Napoleon (1927) Director: Abel Gance
Abel Gance’s magnum opus is the likely behemoth of silent film history. It is a towering epic that looms over silent cinema. Today, it is somewhat difficult to find – the most common version is the result of twenty years of restoration work Kevin Brownlow, to whom silent film owes a great deal of gratitude.
Gance, a French director, first built the idea of an epic about Napoleon Bonaparte after the successes of his other films: J’accuse! in 1919 and La Roue in 1922. His original intent was to create a six-part biopic, with each part lasting 75 minutes. He was permitted to use Napoleon’s rooms in the Fontainebleau palace. Gance even wrote to the surviving descendants of Napoleon, prophesying a “resurrection” of the emperor. His letters went unreturned.
Albert Dieudonné was given the role of Napoleon after he showed up unannounced at the palace one night in full costume, reciting a speech of Napoleon’s.
Securing funding for the film was an ongoing challenge. The filming was also unorthodox. All manner of contraptions were used to film scenes – cameras attached to staff members’ chests, hanging from guillotines, attached tricycles and other mobile objects. During the filming scenes on location in Corsica, where Napoleon was raised, Dieudonné is celebrated by the locals as if he were the risen emperor, himself. He is then made an honorary citizen of Corsica. At one point, when re-enacting the climactic battle scenes, Gance and several others are badly burned in an explosion, however he returns to work shortly thereafter covered in bandages, determined to complete the film. Once complete, the many feet of celluloid require many months of editing work, which ultimately permanently damages Gance’s retina and causes his assistant to suffer a nervous breakdown.
Upon the release of the film, crowds are whipped into a frenzy with the singing of La Marseillaise, as copies of the music are distributed at theaters. It is claimed by some to be a masterpiece, and others claim it is too long (at over 9 hours in length) with too many divergent subplots. Studios begin revising and severely editing the film down to a more palatable length. Additionally, in his later life Gance continued to add to the film and revise it, causing utter archival chaos – between the original negative, the studio revisions, and Gance’s additions and changes after the advent of sound film. Thus, Kevin Brownlow stepped in to restore the film beginning in 1969, by rebuilding the film from a wide variety of fragments. He died in 1981, and saw a screening of the restored version in 1979 in Colorado. Even Francis Ford Coppola undertook an effort to screen the film with a score composed by his own father, Carmine Coppola.
The film is remarkable – it portrays a young Napoleon leading during a big snowball fight at school, and it leads up through the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rise to power, and it concludes with powerful battle scenes, some shot with the unique triptych technology and displayed across three screens. At the close Napoleon gazes out over the Alps envisioning future struggles as a French flag is raised.
The film is filled with powerful scenes and incredible cinematography with an unmatched scope. However it is extremely long, and many scenes are drawn out, albeit deliberately. The film is, of course, an epic masterpiece. Admittedly, I watched most of the film, and only the restored version by Kevin Brownlow.