#489: Abel Gance’s Napoleon
The magnum opus of France’s most famous propagandist is a five and a half hour hagiography — and yet, powerful and compelling
Initial release: 1927
Director: Abel Gance
Napoleon might be Abel Gance’s favorite subject. It’s clear that the French filmmaker understood the value of nationalist propaganda; indeed, his 1919 quasi-horror epic J’Accuse!, far from being an anti-war piece, is openly contemptuous of ordinary French citizens who were insufficiently patriotic enough to make the sacrifices of the war dead worth it, a bold accusation to make in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Napoleon, released eight years later, is a full-throated endorsement of Napoleon Bonaparte, five and a half straight hours of presenting the world’s most famous military strategist and future first Emperor of France as a borderline Christ figure.
And it’s awesome.
We begin in the early 1780s, with a very young Napoleon, bullied at school for his Corsican accent and intense personality, winning a snowball war with effective tactics. This sequence is shot just like any other war movie, intense and uncompromising; you might think that Gance has shot his load with this one scene, but you’d be wrong. Napoleon traces Bonaparte’s ascent, from a mere soldier swept up in the French Revolution to the man who fought off the English in the battle of Toulon, a truly impressive and intense sequence shot at night with rain, both of which were inimical to cameras of the time. The film ultimately ends with Napoleon taking command of a starving army at the gates of Italy and successfully invading it, all shown on a stunning three-screen triptych that —
I should probably stop here and talk about just how bananas this film is, in terms of cinematography. There’s a lot of things in modern film that we take for granted now, stuff that can be easily done on a computer. But for most of the first half of the 20th century, all that stuff had to be invented the hard way; that’s part of why I love silent film, because knowing how difficult some effects could be with the technology at the time only makes them stand out more. So we get moments like a pillow fight exploding into four, then nine separate frames as the pillows burst into feathers; camera and editing techniques that have since become the basics of the modern-day filmmaker’s toolkit; and the aforementioned triptych, a truly astonishing feat in the film’s final minutes when two separate screens on either side light up to create what remains the widest aspect ratio ever used in a film at 4:1, shot using three cameras side by side. This latter feat reaches its height with a borderline music video-esque sequence as the left and right panels adopt blue and red tinting (tinting being a common feature of silent film at the time, and used extensively throughout Napoleon) to create the three bars of the French flag. Because Abel Gance thought subtlety was a beverage.
If I had to pick out my single favorite moment, however, it might be when Napoleon, on his way to meet his army at the Italian border, stops at the empty National Convention hall, deserted at night. There, he has a vision of the ghosts of the revolutionaries, from Robespierre to Danton to all the rest, who exhort him to save France and bring it to new heights. It’s a faintly absurd and hokey scene overall, but there’s a moment when he first gets there, standing on the podium in that empty room and looking out over the seats, that really struck me as sobering, even haunting, a subtle reminder of all that had happened in that building.
Napoleon is a filmmaker’s film; originally planned as just the first part of a sprawling six-part biography series, Gance only gave up on the dream after seeing how difficult it was to do the first part. (He would eventually return to Napoleon to do Austerlitz in 1960.) But it’s an absolute triumph of editing and pacing, only occasionally dragging even with its absurdly lengthy runtime, with a smart sense of shot composition and some great acting from Albert Dieudonné as Napoleon himself. It’s worth tracking down the 2000 restoration of it by Kevin Brownlow; or, if you’re willing to wait ’til next year, there’s a new restoration coming that adds a ton of previously-thought-lost footage for a total of seven hours. Bring the kids!
Silent film can be a bit of an acquired taste. After over a century of evolution, it can be tempting to look back on these early works as primitive, but nothing could be further from the truth. I get the skepticism, but I can tell you that if I had never seen a silent film before, Napoleon would have made me a true believer. And perhaps that’s the best kind of propaganda there is.