â€¢ Escape from New York
â€¢ The most spectacular film likely to be shown in 1981 was first released in 1927. The French film NAPOLEON, more than four hours long, premiered in Paris to great accolades and made a permanent impression on Charles de Gaulle. But six months later talkies had become the rage, and silent films suffered a quick and undeserved eclipse. Not much was known then about the preservation of film, and most copies of Napoleon in time turned to dust. Here and there in some country a reel or two would be found intact, and a search went on for many years to find a combination of reels that would add up to a complete usable copy. Even today it has not been found: the triple-screen sequence in which Napoleon appears in conflict with himself (his mind, his will, his emotions, each depicted simultaneously on a different screen) has never surfaced.
But what we have was eminently worth waiting for. Many technical innovations, often attributed to later films, were already present in this one: fast-moving camerasâ€"sometimes moving on wires, sometimes mounted on the backs of galloping horsesâ€"conveyed a sense of fast motion and viewer involvement such as had never been approached before; split screen (different scenes depicted in different parts of the screen) served to speed up the action and draw the viewer's attention to otherwise unnoticed relationships; superimposition of one image on another produced a whole gallery of new effects; and the final scenes were shot simultaneously with three synchronized cameras, making possible a wide-screen Cinerama effect. Besides all this, the film is shown to the accompaniment of a live symphony orchestra conducted by Carmine Coppola (the composer-father of Francis Ford Coppola, responsible for the present production) to a score composed by him, along with the French and British national anthems and segments of Beethoven's Battle Symphony ("Wellington's Victory"). The resulting whole is an exciting surfeit of sight and sound.
Unlike most silent films, this one has hardly dated: only in a few love scenes do we detect the flavor of other films of the 1920s. In its constant flow of movement, its daring imagination, and indefatigable energy, it leaves virtually all other films behind. There is a sequence in which the scene shifts back and forth between Napoleon fighting a Mediterranean storm on a dinghy, in which the camera rocks back and forth with the boat overcome by the waves, and the French Assembly, in which the same rocking motion is continued, back and forth among the fateful faces in a sea of humanity, buffeted about by the storms of the Revolution; the film is full of such visual analogies. (There are touches of humor too: as Napoleon is adrift in the dinghy, an English vessel appears. "Why don't we blast it out of the water?" asks an officer, and Lord Nelson replies, "Don't waste the guns on anything so trivial," little realizing that his future competitor for the mastery of Europe is the occupant of the boat.)
The main feature of the film, however, is its epic sweep. Here is a work of intricate architecture and tremendous scope, like the Berlioz Requiem. Through the four hours the cinematic architecture becomes increasingly evident. The sheer grandeur of its scope is stunning, not only to the eyes but to the mind: the integration of disparate elements, the sense of unfolding history, the sheer magnificence of the concept, becomes overpowering. Here is history enacted on a vast scale, yet with meticulous attention to detail. The emergence of Napoleon from being a proud and lonely child, rising through the Revolution and the Terror, to become the master of France, is rendered with a quality that can only be called monumental.
One example: as a child he obtains an eagle for companionship; schoolmates release the eagle from its cage; when he is punished for the revenge he wreaks on them, he is consigned to an icy attic, refusing hour after hour to give in, and then the eagle flies back to himâ€"and that is the end of his childhood. After that, throughout the film, in situations of crisis when he needs to bolster his resolve, the head of the eagle reappears on the screen, superimposed on the visage of Napoleon: the eagle becomes the symbol of the pride and iron determination that dominates both the boy and the man.
It is often said that Frenchmen live even today in a haze of nostalgia for their era of greatness, the age of Napoleon. This film is certainly calculated to reinforce such impulses in every Frenchman. Though the events are often depicted with considerable accuracy (often filmed at the locations where they occurred), Napoleon is perhaps unduly lionizedâ€"certainly the film is quite self-consciously anti-British. Napoleon's ability as a military tactician and strategist is repeatedly emphasized, as well as his devotion to his parental family. But although he does say, "War is an anachronismâ€"one day victories will be won without cannon or bayonets," he does not hesitate to use the lives of others to further the goal he envisions for them: a united Europe. The Italian campaign, as the film shows, was won by a combination of tactical genius and intense personal charisma, a rare combination of qualities that produced a result admired by many Frenchmen; but there were, after all, other people already living in Italy who didn't want Napoleon's army there, and many of them were killed because of his Grand Design.
Yet, though suffering and dying were the order of the day, both in the Terror (which repelled Napoleon utterly) and the battles he led, we are not shown the gory details in which so many of today's films appear to revel: we know what happens, but we are spared the exhibition of dying before our eyes. There are other fine cinematic strokes as well: the scene in which Napoleon, alone, visits the deserted Assembly by night and confronts the ghosts of the Terror, is handled with delicacy as well as psychological authenticity; and in the many crowd scenes, this film takes its place even ahead of Eisenstein's in making huge masses of people come alive before us.
The man who conceived the whole project, Abel Gance, and wrote the film and directed it (as well as acting superbly the role of Saint-Just), has now after long years received his vindication. His late-won notoriety may induce American exhibitors to show us some of his later films, such as I Accuse. Today, at the age of 91, he is embarked on a new project, a film about Christopher Columbus. If it is done with half the intensity and imagination of Napoleon, it will leave the rest of today's films many light-years behind.
â€¢ If you thought that Fort Apache, the Bronx gave an unfavorable impression of New York City, wait till you see ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. The year is 1997, and all of Manhattan Island is a penal colony for unrehabilitatable criminals. There are no policemen and guards in it (though plenty around it, to keep anyone from escaping), and the inmates are left to their own devices to survive as best they can. There is only one rule: nobody ever gets out. In the film, a plane bearing the president of the United States is hijacked and is brought down over New York City, with the president still alive somewhere in this human jungle. To get him out, government officials promise a pardon and release to one multiple murderer if he succeeds in rescuing the president.
What happens is enough to sustain one's interest, though one would hardly call the result high drama. The visual spectacle of a decaying New York (the rats, the filth, the abandoned buildings) is enough to make many viewers retch. Nor are the characters calculated to buoy up one's spirits: there is hardly one of them whom one wouldn't gladly see killed (and before it's over, most of them are). As a "What happens next?" story, it's fairly well done, but it contains not one percent of the suspense of writer-director John Carpenter's earlier film, Halloween.
John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".