Catching Up with the Classics: NAPOLEON (1927)

Abel Gance’s nearly six-hour silent epic biopic provides an exciting glimpse of the French leader–and the future of film

Film 63 of 115: NAPOLEON (1927)

Even before the advent of sound in 1927, forty years into the medium’s existence, cinema was still very much what its creatives made of it. From visual grammar to how stories were told — and with Napoleon in particular, how long those stories should even be–techniques that are commonplace today were created and tested with an almost lawless sense of experimentation. It’s that thrilling spontaneity that still makes these films feel as current and exciting to me as they must have to their audiences nearly a century ago — and it was one of the reasons why I was so eager to view Abel Gance’s five-hour biopic for this project.

Originally intended to be the first of five such epics covering the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, Gance’s film sees young Napoleon develop and hone his military prowess in the midst of France’s most dramatic period of political upheaval. From the beginning of his military career in the French Revolution to proving his strength during the reign of terror, Napoleon goes from an ostracized Corsican with a mind for strategy to one of France’s most influential leaders — all amidst a lavish historical tapestry that includes many of the global figures that would shape the country’s fledgling society for centuries to come.

Venturing into Napoleon, the reputation of the film’s runtime and ambition seemed to me as daunting and intimidating as that of its titular protagonist. Gance, who wrote in pre-production that he felt “the stirring of the Emperor’s shadow in response to [his] effort,” paints on such a broad, treasured historical canvas, with little spared in terms of dramatic and visual scope. As a 21st-Century American, I wondered if I even had enough prior context or understanding of its subject to appreciate what Gance was trying to do here. Also, similar to my trepidation in watching Andrei Rublev and Malcolm X, I was worried that such a mammoth approach to documenting Napoleon’s life may signal a more hagiographic take on its subject — I blanched at the idea of watching five hours of flattery rather than using such a runtime to earnestly explore such an influential and controversial figure.

To Gance’s credit, Napoleon’s major successes stem from how engaging he makes the film throughout its five-and-a-half hours — even for its time, Napoleon is a technological marvel, using the latest in behind-the-scenes wizardry to profound dramatic effect. In addition to requisite cast-of-thousands war scenes, there’s handheld and underwater shots that give even schoolyard snowball fights an electric dynamic flair; dizzyingly-layered superimposed shots and graphics that both delve into Bonaparte’s calculating mind and lend an experimentally omniscient eye to multiple points of view at once; and, as a piece de resistance, a final act shot in gigantic 3:1 triptych — one which gives Gance an unprecedented widescreen scope as well as triple the screens to showcase an overwhelming tsunami of patriotic closing imagery.

Compared to the limited cinematography of other historical epics of the time, the freewheeling range of motion Gance employs feels more on par with future films like Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World or The Thin Red Line. Napoleon may have been shot in 1927, but could easily fit among films released in the 2010s — where its silence could be seen as a further aesthetic choice rather than a technological limitation. But while each of these techniques are thrillingly used in their own right, none ever feel extraneous or used for their own sake. Rather, Gance uses them to make dusty, archaic historical recollections feel wholly contemporary, and the characters within them impulsive, emotional creatures. Gance is particularly fond of externalizing Napoleon’s internal thought processes — a device that substitutes dialogue for further visual delights while also dramatizing the cockiness and surety of a future historical icon whose battle strategies had yet to be taken seriously by his contemporaries. Gance’s determination to make the inner worlds of his historical figures as vibrant and interesting as the world they inhabit makes Napoleon feel relentlessly engaging and entertaining — and never a rote, fact-for-fact recollection or summarization of the past.

What deepens Gance’s approach, though, is how willingly throughout he is to let Bonaparte disappear into the background of history — acknowledging his protagonist as merely a cog in the machinations of global politics, no matter how big or influential he may be. After the introductory segment of Napoleon’s boyhood days, much of the film can be more seen as an elaborate recreation of the French Revolution and subsequent conflicts at large. While much of these may be dramatized beyond recognition, included are stunning segments of leaders Georges Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, and Jean-Paul Marat among a crowd singing de Lisle’s La Marseillaise for the first time; the chaos of the rival war committees as English, French, and Italian forces climb a verbal Tower of Babel in their fight against Napoleon’s army; the covert murders and intrigue of the Reign of Terror; and my favorite running subplot, how a baker in Napoleon’s boyhood school joins his charge’s ranks and witnesses his accomplishments from afar, only to go unrecognized by Napoleon when they finally come face to face after decades of battle together.

These detours throughout French history at large don’t just provides a greater context for Napoleon’s militaristic might — it allows Gance to divert any direct hagiography of Bonaparte across the efforts of French society as a whole. The film may be Bonaparte’s story throughout — but for as towering a figure as he may be, and as glorified as his actions become, the fervent patriotic spirit at the heart of Napoleon is never placed solely at the feet of its central figure.

Much like Napoleon’s usage of a French flag stolen from the enemy as a sail on a raft to freedom, and as best represented in its climactic flag-tinted montage — Napoleon is less of the figure responsible for changing France’s destiny than one of many who harnessed the hunger of the French for change. In prefacing the film in its initial French release, Gance wrote that “Napoleon is Prometheus,” one who sacrificed all he was so that the world may better; and towards the end of the film, Bonaparte finds himself in the empty National Assembly hall, surrounded by the ghosts of those who fought for France, led by Danton who intones “Hear us! The Revolution is speaking to You…if the Revolution does not spread beyond our frontiers, it will die. Will you take it into Europe?” Saint-Just (played by Gance himself) warns Napoleon that History will turn against him if he falters and fails his people in his promise to bring world peace in a Universal Republic. While the historical consequences of Napoleon’s quest for a Europe without war may cast doubt on the purity of these aims, one cannot doubt the fierce and effective nationalistic fire at play here. Napoleon may be the figurehead of Gance’s film — but here, he’s positioned as a successor who, in time, will be necessarily succeeded by others, and imbued throughout is a passionate love for France, its history and culture, and those who came to France’s defense and aid.

Ambitious in visual and emotional scope, and made eternally contemporary through its experimental cinematography and editing, Abel Gance’s Napoleon ranks among the best of the silent epics — and provides a last thrilling glimpse at a pre-sound cinema where endless possibilities were ripe for exploration.

A 2016 restoration of Napoleon by Kevin Brownlow was released by the BFI in Europe, and was the source for this review. An earlier restoration by Francis Ford Coppola & Carmine Coppola is rumored to be back in the works for release in the United States.

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