royal Navy. I may reblog some older posts in the meantime, but expect much more information about Kings of the Sea after the ‘intermission’!