French screenwriter, playwright, actor. Born Abel Perethon on October 25, 1889 in Paris. An innovative but extravagant director often compared to Erich von Stroheim. Failed to adapt to the transition from silent to talking pictures. Began career in the theatre but ended when WW1 closed theatres. Entered filmmaking and directed dozen films 1916-19 emerging as one of France's more promising directors. Mobilised for war in 1917, gassed at poison gas factory, served for several months with Service Cinématographique et Photographique de l' Armée. Made a name with war film J'Accuse (1918), made initially with assistance of the French army as a recruiting film but when armistice declared before its completion he changed it into a powerful anti-war film. Famous scene of the dead soldiers rising up from their graves to oppose war.
Other important films of the 1920s: La Roue (1922) about an incestuous railroad engineer; Napoleon vu par Abel Gance (1927); La Fin du Monde (1930) about a comet on a collision course with the earth. With the advent of sound (expensive new technology) studies tightened their control over film budgets and production, thus ending the considerable freedom gance had previously enjoyed. He contiunued to work on sound versions of his earlier films (Napoleon Bonaparte (1934), J'Accuse (1937)), romantic historical dramas (Lucrece Borgia (1935), Un Grand Amour de Beethoven (1936)), and a number of failures. He was forced to leave France in 1943 to escape Nazi control, thus ending his career for 12 years. He returned to filmmaking in 1960 with the historical dramas Battle of Austerlitz (1960) and Cyrano et D'Artagnan (1963). He spent his last years reworking his greatest film Napoleon (in 1971 re-edited 4 hour version called Bonaparte et la Révolution) and trying to get funding for an epic on the life of Christopher Columbus.
His reputation has been revived following the work of the British critic and historian Kevin Brownlow in restoring Napoleon to what it might have been when it was first released. Gance has been recongnized as an innovative filmmaker whose vision went far beyond the limits of the technology available to him (wide-screen, split screen, colour).
Biography on which AB based his conception of Napoleon as an heroic artist who makes history: Elie Faure, Napoléon, trans. Jeffrey E. Jeffery (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1924).
Originally conceived as a 6-part epic on the life of Napoleon which would be filmed on location. The film he completed was 6 hours long but dealt only with Napoleon's early career up to the invasion of Italy. The film is somewhat confusing because it combines historical and fictional characters. The strongest features of the film are the oustanding acting of the main characters, memorable scenes (snowball fight at Brienne College when N shows his natural leadership, the juxtaposition of the storm at sea and the political storm in the Convention, and his triumphant entry into Italy accompanied by the eagle), and the innovative filmmaking techniques (widescreen, split screen, tinting in colours of French tricouleur, hand-held camera, camera mounted on moving objects). AB might be described as the Coppola or Spielberg of the 1920s.
The British film historian Kevin Brownlow, who has restored both the film and the reputation of Gance in the English-speaking world, quotes Gance as saying that "a major fault of Napoleon was its 'abuse of documentation'" and that Napoleon was a tragic figure trapped in the "whirlpool" of history. In a contemporary newspaper interview Gance stated:
After a great deal of reading and research, I conceive of a Napoleon who did not altogether detest warfare, but who was forced into it by an irresistable process which he was always trying vainly to halt - for war was the black cloud on his horizon. From the battle of Marengo on, war is his fate. He does all he can to avoid it, but he must submit to it. That is his tragedy.
Napoleon represents the perpetual conflict between the great revolutionary, who wanted the revolution and peace, and a man of war, fighting in the mistaken belief that the war would bring peace forever. He was a man whose arms were not long enough to encompass something greater than himself: the Revolution. An admirable human will. But the brain is greater than the heart. His worst mistake was to turn his relatives into royalty. He loved them, but with too small a heart, and Napoleon perverted his destiny partly by being the chief of his tribe, when he was born to be the great man of the Revolution.
It will now be easier to understand why I have come to create Napoleon, because he was a paroxysm in his time, which was a paroxysm in history. General Bonaparte lies at the edge of a maelstrom, a lucid observer, whereas the Emperor lies in the whirlpool, is dragged into it and loses his self-control.
Bonaparte is not dragged off by this current. He watches and observes; he is master of his fate. He can halt it should he wish to. Napoleon cannot. He has neither the time nor the means to do so. He must go where fate leads him; that is his tragedy, the one I shall try to compose with the music of light. (pp. 35-6)
The British film critic Robin Buss takes a rather negative view of Gance's intentions in making Napoleon as the following sugests:
While (Carl Dreyer, the director of "The Passion of Joan of Arc" made in 1928) was asserting the rights of this individual against the state, Abel Gance followed a very different course in his version of Bonaparte. In the most celebrated French film of the silent era, the aspirations of the Revolution find progressive expression in the personal ambitions of Napoleon. The mob is assembled, realized and eventually controlled through its representative, the visionary genius of history. It all reads like the opening of Lucan's Pharsalia where the poet, addressing the emperor, proclaims that the disasters and suffering of the Roman Civil War have been worthwhile since they culminated in Nero's glorious reign. The difference is that Lucan was writing in a spirit of irony; Gance is serious... (pp. 63-4)
Gance's excessive, often self-indulgent masterpiece is visually astounding with its use of split-screen effects, etc., and at moments very moving (for example, in the college snowball fight). Its view of French revolutionary and imperial history is epic and Romantic. ... (A selection of criticism) ... shows that, though the majority of critics praised the film as an artistic achievement, there were doubts about its historical accuracy and its political tendencies. (One critic) ... compared Bonaparte in one scene to Mussolini, ... (another) called him 'a Bonaparte for budding fascists', but praised the film's technical brilliance: 'a pernicious work', he concluded in a second article ... The accusation of historical inaccuracy centred on Gance's depiction of the Revolution as a bloodbath from which Napoleon had saved the country. There is in France no definitive view of the revolutionary period, such as the one established for most Britons by Burke and Carlyle, and it is not hard to find admiration of Robespierre and intense hatred of Bonaparte, as well as the opposite. (pp. 98-99)
There are two "restored" versions of Napoleon:
Robin Buss, The French through their Films (London: Blatsford, 1988).
Steven Philip Kramer and James Michael Welsh, Abel Gance (Boston: Twayne, 1978).
Napoléon as Seen by Abel Gance, trans. Moya Hassan (London: faber and faber, 1990).
Kevin Brownlow, Napoleon: Abel Gance's Classic Film (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983).
Norman King, Abel Gance: A Politics of Spectacle (London: British Film Institute Books, 1984).