6 real photo postcards from a lost 1903 film
“Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.”
In 1903 Lucien Nonguet was at the beginning of a prolific if undistinguished career as a film director, working for Pathé Frères, French rivals to Edison who were producing dozens of one and two reel films a month while securing their place as the largest producers of film equipment in the world. The cinema was still a novelty and audiences paid for the experience and the spectacle but already they were demanding more than three minute dramas and city scenes. The year before, Georges Méliès had released A Trip to the Moon, which set new standards not just in special effects but also in plot and, at 14 minutes, length. To compete, Pathé Frères began producing a series of epic tales from history. Napoleon was an obvious subject and Nonguet was given Épopée napoléonienne - The epic life of Napoleon – to direct. The film is all but lost. The Sulphur Springs Collection at SMU has a 33 second fragment of Napoleon crossing Mt Saint Bernard. Apart from that, these real photo postcards published by Rex for Pathé Frères may be all that remain of a film so vast in scope for its time it needed to be released in two parts. Nonguet was becoming a specialist in historical epics. That year he also made a film about the life of Jesus, and what might be considered an early documentary, except that Massacres in Macedonia, concerning recent Ottoman atrocities in the Balkans, was filmed entirely in a Paris studio. Two years earlier he made a one minute version of Quo Vadis. For his historical epics he dispensed with plot, structuring the films around a series of tableaux with no continuity except that in overall time frame they moved from their subject’s childhood or youth to death. There were 15 chapters in Épopée napoléonienne. The IMDB page for the film lists At school in Brienne, On the bridge of Arcole, The campaign in Egypt, Passage of the St. Bernard Pass, The Coronation, The battle of Austerlitz, Soldier sleeping during watch, The burning of Moscow, Waterloo and The Emperor's death. Two of the scenes posted here, Napoleon wounded at Ratisbonne (Regensburg) and the abdication at Fontainebleau aren’t credited and two scenes, one involving Napoleon’s son, the other Josephine are mentioned elsewhere, which suggests the six images here don’t tell half the story but at least we get the picture. In constructing his tableaux, Nonguet turned to well known history paintings by Horace Vernet and Jacques Louis David. In composition the coronation scene is a faithful reproduction of David’s painting of the same event and though in Vernet’s painting the positions of Napoleon and the man he shakes hands with are reversed, the overall structure with the flanking soldiers and the raised banners is almost identical. Nonguet was born in 1868 and grew up when dioramas and moving panoramas were still popular entertainment so might have envisioned his film as a series of moving paintings. That made conceptualizing of the scenes easier and if enough of the audience were familiar with the paintings or their various reproductions it saved detailed explanations. Napoleon and the sleeping sentry was one of two exemplary tales used in the film intended to demonstrate the great man’s humility and why his soldiers were so loyal. Inspecting the guards one night, Napoleon discovered one asleep, a crime punishable by death in most circumstances. Saying nothing, Napoleon took the sentry’s rifle and kept watch all night. When the sentry woke the General quietly chastised him, guaranteeing the soldier’s lifelong devotion. The other is the snowball fight that began the film and heads the images here. Apparently, while having a snowball fight at school, the young Napoleon showed a natural ability for martial strategy. Maybe these events actually happened though they have more than a suspicion of the apocryphal and hagiographic to them. In the first decade of the last century somewhere in the vicinity of a dozen films were made about Napoleon although the precise figure is vague because of some murky practices concerning copyright and the tendency among early studios to cannibalize films. The list includes one reel comedies involving Napoleon and Josephine and reconstructions of the battles of Waterloo and the invasion of Russia in 1927 with Abel Gance’s 330 minute extravagance. Why he should be the focus of so many films is something of a mystery to non-French people. If our knowledge of Napoleon came only from English sources he was a tyrant best known for his catastrophic defeat at Waterloo and for his even bigger failure in Russia. The British depicted him as undersized, which he wasn’t, and the state of mind where a short person needs to dominate everyone else is known as the Napoleon complex. There is also the sporadic debate among historians as to how or if he compares to Hitler. Arguably, the French have even less reason to love him but the ongoing fascination probably has less to do with his historical record than his complex image; the dictator who introduced one of the most admired civic legal codes, the imperialist invader who brought a small army of scholars to Egypt and opened up the study of antiquity and lead actor in one of the mythic romances of the 19th century. The information on Nonguet is sparse, his most notable successes being a series of silent comedies starring Max Linder, also for Pathé Frères. Likewise Napoleon is not considered a great film or its loss a particular tragedy so far as enough of Nonguet and the Pathé Frères films demonstrating the tableau style of film construction are extant. Nevertheless when it is estimated that 75% of silent films are completely or partially lost then whatever survives becomes valuable in filling in the details.