It comes as no revelation that Abel Gance was an avowed and unashamed admirer of Napoleon Buonaparte! Indeed his admiration for 'strong leaders' prompted his support for Petain during the early years of the War and for de Gaulle in the 1960's. His 'reactionary' politics need not concern us here. It must have been a great sadness to him that shortage of funds obliged him to sell his scenario of 'Napoleon on St. Helena' to another director namely Lupu Pick.
Napoleon's escape from Elba had such devastating consequences that after Waterloo his victors determined to make his next captivity his last and the rocky Isle of St. Helena in the South Atlantic was chosen. Accompanied by a few loyal supporters including General and Madame Bertrand and their children, Napoleon soon realised that this was not to be 'exile' but 'house arrest'.
This is a far more subdued and straightforward film than Gance himself would have made and in some ways resembles the 'Chamber Play' vehicles of which Pick was the undisputed master.
Werner Krauss, one of Germany's greatest and ultimately one of its most controversial actors, is Napoleon, a man whose initial arrogance is worn away by having six long years to reflect on what he was and what he has become. 'Power' is after all a drug and the withdrawal symptoms unpleasant.
Needless to say Gance's script portays him as an heroic, stoical figure who is the victim of 'Perfidious Albion' in the person of Governor Hudson Lowe who has the unenviable task of being a glorified gaoler. He is played by Albert Bassermann who excels in a thoroughly umsympathetic part. Lowe was referred to by Wellington as 'a stupid man' and his excess of zeal in carrying out his orders to the letter certainly hastened Napoleon's demise. Prisoner and gaoler only met half a dozen times is as many years and their scenes together, though brief, are effective. Excellent use is made here of Beethoven's 'Eroica' symphony. Ironically Napoleon was the original dedicatee but when Beethoven heard that the First Consul had declared himself Emperor he scratched out the dedication and declared that Napoleon would soon trample the rights of man underfoot and become a tyrant. This prophecy serves to remind us that Napoleon probably got his just desserts. Beethoven's music will last forever whilst tyrants rise and fall.
Although not in the same league as his 'Shattered' and 'New Years Eve' this talented director has given us a fine film with many features of interest. Sadly Lupu Pick died of poisoning in 1931.