Director: Abel Gance
Cast: Albert Dieudonne, Vladimir Roudenko, Edmond Van Daele, Alexandre Koubitzky, Antonin Artaud
Watch Napoleon online in the UK: BFI Player / Curzon Home Cinema
1927 found cinema on the cusp of a revolution. Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer ushered in a new dawn of movies where you could actually hear what people were saying, and the ‘talkies’, as they became known, were born. But silent cinema – then, of course, the status quo – wasn’t about to go away quietly: that year alone saw Murnau’s Sunrise, Lang’s Metropolis and Hitchcock’s The Lodger secure their places in cinema history without a word of audible dialogue.
It was French director Abel Gance, though, who made the biggest noise of the silent era’s dying moments, proposing a leviathanic project of unprecedented ambition: a six-part film series dramatising the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. Sadly – but unsurprisingly – the project never got further than Part One, and that film was so long that audiences stayed away in droves, consigning Gance’s vision to the footnotes of cinema history.
But that wasn’t the death of Napoleon. As a teenager in the 1950s, film historian Kevin Brownlow happened upon a small collection of film reels containing footage from Gance’s epic, and a lifelong passion was born. Brownlow spent the next five decades tracking down and restoring as much of Napoleon as he could, and the result is the astonishing 333-minute experience we have today.
Opening with a lengthy prologue demonstrating a young Napoleon’s strategic prowess in a school snowball fight, the film then jumps ahead 12 years to the final decade of the 18th century, presenting events through Napoleon’s eyes: as Europe underwent one of its most turbulent periods and the French Revolution turned his country upside down, Napoleon embarked on a series of adventures, battles and love affairs that would shape the destiny of him and his countrymen. Gance weaves these events into a tapestry of cinematic excellence, pushing technical boundaries at every turn and delivering a thrilling, romantic and often surprisingly funny blast of entertainment that barely lets up during its five-and-a-half-hour runtime.
Employing the kind of innovation that wouldn’t look out of place in modern cinema, Gance uses every trick in the book to plunge us into Napoleon’s world. The snowball fight sees him strap his camera to a toboggan and fling it into the fray, and at one point spin it round in the air to convey the chaos; at a time when filming equipment was bulky, heavy and tethered by cables it’s unusual to see anything as daring as this. But Gance goes further still, and in editing his film uses insanely rapid cutting and startling visual effects to a degree that will surprise anyone who thought formal experimentation was a contemporary phenomenon.
Throughout chases, sieges, debates, victories and failures on and off the battlefield, Gance sustains this innovation until the finale, when he trumps everything that’s come before. Expanding his frame to triple its width for the last 20 minutes, he presents Napoleon’s march across the Alps into Italy with glorious, epic scope, and Carl Davis’ newly-recorded score carries the army through the film’s climax on a wave of bombastic patriotism.
There are slower passages of the film that may give you chance to quickly look up some of the European history that you’ll need to get the most out of Napoleon, but for a film that’s over five hours long there’s more than enough here to sate the appetite of even the hungriest movie buff. An unforgettable film and a dazzling cinematic experience, Napoleon is essential viewing for anyone serious about movies.
The BFI’s digitally restored Napoleon (1927) is out now on DVD and Blu-ray, and available to stream on BFI Player.