History And The Imagination

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A British docudrama, recently released in the United States by ABC’s excellent documentary division, shows how effective the informed and scrupulous re-enactment of the past can be. This is “Invasion,” a portrayal of the Soviet assault on Czechoslovakia in 1968, produced by Granada Television and based on the testimony of Zdenek Mlynar, secretary of the Czech Communist Party Presidium under Dubcek. Mlynar recorded twenty-six hours of recollections, and the Granada research team thereafter verified and amplified the Mlynar account.

Most of the film is performed by professional actors. These sequences, filmed in color, are intercut with blackand-white newsreel footage from 1968, the contrast emphasizing the difference between dramatization and actuality. The writer, David Boulton, understood that the events themselves were quite powerful enough to carry the drama, so there is no hyping of tragedy by stridency or moralization. A sense of history combined with a talent for understatement gives the best British docudrama a distinctive flavor. One must hope that some American network will soon bring us the BBC’s “Ireland: A Television History,” written and narrated by the premier historian of modern Ireland, Robert Kee, and making impressive use of eyewitnesses; and the ITV “The Troubles,” in which experts enliven the narrative by presenting discordant views on Irish problems.

As for the cinematic equivalent of the historical epic, a stunning example came to New York early this year; again, alas, from foreign shores. Abel Gance’s Napoleon had its first showing in Paris over half a century ago. Its extraordinary technical innovations, including a triple-screen process that Gance called Polyvision, might have opened a new era; but the arrival of sound the next year sent film makers off in another direction, and Napoleon was a creative explosion that in the end created nothing. Various cut versions were put out in later years; the original score (by Arthur Honegger) and much original footage disappeared; and in due course the film became a minor but inaccessible legend. We owe its reconstitution to Kevin Brownlow, the film historian, and its presentation to Francis Ford Coppola. The bravura score by Carmine Coppola, the director’s father, is remarkably appropriate.

 

Exhibited at the Radio City Music Hall in a four-and-a-half-hour version, with a symphony orchestra of sixty conducted by the elder Coppola, Napoleon was a major event in the New York winter. The vast space and the Art Deco gaudiness of the Music Hall provided an ideal setting for so magniloquent a creation, and blasé audiences found themselves bursting into applause at especially striking effects. After the score is recorded, the film is scheduled to go into national release. Even on smaller screens in smaller theaters, Napoleon should be an overwhelming cinematic experience.

As instruction in history, however, it is less edifying. Gance transforms history into myth through a fanatic grandiosity of conception. “Napoleon is Prometheus,” he cries. Gance’s Napoleon is not the sardonic realist, the man of shrewd decision and swift action, of whom Emerson said, “He knew what to do, and he flew to his mark. ” He is rather an almost catatonic hero, a passive instrument of historical force, a mystical incarnation of destiny, at times with Hitlerian undertones.

Gance improves the record as unscrupulously as if he were Shakespeare. Everything is hyperbole, and history surrenders to opera. One memorable scene has Napoleon fleeing Corsica with the tricolor as sail in a skiff tossed by a tumultuous storm, all cross-cut with the roar and crash of a tumultuous debate at the Paris Convention. The effect is fantastic. Later Napoleon is rescued; a British frigate sights the rescue ship, and a junior officer proposes to sink it; “No, no, Nelson,” his commander replies, provoking even the reverent Music Hall audience to laughter.

Americans can view Napoleon with detachment and celebrate it as an obsessed artistic triumph. Frenchmen see it as a passionate political statement. Some, like de Gaulle, were enraptured. Others fear that its man-of-destiny megalomania panders to a dangerous national proclivity—the one summed up by Raymond Aron when he wrote, “The Republic was so afraid of great men that it was forced, from time to time, to have recourse to saviors. ”

Still Napoleon , like “Invasion,” shows the opportunities the camera eye offers to history. One must hope that both works will inspire American film makers to apply some of these techniques to the rendition of the American past.