Review: Philharmonia Orchestra - Napoleon @ RFH
Philharmonia Orchestra - Napoleon
Royal Festival Hall, South Bank Centre
Saturday 30th November 2013
For those of you who know me, you would perhaps regard me as a film buff. But classical music has most definitely taken over my interests much more than cinema over the last few years (as proven by my ratio on film and concert reviews), but an event like this has both on a scale of ridiculous proportions.
This six-hour film from 1927 by Abel Gance, is enough to terrify even the sturdiest of cinema-goers. Yet, the Royal Festival Hall was sold out. This being a silent film, the Philharmonia Orchestra would be our sensual hearing guide. Composer and conductor Carl Davis has picked up the baton for this and created a score with much scope, great refinement and expertly complements to the images seen on screen. I say created, when he has really hand picked scores by other composers. We see the likes of Beethoven, Mozart and Hayden along with lesser-known composers such as Paisiello and Monsigny.
So basically this is the longest performance in any art form that I have ever witnessed. This will demand for multiple viewings as so much is put into its half-a-dozen hours. Never have I been to a show with three (count them), three intervals (the middle one being a relieving hour-and-a-half). It all went by quite quick and after making it through this, I felt like I could take on anything *manly roar*.
The musicians as well had stamina that had me vigorously impressed. They didn’t even break a sweat here. How on earth is that possible? This is an eternal orchestra, who went up to the mark here and exceed our expectations. This is true musicianship. The film itself is eye bulging in its invention. For such an early film, so much is thrown at us. I revelled in its camera delights. With super imposition, multiple exposure, split screen, film tinting (giving off varying colours on the film stills), location shooting, hand-held cameras and so much more, no film has ever attempted to rival the avalanche of scope seen here. It remains truly impressive and totally engaging.
Albert DieudonnÃ© plays Napoleon. With his smouldering good looks and charismatic leadership skills, he looks like the real deal. If we could see the footage of the real Napoleon two hundred years ago, I’m sure he would look a lot like DieudonnÃ©. British caricatures at the time portrayed the French leader as very small in stature. This has been overused and it stuck that people assumed he really was that small. He was not. In the film we see his life from a snowball in his youth, up to his invasion of Italy. You’d think with such a lengthy film, we could have seen other factors such as the battle of Waterloo, his capture, exile and death. All of this would have made even more thrilling viewing. In a geography lesson he learns about Saint Helena, ‘a small island in the Atlantic’. Years later this foreboding fact would turn out to be his place of exile for some yearsâ€¦
Thankfully, there is also a great deal of humour in this. It was never afraid to shy away from a few good laughs. Nelson at one point could have reprimanded a ship Bonaparte was on years before their battles against each other, which made the audience roar with laughter. The French leader’s struggles with women were also amusing. The document-eating clerk who makes sure Napoleon doesn’t get assassinated. Even when asked what he’d like at a bar whilst going over a military campaign, he requests ‘bread, olives and silence’. A quote I’ll have to try out some time.
Out of this momentous cinematic viewing, I find my favourite scenes are in the early parts of the film (the whole film is in four parts). The snowball scene uses multiple exposure to great effect. The eagle scene is also rousing as we are led to assume his pet wouldn’t come back after cruelly been shoved out the window. As he cries by a cannon, the bird re-emerges and to the joy and nobleness of the music, we take this as a vital event. The eagle will be seen later in the film on numerous occasions, during his life. The eagle is not a MacGuffin, but rather a symbolic device to represent his eventual rise to power and greatness.
If a film has battles scenes (of the rain soaked part two), you may jump to the conclusion that they will be the best of the film. I can’t say this is the case here. With all the artistic flamboyance hovering around, other scenes rang truer and remained more fulfilling and memorable. For a horrific moment we see a dead soldier's legs crushed by the wheel of a cannon (a moment mirrored decades later in Heaven’s Gate). I was told that the ending would be impressive and I was not disappointed. For the invasion of Italy, the screen expanded to feature three projections of what three cameras had filmed. This created a near perfect panorama of the hills the soldiers were camping on. This film must have been a nightmare to restore, considering its eighty-seven years old. With some lost scenes and the quality of film relinquishing at times, it still remains a staggering achievement by anyone’s standards.
The film ended joyously with the colours of the French flag emerging onto the three screens. Then during the applause huge images of Gance, DieudonnÃ© and actress Gina ManÃ¨s (who played Josephine de Beauharnais, the eventual wife of Napoleon), also arrived on screen to even more applause. The audience went mad and I even found myself given them a standing ovation when Davis arrived back on stage for the fourth part. A lady besides me seems to laugh and say to her friend ‘Why is he clapping now? They haven’t played yet?’ They had been playing for five hours, I thought to myself.
It’s a real shame more people don’t know this film. The Jazz Singer came out the same year and the dawn of the talkies (film with sound) had just begun. Polyvision
or Cinerama used in this film is truly a great feature of the film.
It’s very important in the history of cinema. Definitely check it out.
Certainly a highlight of 2013.