Romanticizing the Political Figure: On the Triptych Scene in Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927)

The Jacobin Moses

Gance’s Napoleon concludes with the young general’s departure for the Italian campaign. What makes this climactic part interesting is not the novel panoramic triptych that allows us to view the sight in panorama even before panoramic cameras were used in film making before, but in the way the panorama determines both the past and the future as an organic whole. What Gance does with the triptych is to portray Napoleon’s Italian campaign as the beginning of his storied career. The film builds up to this scene by establishing Napoleon’s prodigy: as a child, he was astute and intelligent, hampered only by his Corsican descent. As a young officer in the army, he had to endure the oscillations in the revolution as well as the incompetence of the generals in the new revolutionary army. Hence, after suppressing a Royalist counterrevolution, Napoleon, given command of the Army of Italy (by then one of the Armies protecting France from Austrian incursions from the South). Before departing for Italy, he enters into an empty convention hall, the young general reflects on his plans not just for the campaign, but for the future of the revolution itself. Staring at an empty hall, the ghosts of the former members of the Convention appeared. In the midst of the different ghostly figures, the main icons of the revolution appeared. The ghosts of Danton, Robespierre, Marat, Saint-Just, and Couthon appeared before him, depicted as larger than life figures, occupying the screen in a double exposure sequence. The ghostly figure of Danton asks him about his plans, demanding from him the continuation of the revolution and its expansion beyond the borders of the country. The figure of Robespierre demanded that a strong authoritarian system of government had to be constructed to protect the revolution from its internal and external enemies. Amidst this ghostly figures, Bonaparte promises a unified Europe under a single Republic, the liberation of all men from crowned heads, and a centralized system of government. All the ingredient of a benevolent dictatorship. What Gance develops in this scene is to contrast the Italian campaign as part of Bonaparte’s own exodus and descent into the unknown.

ghosts of the revolution
The Ghosts of the revolution appears over Bonaparte

The appearance of the figures of Danton and Robespierre shows how Gance understood the legacies of Danton and Robespierre as two complementary ideals. Danton was the figure of the Republic and its roots in the popular sentiments of the masses. Robespierre, on the other hand, was the stern dictator and a cold pragmatist, seeing the need for strong authority to hold the revolution together as a cohesive system of government that can protect the interests of all citizens and not just the interests of the middle class. Gance’s portrayal of these two figures divides the two tendencies and abolishes the antagonism between the two. The growth and expansion of Republican ideals and the need for a centralized system of authority are two inherently antagonistic ideas that address the external and internal contradictions within the revolution. However, Gance performs a vulgar dialectic. Bonaparte is the figure where the expansion of the revolution and its stability are possible.

Gance depicts the figures of the revolution as the sole authority of the revolution; they are the authors who generated new ideas to create the revolution, inspire the people, and hold them together. The revolution as a cataclysmic event owes itself to the ideas of individuals and their approaches to the republican aspiration. What the Thermidorean reaction brought was stagnation, depicted as a chaotic storm of people. The appearance of the “gods of the revolution” before Bonaparte legitimizes him as the authentic continuation of the struggles of the revolution.

Napleon, the Jacobin Moses

The speech he makes before the Army of Italy echoes the exodus narrative that Gance builds beforehand. The triptych scene depicts Bonaparte in the middle screen in a worm’s eye view, side by side with a shot of the army from a birds eye view. Both figures are framed as two parallel gazes of each other, creating a common fetish. Napoleon becomes the object of the gaze of the soldiers and the people are becomes the object of the gaze of the individual. Despite this relation’s inherent non-rapport, the rapport between the people and the the figure of the leader is mediated by the signifier by which the figure of the leader introduces to the dualism. In the case of Bonaparte, he makes a promise to the people: to lead them to the fertile plains of Piedmont and subjugate towns under their rule. This portrays that Bonaparte’s exodus into the the Italian campaign is their pilgrimage to the promised land and Bonaparte is their Jacobin Moses. The Grand Army is the Israel of the Egalitarian cause.

Romanticizing the Body of the Leader

Gance’s depiction of Napoleon relies on a fundamental Lacanian insight “desire is the desire of the Other”. The scene from the empty convention hall to the triptych portray Bonaparte as he sees his destiny in relation to the revolution’s expansion. The soldiers see Napoleon as the savior, the person that can deliver them to some form of dignified existence.

The important element in Gance’s depiction of Bonaparte is that he shows us not the desire itself, but the framing of desire as a formal system of relations. Bonaparte’s story is not a historical flick qua history as a narration. Its politics is not depicted through a set piece where lines in the books are spoken by actors. What Gance portrayed is not a Bonaparte that is simply a product of the politics of the revolution, but to portray a myth. Hence, we do not see a chronological retelling of important events in Bonaparte’s life, but of scenes that generate the myth.

Romanticizing the body of the leader entails that the story of an individual is a convergence of genius and the destiny set upon him by the high gods of the revolution. Life becomes an irony between determinism and the sheer force of the will. Destiny retroactively determines the contingent occurrences in an individual’s life and sees them as part of a singular narrative that leads solely to the destined point. Hence, the myth of the genius is generated: the precocious boy becomes suited for military campaign. The leader is a man with destiny inasmuch as he is a product of his own time and context.

The romanticization of the leader’s body is far from the idealist enforcement of the leader’s authority, but of a vulgar materialism that served as the obverse of a scholastic and theological realism, grounded on the divine. Its materialist expression is the central role of nature and of the human being as the foundation of values and systems of knowing. Hence, any populism is not built around the concept of an idea, but of an attempt to address concrete reality as part of a greater reality. The populist always seeks justification through a continuation of an ideal (the “spirit” of democracy or the revolution) set against a determined moment of stagnation. As a populist figure, Gance’s Bonaparte frames the general as the savior of the revolution, its genuine inheritor.



Romanticizing the Political Figure: On the Triptych Scene in Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927)

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