Irène Delage: Your encyclopaedia covers more than a century of Napoleonic cinema. Do you think the figure of Napoleon has been used for political ends during different political epochs?
Hervé Dumont: The camera is never innocent. Practically all of the films mentioned in the book, or at least until the 1980’s, harbour a political point of view and use the “bicorn silhouette” to these ends, whether overtly or not. Napoleon was very present on the big screen until the First World War in France, Italy, Germany, Russia, the United States – he can be seen in almost 180 films, beginning with the cinematic pioneers the “Frères Lumière” in 1897. In France, he appears as a standard school textbook hero or as a cheap Epinal folk woodcut, rather simplistic, an image that reflects above all the warmongering, imperialist and vengeful (for the loss of Alsace-Lorraine) spirit of the French governments of the period. After the blood-bath of 1914-1918, Napoleon’s First Empire almost completely disappeared from the French screen (with the exception of Sacha Guitry), until the return of General de Gaulle and the Fifth Republic; Abel Gance was to start filming his Austerlitz in the autumn of 1959. Conversely, Napoleon and the Grande Armée haunt German cinema in the Weimar period and the Third Reich (though the depiction of the Emperor there hovered between bogeyman and caricature), just as they did in Mussolini’s imaginings produced in Italy’s Cinecittà or on cinema screens in Franco’s Nationalist and Catholic Spain, isolated examples in a Europe that had become liberal after the Allied victory. Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain had encouraged London to ‘call up’ Nelson and Trafalgar in the fight against the continental “ogre”. By contrast, the USSR kept quiet – Marx had admired Napoleon and his ambition to abolish slavery – but only until Hitler’s invasion, when Stalin found an opportunity to hide his disastrous strategic errors of 1941 in resurrecting the Field Marshall Kutuzov on the big screen. In this way, it could be said that this study offers a mirror as muddled as it is revealing of the twenty and twenty-first centuries through their different perceptions of recent history.
Irène Delage: How does European cinema regard Napoleon and the Napoleonic saga?
Hervé Dumont: In extremely varied and contrasting ways depending on the country and the decade – one could even talk of a war of opinions. It is worth mentioning straight off that, even if an enormous amount has been published, drawn and painted of, and on the subject of Napoleon, it has mostly been the cinema of the twentieth century, followed by the television, that has restored his pan-European dimension and then propagated his image, his loves, and his worldwide combats to the sitting-rooms of the world (there are Napoleon films and soaps from countries as disparate as Egypt, Canada, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina!). Such works are impregnated with, as ever, preconceptions, prejudices and anachronistic judgements, and so it is exciting to analyse them and place them in their geographical, social or political context. However, since the 1970’s, audiovisual productions made in the EU have striven to overcome the divisions of bygone days and to put caricatured images in the narratives, inherited from the nineteenth-century “Black Legend”, into perspective. With the support of historians, efforts have been made to present the confrontations, errors and contributions brought about and made by the Empire more fairly (for example, the 1990 series Napoléon et l’Europe, with Jean-François Stévenin). But in general, the cinema of the recent decades has fought shy of portraying Napoleon, as a subject far too vast, too complex, too much of a political minefield, only dealing with it indirectly, as in Le souper (Edouard Molinaro, 1992), Master and Commander (Peter Weir, 2003), or Les Lignes de Wellington (Valeria Sarmiento, 2012). Such indirect portrayals make it possible to avoid comparisons – easily made, though completely unhistorical, indeed you could go so far as to say idiotic – with monstrous dictatorships of the past century.
Irène Delage: In this superabundance of Napoleonic cinematography, both French and international, which would you pick as the three or four films to be seen without fail?
Hervé Dumont: There would be twenty, rather than just three or four! First of all, Abel Gance’s epic silent film Napoléon (1927) comes to mind, which is dazzling structurally speaking, being visually astonishing, but historically preposterous regarding Bonaparte’s psychology and the historical reality. Sacha Guitry’s three-hour-long saga of 1955 is obviously in the list, which, if you ignore the wordiness, the rolling of star actors, and the formulaic scenes, is a lot more subtle and finely-poised than it seems. Napoleon, played by a very convincing Raymond Pellgrin, is a politician-actor rushing through a European continent which constantly slips from his grasp. Another seasoned performer was Talleyrand (Guitry in a powdered wig), the man who betrayed Napoleon the most! Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo (1970) is an absolute must, with Rod Steiger as a suffering and tired war captain (a performance certainly influenced by The Actors Studio, but nonetheless powerful and fairly believable), and with Christopher Plummer as a haughty and troubled Wellington. By far, this is the most remarkable, the most exemplary reconstruction of a Napoleonic battle that has ever been seen on the screen, all without special effects or lighting; all we can do is lament that this film can no longer be bought in France in its DVD format. The Duellists (1970) is also worth mentioning, Ridley Scott’s first full-length feature film from a text by Joseph Conrad, in which the Emperor does not actually appear, though the film nonetheless remains the most realistic evocation of military life, the daily reality of the garrison, and the mentality and morals of the First Empire. I also have a soft spot for Antoine de Caunes’ Monsieur N. (2003), with Philippe Torreton in exile on St Helena. It’s a sort of historical thriller, packed with precise locations, the specific ‘human’ climate, and troubling coincidences, etc.; a very endearing work which was poorly received at the box office. And finally a plug for another undeserved public failure, Milos Forman and Jean-Claude Carrière’s Les Fantômes de Goya (2006). Napoleon makes just a brief apparition, and the painting is just a foil, but through the character of the Dominican monk Casamares (played by Javier Bardem) – a Machiavellian agent of the Spanish inquisition, turned Jacobin and then “Procureur imperial” in 1808, before ending up garrotted by the Restoration – the film gives a highly intelligent analysis, pulling no punches as to the real political stakes at issue. Something to annoy both the Left and the Right!!
Irène Delage: In your opinion, what subjects regarding Napoleon do you think have not yet been dealt with? Which director would you like to see taking on the task of portraying the Emperor?
Hervé Dumont: Just for once, I would like to see a screen version of Napoleon in his organisational and civil work, his revolutionary work away from the battlefield. But how would you go about portraying the drawing up of the Civil Code or the numbering and lighting for streets in Paris? To tell the story of a life as turbulent as Napoleon’s, all the while keeping track of the personality he so often hid behind a formal facade, and also the no less complicated historical setting in which the narrative runs; it would require a creative spirit who had both a sense of the epic, combined with maturity, sensitiveness and intelligence that are not easily found. A Ridley Scott, a Jean-Paul Rappeneau mixed with a Bertrand Tavernier or a reincarnation of Joseph L. Mankiewicz. A difficult mixture! At first glance, any cinema lover can only regret that Stanley Kubrick’s famous project was aborted (1967-1971), but, when one looks more closely at his scenario, one can’t help wondering whether, like Abel Gance, this immense American movie-maker might not have simply projected his own fantasies on the work, a far cry from the real character that fascinated him so much.
To go further, have a look at:
– The presentation of Hervé Dumont’s book, Napoléon. L’épopée en 1 000 films (2015)