Director: Abel Gance
PG | 4h | Biography, Drama, History | 7 April 1927 (France)
Abel Gance’s depiction of the rise of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is the kind of undisputed cinema landmark that true film buffs really need to tick off on their checklists in order to maintain such aficionado status. This does require some serious commitment; originally released in 1927, Napoleon, in its fullest version available to the public today, requires a 330 minute-long time investment. It is worth every minute of that, however, being a true epic in every sense of the word; with the film's form and content tipping the scales well towards the grandiose from the first scene.
Gance’s film is in many ways an early example of what we today would call a blockbuster, or, to be more precise; a blockbuster biopic. Many of the familiar characteristics are on display here. Already blessed with a real-life figure whose was larger than life, Gance shamelessly frames Napoleon according to the ‘great man theory’ of history, placing him at the centre of various key events dotted throughout the tumultuous history of France; from the Revolution to the conquests of the European continent, with production values equal to these occasions. His Napoleon is a preternatural figure whose destiny as a superb military commander and inspirational leader of men is constantly foreshadowed in bold strokes. As a youth (played with unnerving intensity by Vladimir Roudenko) Napoleon is shown taking charge of his snowball fight team at his puritanical academy school, storming his foes defences in an early sign of his natural tactical and strategic prowess. Despite being bullied and mocked by his peers, the boy maintains a serious, solemn demeanour and is clearly a top student, softening only when in the presence of his pet eagle, a bird which he would take as his symbol when he turned conqueror. At one point, Gance shows us young Napoleon sitting on top of a cannon as his bird flies to his shoulder - subtle foreshadowing this isn’t, but this kind of grand, operatic mise en scene is of a piece with the entire movie.
As Gance’s epic progresses from Napoelon’s childhood (the older figure is played with moody intensity by the statuesque Albert Dieudonné) to show how he traversed many of the formative experiences that shaped his rapid advancement; including being inspired by the early rumblings of the Revolution to build a united Europe, overcoming various rivals, surviving the deadly Terror and political machinations, and wedding Josephine, you have to marvel at how Gance’s technical accomplishments allow the film to rise to the monumental subject matter, to literally get bigger and more dynamic as its subject grows in stature. The production values are lavish: huge sets and vast crowds come in a never ending parade, whilst the story ranges all over France and beyond. But Gance uses more complex techniques to give a sense of the wheels of history turning too. For example, he exploits exposure techniques to creature a surreal sequence where Napoleon imagines the delegates of the National Assembly that have driven the Revolution appearing out of thin air in the empty rows of benches around him, as he stands in the empty hall. Through this vision, Napoleon feels their calls on behalf of France to seek glory in conquest. At one point, to emphasise the chaos in the Assembly at another time, Gance literally swings the camera from a rope attached to the ceiling, letting it lurch back and forth over the crowds.
Even more strikingly, Gance used multiple cameras shooting simultaneously to create a triptych effect for parts of the film: with the intention being that the three frames when projected side by side would allow an enhanced widescreen image. Essentially a form of ‘Cinemascope’ long before anyone in Hollywood had thought of it, this makes for highly impactful shots of armies manaoevering, or standing at ease whilst being addressed from above by Napoleon. Gance even at times mixes the frames up so each focuses on something different to its neighbouring frame, creating an in-film triptych montage. The visual approach also crams in extensive close-ups, POV shots, handheld sequences, tinting, fast cutting, and much more, as if Gance wanted to try everything.
The journey of Napoleon from its 1927 production and release to its re-issue this November is also an interesting story in its own right. Screened only a few times to the public since its original release (not hard to understand when you consider a live orchestra and triple projector setup are needed for the full experience) and the early victim of drastic cuts in length from its first edit, the film has been painstakingly restored after decades of work by silent film historian Kevin Brownlow and the BFI National Archive. Brownlow, who first saw and was captivated by the film in 9.5mm format as a schoolboy, has added to and re-edited it several times as more footage has been found, with this digital restoration being the final fruit of that toil. This new digital upgrade of Napoleon will allow audiences to see the film’s original tinting and toning, including colour combinations which could not be achieved in the existing 35mm print. Integration of sections sourced from a wide range of elements have also been improved by detailed digital image repair and alignment. The film has been entirely re-graded and received extensive digital clean-up; you are seeing it at its very best.
Viewers who see this Brownlow version will not only be due a visual treat, as described above, but can savour the equally mammoth score composed and conducted by Carl Davis for Brownlow’s first Napoleon restoration in the 80s (newly recorded here in 7.1) - all five hours plus of it. And those who book to see the film’s special screening at the Royal Festival Hall on 6 November, will experience that same score - still the longest ever composed for a film - performed live by Davis himself conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra.
Napoleon plays at the Royal festival Hall on 6 November with a live score from Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra.