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Conclusion Toward the end of Abel Gance's silent film Napoleon (1927), the young General Bonaparte stops at the Convention before heading off on the Italian campaign. He has come to the deserted building alone in order to seek inspiration. He does not, however, remain alone for long; the ghosts of Danton, Marat, Robespierre, and Saint-Just appear to the future hero, exhorting him to be true to the ideals of the Revolution and to spread its message to foreign lands. In this phantasmagoric scene, just as the future emperor affirms his connection to France's Revolutionary history, so too does the cinema, which emerged in the dense entertainment culture of nineteenth-century France, acknowledge the legacy of its own spectacular past. The phantasmagoria is not the only pre-cinematic technology that I have discussed in this book to haunt Gance's Napoleon. The film quite obviously harkens back to the Napoleon plays that stunned audiences in 1830 with their realistic sets, lavish costumes, and actors who imitated the emperor. Gance's historical epic seems to place itself self-consciously in the lineage of the panorama through its use of "Polyvision" split-screen technology, in which three different images provide a panoramic perspective on Napoleon's famous battles. And the film enacts many of the same tableaux found both in the Napoleon plays and in the illustrated histories of the emperor from the r83os and r84os.1 It adapts many of the formal 1. One example is the famous snowball fight scene that opens the film, a version of which had been featured in Bonaparte a/'ecole de Brienne, ou le petit caporal, souvenirs de 1783, the Napoleon play starring Virginie Dejazet in r83o. Images of the snowball fight also ap- Conclusion 267 techniques of these illustrated histories as well, relying on the processes of cutaway, insert, and close-up that they pioneered to produce a total-and realistic-vision of the past. Indeed, silent cinema as a whole harnessed word and image in much the same way as these illustrated editions to engage multiple senses and faculties of perception simultaneously. Gance's film not only borrows from its spectacular predecessors many of their formal and thematic components, but also shares in their ideological affiliations. Like the panoramas, illustrated histories, and plays about the emperor, Gance's film celebrates a certain vision of Napoleon. Mythifying the man as the heroic defender of democratic ideals and the vehicle for their worldwide dissemination, it conveniently excludes the more sinister aspects of his legacy. Ending with the Italian campaign allows the film to avoid the entire question of the Empire, when Napoleon's dictatorial tendencies emerged in full force. As I have shown, popular forms of history glorifying Napoleon aligned themselves with potentially dangerous political forces during the nineteenth century, when a return to Bonapartist dictatorship remained a very real threat (and one that became areality during the Second Empire). In 1927, when demagoguery and dictatorship were again very much at issue following Benito Mussolini's rise to power and Adolf Hitler's failed putsch, such a vision of the past was hardly less dangerous. Gance's film acts as a bridge between the historical entertainments of the nineteenth century and the cinematic spectacles of our own time. It reveals the extent to which the issues attending the inception of modernity's historical imagination continued to mark its later manifestations. Viewed from the other side of the twentieth century, an era in which the image triumphed , along with modern forms of popular dictatorship, the spectacular past of the nineteenth century takes on new relevance. Although, as I have shown, popular forms of visual history helped the bourgeois individual assert a new, post-Revolutionary identity, they may also have contributed to modernity's darker side, in which the individual surrendered that identity to irrational passions and hero worship. The propaganda machines of twentieth-century mass culture proved particularly adept at using the image as an instrument of manipulation. For certain nineteenth-century observers, however, the dangers of the spectacular past were less political than existential. The early Realist pear in A. V. Arnault's Vie politique et militaire de Napoleon (1822) and Laurent de l'Ardeche's Histoire de l'empereur Napoleon (1839), two of the illustrated histories I discuss in chapter 2. In "L'image de Napoleon au cinema, son jeu et sa gestuelle," Napoleon et le cinema, ed. Jean-Pierre Mattei (Ajaccio: Alain Piazzola, 1998), Vanina Angelini notes that early films about...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9781501729836
Related ISBN
9780801442490
MARC Record
OCLC
1080549685
Pages
296
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Language
English
Open Access
No
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