Abel Gance
Abel Gance (1889-1981)

by William M. Drew

     One of the most important figures in the development of cinema as an art, Abel Gance was born on October 25, 1889, in Paris, France. Until his death in Paris on November 10, 1981, at the age of 92, the director’s account of his background as a child of the well-to-do French bourgeoisie was accepted as accurate. Subsequent research revealed that Gance was the illegitimate son of Abel Flamant, a prosperous Jewish physician, and Françoise Pèrethon, who was of the working class. The stigma of being illegitimate, part-Jewish, and proletarian in a France where anti-Semitic and class prejudices still persisted, despite the revolutionary heritage, may help explain the rebellious, anti-aristocratic sentiments that would color much of his film work. Abel was raised by his maternal grandparents in the village of Commentry until he was eight. When his mother married Adolphe Gance, a chauffeur and mechanic who later became a taxi driver, Abel moved to Paris to live with them. Although he adopted his stepfather’s surname, his natural father continued to provide for him and gave him the benefit of an excellent education despite Abel’s proletarian childhood. Given this stimulus, the youth began reading omnivorously and developed literary and theatrical ambitions at odds with his father’s desire that he should take up the law.

     Although he worked for a time in a law office, by the time he was 19, Gance had become an actor on the stage and in 1909 began working in the new medium of cinema as an actor and scriptwriter. In 1911, with the help of friends, Gance formed a production company and directed his first film, La Digue (ou pour sauver la Hollande), a one-reel costume drama. His early sense of isolation from society first found cinematic expression in his second film, Le Nègre blanc (1912), an anti-racist story about a black child mistreated by white children. He followed this with several other successful short narrative films noted for their rich lighting and décor. As with all of his silent features and a majority of his sound films, Gance also wrote the scripts. Yet he had not lost sight of his theatrical ambitions and authored Victoire de Samothrace, a play intended to star Sarah Bernhardt. But the outbreak of the First World War prevented its production and Gance returned to filmmaking with the startling short, La Folie du Docteur Tube (1915). Working for the first time with cameraman Léonce-Henry Burel, Gance employed mirrors for the distorted effects in this avant-garde comedy about a mad doctor who is able to transform people’s appearances through a special powder he has invented. In embryonic form, the film, however playfully, marks Gance’s first excursion into the conception of a visionary able to transform reality and can also be read as an allegory of the cinema’s special magical properties. Gance's next films were feature-length thrillers for Film d’Art in 1916, in which he introduced into French cinema the kind of editing style that had been developed in America by D. W. Griffith. And in some of them, like Barberousse (1916), he began devising his own technical innovations, including huge close-ups, low-angled close-ups, tracking shots, wipes, and the triptych effect.

     In 1917, inspired by the French success of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat, Gance turned to society dramas in which the narrative centered on human emotions and psychological conflicts. The first of these works made for Film d'Art was Le Droit à la vie, followed by Mater Dolorosa, the story of a woman’s troubled marriage to a doctor. With its striking chiaroscuro photography, Mater Dolorosa scored a major box-office success, both in France and other countries, including the United States. The series of society dramas culminated with a masterpiece, La Dixième Symphonie (1918), in which a composer’s marital problems inspire him to write a symphony expressing his sufferings. Establishing the director as the new artistic leader of the French cinema, the narrative enabled him to comment on the nature of genius. The shots of enraptured listeners during the first performance of the composer’s new symphony illustrate Gance’s belief in the transformative power of art.

J'ACCUSE (1919)     Gance's next work, J'accuse (1919), produced for Pathé, was his first epic film, a massive, deeply moving indictment of war. Profoundly affected by the horrors of the First World War, which had devastated France and taken the lives of many of his friends, Gance created a film that, upon its release soon after the Armistice, became the screen’s first cry of revolt against the organized slaughter that had ravaged modern civilization from 1914 to 1918. In the film’s famous climax, the hero, a poet, develops the mystic power to call back the ghosts of the war dead (played by real soldiers from the front, many of whom died in battle shortly after appearing in the sequence) to accuse the living and demand to know the reason for their sacrifice. Gance’s use of rapid cutting, superimposition, masking, and a wildly-tracking camera accentuates the intensely emotional blending of camera actuality and poetic drama. The film was a spectacular hit throughout Europe, and Gance, hoping for an American success, took it across the Atlantic, where he presented it at a special screening in New York in 1921 for an appreciative audience that included D. W. Griffith and the Gish sisters. But the U.S. distributors mutilated J’accuse for its subsequent general release, even distorting its antiwar message into an endorsement of conventional militarist attitudes.

Séverin-Mars in LA ROUE (1922)     Gance’s American journey was sandwiched in between his work on his second great epic, La Roue, which he filmed during 1919-20 and completed final editing in preparation for its 1922 release by Pathé upon his return from the United States. A monumental production 32 reels long requiring three evenings for its original presentation, La Roue is a powerful drama of life among the railroad workers, rich in psychological characterization and symbolic imagery. To dramatize his story of a railroad mechanic’s tortured love for his adopted daughter, Gance elaborated his use of masking and superimposition and perfected his fast cutting into the rapid montage that would soon be adopted by Russian and Japanese silent filmmakers for whom La Roue was a seminal influence. Complex in its thematics, the film’s images animate machines and the forces of nature with a life and spirit of their own while the wheel ("la roue") of the film’s title becomes a metaphor for life itself. Gance’s remarkable symbolism is exemplified in the film’s conclusion: as the old railway mechanic dies quietly and painlessly in his mountain chalet, his daughter joins the local villagers outside in the snow in a circular farandole dance, a dance in which nature itself, in the form of clouds, participates. Shot entirely on location at the railroad yards in Nice and in the Alps, La Roue remains a work of extraordinary beauty and depth. Jean Cocteau said of the film, "There is the cinema before and after La Roue as there is painting before and after Picasso," while Akira Kurosawa stated, "The first film that really impressed me was La Roue."

Triptych from NAPOLEON (1927)
    Gance climaxed his work in the silent era with Napoleon, an epic historical recreation of Napoleon Bonaparte’s early career during the French Revolution. A superspectacle, the film advanced the technique of cinematic language far beyond any single production of the decade. The definitive version originally ran over six hours in length, and its amazing innovations accomplished Gance’s intent of making the spectator part of the action. To create this effect, Gance utilizes rapid montage and the hand-held camera extensively. An example of his technique is the double tempète sequence in which shots of Bonaparte--on a small boat tossing in a stormy sea as huge waves splash across the screen--are intercut with a stormy session of the revolutionary Convention, at which the camera, attached to a pendulum, swings back and forth across the seething crowd. For the climax depicting Napoleon’s 1796 Italian campaign, Gance devised a special wide-screen process employing three screens and three projectors. He called his invention Polyvision, using the greatly expanded screen for both vast panoramas and parallel triptych images. As with La Roue, the film’s unusual length enables Gance toNAPOLEON (1927) develop his narrative fully, peopled with numerous characters, both historical and fictional, who bring to life the epoch of the late 1700s. The director began filming Napoleon in 1925 and finally unveiled his masterpiece to the world at a gala premiere at the Paris Opera in April 1927. Although many of those who saw Gance’s original cuts (both the six-hour version and a shorter one he supervised) recognized Napoleon as an unequaled artistic triumph, the film ultimately proved too technically advanced for the industry of its period. Napoleon was financed by private backers, including several wealthy Russian émigré industrialists in France. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which bought international distribution rights, presented the film in Europe in various mangled and mutilated versions. Their American release, shown as sound was sweeping the industry in 1929, ran only 72 minutes and eliminated all of Gance’s pyrotechnics. Film historian Kevin Brownlow’s later restoration would eventually establish for many Napoleon’s artistic preeminence. However, the film remains one of the cinema’s more controversial masterworks--and not only due to a technique and scope that broke all the rules of filmmaking, but also to Gance’s admiring depiction of the young Bonaparte. He portrayed him as an idealistic, visionary leader championing the French Revolution, an interpretation often characterized by critics as "fascistic," but a conception that belies an informed consideration of Gance’s personal history and beliefs, and one that ignores the fact that his 1927 film was only the first of a planned series of films on Napoleon’s life. In the succeeding films, he had intended to depict Napoleon drifting more and more away from his revolutionary beginnings when he became an emperor. The heroic portrayal of the young Bonaparte in the film he did make is very much in the democratic Romantic tradition of great writers like Byron, Hugo, and Heine, who had exalted the Man of Destiny asAbel Gance as Saint-Just in NAPOLEON (1927) the very embodiment of revolutionary energy. That Gance should view with sympathy a leader who did much to liberate European society from aristocratic and feudal privileges should come as no surprise, given the director’s own "outsider" background. Gance’s radical technique is thus wedded to a radical vision of history at odds with the classical restraint which had long held both social organization and aesthetics in check. Further underscoring the director’s philosophy is his own memorable performance in the film as the "Archangel of the Revolution," the left-wing Jacobin leader, Saint-Just.
     Gance pioneered the coming of sound in France in 1930 with another ambitious epic, La Fin du monde, an imaginative film in the science fiction genre with pacifist overtones in which a conflict-ridden world narrowly escapes destruction by an oncoming comet, with Gance himself playing the lead role of a scientist who foresees the catastrophe. After the film was slashed and reedited by the producers for its 1931 release, a discouraged Gance had to settle for directing and supervising less ambitious projects for the next few years. In 1934, he attempted to bring back past glories by dubbing dialogue onto a revamped version of his silent Napoleon, adding another innovation, stereophonic sound. Within a year, his cinematic fortunes began to turn around and he directed a series of films that demonstrated once again his mastery of cinema. Although Gance’s work in the sound era spanned over three decades, his talkies, made for various French production companies, have often been dismissed as a long decline from the heights of his career in the silent era. While it is true he never again created works as ambitious as La Roue or Napoleon, it is clear, as François Truffaut pointed out, that he continued to explore characteristic themes in highly accomplished works revealing him to be as great a master of film form as he had been in the 1910s and 1920s.

     The first of his major sound films, Lucréce Borgia (1935), is an astonishing drama of the political intrigues of the Borgia family in Renaissance Italy, with scenes of full-frontal female nudity that were a striking departure from the prevailing cinematic codes of the time. In his depiction of Cesare Borgia’s brutal rule, Gance created an historical film whose figures stand in striking contrast to those in Napoleon. Whereas Bonaparte and the other French Revolutionary leaders pursue power in order to realize ideals, Cesare Borgia’s ruthless drive for domination reflects no more exalted idea than the satisfaction of his own lust and self-aggrandizement. The people’s aspirations for freedom, voiced by another farsighted leader, Savonorola, are also thwarted by the dictatorship of Cesare’s father, the corrupt Pope Alexander VI. In reflecting Gance’s deeply-rooted aversion to aristocratic rule, this portrayal of the Borgias’ intrigues may represent a cinematic response to the French rightists of the 1930s who still yearned for a restoration of monarchy and aristocracy.

Harry Baur in UN GRAND AMOUR DE BEETHOVEN (1937)     The following year, Gance directed one of his two greatest sound films, Un grand amour de Beethoven, a fictionalized biography of the composer (memorably portrayed by Harry Baur), in which Gance returned to his theme of creative genius and his conviction that artists are forever misunderstood by their contemporaries. By far his most technically innovative film since Napoleon, Gance blended rapid montage with sound, creating striking effects new to the medium. In the scenes culminating in Beethoven’s composing the Pastoral Symphony during a stormy night, Gance conveys the sense of Beethoven’s oncoming deafness when the sound track is suddenly completely silent. Gance manifests his antipathy to aristocracy once again, contrasting Beethoven’s artistic dedication and purity of spirit amidst poverty and neglect with the unworthy dilettante nobleman, Count Gallenberg, who marries the woman the composer loves. Released in 1937 to widespread international critical acclaim, Beethoven established Gance as great a leader in the creation of sound films as he had been in silents. 

     Gance’s next film, a new version of J’accuse, was his other monumental artistic triumph of the sound era. Although he included some battle scene footage from the 1919 silent and based several of the protagonists on those in the earlier production, the new J’accuse was essentially a different film, a reworking with new plot elements rather than a remake. Released in 1938, the film’s hero is yet another seer, a World War I veteran who develops an invention intended to prevent war. His plans are sabotaged by an unscrupulous politician and manufacturer, part of the corrupt ruling establishment, who steals his invention and uses it not for peace but to foment war instead. In the awe-inspiring climax, Gance passionately denounces the coming Second World War, with his hero once again summoning forth the spirit of the war dead (played this time by mutilated veterans of the first conflagration) to indict the living at a time of renewed war hysteria.

     In striking contrast, Gance’s two 1939 films, Louise and Le Paradis perdu, mark a nostalgic return to the pre-World War I Paris of the director’s youth. Louise, adapted from Gustave Charpentier’s opera, with Grace Moore in the lead, allowed the director to incorporate cinematic techniques during the operatic sequences, such as images of the working class singing superimposed over awakening Paris streets, or the subtle play of light and shadow when Louise’s father, gently swaying her back and forth, sings his aria. Le Paradis perdu includes both romantic lyricism and high comedy as it chronicles several generations. The story of a man whose happiness is destroyed by the First World War is especially poignant in its resemblance to Gance’s own life and career and that of his country, both soon to be affected by yet another war. 

     Gance directed two films during the war, La Vénus aveugle (1941), a drama with feminist overtones, and Le Capitaine Fracasse (1943), an exhilarating swashbuckler, before the unsettled climate of a France menaced by the Germans forced him into a temporary sojourn in Spain, then ostensibly neutral. But there he encountered further difficulties, failing in his efforts to direct a film. Beset with hardships in postwar France, Gance struggled in vain to direct an epic film on the life of Christ, to be entitled La Divine Tragédie. After over a decade of absence from directing, he made La Tour de Nesle, a costume film released in 1954. He followed this with Magirama, a 1956 program featuring several shorts in which he revived his three-screen technique of Polyvision. For these experiments, he worked for the first time with Nelly Kaplan, a young admirer of his from Argentina who later became a prominent director in her own right. Kaplan also assisted him on his last two theatrical features, Austerlitz (1960) and Cyrano et d’Artagnan (1963). Although a return to the Napoleonic saga, Austerlitz fell victim to studio interference so that, despite characteristic Gance touches, the finished product was far below his expectations. But the visually striking Cyrano et d’Artagnan proved to be an outstanding late work. This stylish swashbuckler with dialogue in Alexandrine verse, philosophical and psychological insights, and another heroic dreamer in the person of the poet and inventor Cyrano de Bergerac, was by far the best of Gance’s postwar films.

     In the years immediately succeeding Cyrano et d’Artagnan, Gance directed two films for French television, Marie Tudor (1966) and Valmy (1967), and in 1971 released a final revision of Napoleon retitled Bonaparte and the Revolution for which he shot new footage that was added to the original film. Even so, his opportunities in his old age were sharply diminished. While his period of greatest productivity had ended in the early 1940s, all through the lean years he continued to be caught up in plans for new cinematic innovations and dreams for fresh epic projects. The unrealized La Divine Tragédie had itself derived from a series of films on the founders of the world’s great religions, Les Grands Initiés, which he had conceived decades before as a means to promote peace and brotherhood. In 1939, he did extensive research for an epic film on Christopher Columbus, but the outbreak of World War II scuttled his immediate plans for the film. Nevertheless, he returned to the idea, writing an elaborate screenplay for the Columbus film. Indeed, in his last years, his attempt to raise funds to direct the film became his consuming passion. These later years of unfulfilled dreams were marked by persistent poverty. He continued to share his life with his third wife, Sylvie Vérité, whom he married in the 1930s and who died in 1978. His first marriage, in the 1910s, was to Mathilde Thizeau, who acted in several of his earliest films, and his second, in the 1920s, to Marguerite Danis, who also acted in films, including Napoleon and Jean Epstein's The Fall of the House of Usher (1928).  There were no children by any of these marriages. 

     The adversities of his last years were somewhat alleviated by the work of film historians, especially Kevin Brownlow, who brought him to the attention of a new generation with his documentary on the director, The Charm of Dynamite, and his history of the silent film, The Parade’s Gone By. In a final twist of irony worthy of his films, Gance received his greatest recognition at the very end of his life, when Brownlow’s restoration of the silent Napoleon was theatrically revived around the world with live orchestras in 1980-81.

Marguerite Gance as Charlotte Corday in NAPOLEON (1927)     The Napoleon revival of the early 1980s, besides heralding a new-found public interest in silent films as a whole, seemed to augur a full, belated critical and popular recognition of Gance, particularly in the United States where the mutilation of his work by commercial interests in earlier decades had hindered his reputation. Yet, despite initial rhapsodic reviews of Napoleon in the popular press, some critics, instead of expressing regret that Gance had not received his due during his lifetime, sought to justify his treatment at the hands of the industry and earlier critics. They recycled the argument that his techniques were overblown self-indulgence, that he had little of real importance to say, and that his long career in the sound era was an unmitigated decline. Perhaps worst of all, these critics soon turned to the kind of ideological axe-grinding that had also damaged Griffith’s reputation. Although Gance was far from being a highly political artist and, as Steven Kramer maintained, was "only consistent within his own semi-mystical framework," the director’s critics, like Norman King, began inferring that his admiration for Bonaparte and other visionary heroes reflected some sort of protofascist agenda. The line of attack apparently succeeded in dampening enthusiasm for any sustained revival of Gance’s work in the United States. Although more of his films are now available on video, there has been no full retrospective of Gance’s work outside France in the two decades since his death and the Napoleon revival. The restored versions of his three silent epics--J’accuse, La Roue, and even the most complete Napoleon (expanded beyond the shortened Coppola version)--never became accessible to American film devotees in the late 20th century. 

     Abel Gance was a giant of cinema art, a genius whose artistic courage and humanist vision created masterpieces that inspired many other directors, from his silent film contemporaries in the 1920s to the French Nouvelle Vague of the 1950s and 1960s. The failure of much of the critical establishment in the 20th century to fully recognize or appreciate Gance’s artistry, a tragic oversight which succeeding generations will surely rectify, was perhaps the inevitable consequence of the director’s prescient conception of his medium. Constantly experimenting with new techniques to express his view of life on screen, Gance expanded the possibilities of film as an art beyond any of his contemporaries. Yet, while devising dazzling technical innovations to achieve what he called "the music of light," he never lost sight of humanity, inspiring his players to give intense and vital performances in narratives whose sweep embraced both epic grandeur and lyric tenderness. Gance’s vision was at once romantic and realistic, larger than life in its heroic and mystical dimensions, yet sensitive to historical documentation and location shooting, incorporating the details of actuality. His much-misunderstood conception of the heroic, a direct challenge to skeptics and naysayers, paid tribute to the aspirations of the human spirit for transcendence. For Gance, the hero was not a manifestation of elitism based on traditional views of group and caste, but rather an individual of tremendous creativity and insight whose tragedy resulted both from the fierce opposition of an entrenched establishment and the reality of his own human limitations. Invariably a man of the people voicing the need for radical change, the Gance protagonist was ultimately isolated from mass society because of his failure to adapt to its fundamental conservatism which is in constant tension with its simultaneous yearning for revolutionary transformation. Expressing these conflicts in his work, Abel Gance created films that are unique and timeless in their dynamic portrayal of the triumphs and dilemmas of humanity in its search for the ideal.

REFERENCES: Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968); "Napoleon:" Abel Gance’s Classic Film (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983); James M. Welsh and Steven Kramer, Abel Gance (Boston: Twayne, 1978): Norman King, Abel Gance: A Politics of Spectacle (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1984); Steven Kramer, "Slandering the Dead," Literature/Film Quarterly; Richard Abel, French Cinema: The First Wave, 1915-1929 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984); William M. Drew, "Abel Gance: Prometheus Bound," Take One, July, 1978. Also, Bambi Ballard for sharing her research of Gance’s life and work.


1921 Interview:

Copyright © 2002 by William M. Drew.  All rights reserved.

Published August 10, 2002 by Gilda Tabarez at GTabarez@aol.com

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