Napoleon (1927) Director: Abel Gance
Abel Gance’s magnum opus is a towering behemoth of silent cinema, a visual feast of enduring delights. The most common version seen today is the result of twenty years of restorative work by Kevin Brownlow, to whom silent film owes a great debt of gratitude. Napoleon offers the first great historical biopic, a silent tour de force, and as its subject, it uses the great Corsican/French leader, Napoleon Bonaparte. Abel Gance, a French director, first developed the idea for an epic about Napoleon Bonaparte after the successes of his other films: J’accuse! in 1919 and La Roue in 1922. He saw D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and decided to create a massive epic of his own. Gance’s original intent was to create a six-part biopic on Napoleon, with each part lasting 75 minutes, however his financial backer went bankrupt and he was forced to stop after the first film. One aspect of particular note with this film, is the extraordinary access he was granted to the true spaces where Napoleon dwelled. For example, he was actually 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 in his film. His letters went unreturned.
Albert Dieudonné was given the role of Napoleon in the film after he showed up unannounced at the palace one night in full costume, reciting one of Napoleon’s speeches. This was enough to impress Gance. The film portrays a young Napoleon as a leader during a schoolyard snowball fight (a highly memorable scene in the film for me), and from there we travel through the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rise to power, as well as his own romantic inclinations, concluding with battle scenes during the Napoleonic Wars. At the close, Napoleon gazes out over the Alps envisioning future struggles as a French flag is raised.
Securing funding for Napoleon was an ongoing challenge. The filming style was also unorthodox. All manner of contraptions were used to shoot scenes – cameras were hung from ceilings and attached to staff members or strapped to bicycles and so on. Many of the scenes were shot on location in Corsica, where Napoleon was raised. At one point, when re-enacting the climactic battle scenes, Gance and several others were badly burned in an explosion, however they returned to work shortly thereafter covered in bandages, determined to complete the film. Once finished, the many feet of celluloid required months of editing, which ultimately caused permanent damage to Gance’s retina and also caused his assistant to suffer a nervous breakdown.
Upon release of the film, crowds were whipped up into a frenzy by singing La Marseillaise, as copies of the music were distributed in theaters. The film was immediately claimed by some to be a masterpiece, while others said it was far 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 further archival chaos – between the original negative, studio revisions, and Gance’s additions and changes following 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 lived just long enough to see 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.