Abel Gance’s Napoleon is a late silent feature that is famed for being a masterpiece of cinematic invention, but it has endured a troubled history. You should look it up to get the full story (or watch the well stocked set of features included with the Blu-Ray/DVD), but basically, although Gance had high hopes for his epic film (9 and a half hours long in its fullest form), planning on it being the first part of a 6 film series, it performed poorly on its initial release and pretty much disappeared for many years. In the 50’s and 60’s some reels were found and released, but it wasn’t until the late 70’s, when film historian Kevin Brownlow presented a restored version, that interest was reignited. He’d bought a couple of reels of Napoleon as a boy and had been obsessed with it ever since. His work didn’t stop in 1979 either, he’s continued to work to reconstruct the film as fully as possible and now we are finally presented with (probably) the most complete version of the film we’re ever likely to see. The BFI have screened this at festivals and special screenings over the last few years and now it is finally being made available on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK.
As you might imagine, the film is a biopic of the French military and political leader Napoleon Bonaparte. Being originally intended as part of a six part series though, the film focuses solely on his early years, beginning with Napoleon as a boy, leading a large scale snowball fight and being bullied for his stony countenance. It follows his movement up the ranks in the military and politics during the birth of the French Revolution, up until he is put in charge of the French army of Italy and advances towards taking the country for the French.
I mentioned Napoleon’s reputation as a cinematic masterpiece and this is largely down to the extraordinary volume of groundbreaking techniques Gance throws into the mix. Multiple exposures are used for various effects, including creating a split screen kaleidoscopic look a few times. There’s some wildly kinetic camera movement aided by a substantial number of handheld shots, which were little used at the time. There’s some stunning editing on display too, from rapid cutting techniques, thrillingly fast paced action scenes & some striking use of intercutting. The best example of the latter sees political upheaval cutting with Napoleon on a small boat in a mighty storm (which utilises a French flag as a sail).
The most famous technical marvel in the film though is its stunning 15 minute triptych finale. Here, the standard silent 1.33 (a.k.a. 4:3) aspect ratio suddenly stretches out to 4:1 which makes even today’s widescreen images look tall. It was achieved by shooting and projecting three images at once to be played side by side to create the widescreen effect. This has been restored for the Blu-Ray & DVD and you can even access the separate screens should you wish to recreate the full effect using multiple TV’s or projectors. The effect is truly astonishing, dramatically enhancing the scale and scope of the film which was pretty impressive as it was. It’s not only used to create ultra wide shots either. Gance at times has completely different shots on each screen to create some stunning montages and dramatic effects. By the end, each screen in the triptych is tinted a different colour, with the thirds of the full image turning to red, white and blue, the colours of the French flag.
There are stunning set pieces throughout the film in fact. The opening snowball fight is surprisingly dramatic and the epic Toulon battle in Act II, which takes up almost the whole hour of the act, is stupendous. With heavy rain, mud and smoke from cannons it’s reminiscent of Kurosawa’s epic action scenes in films like Seven Samurai and Ran. The memorable set pieces aren’t limited to the action scenes either – the Victim’s Ball (an exclusive party to those condemned to death during ‘The Terror’) is excitingly directed too and throws in a bit of nudity to grab your attention.
Aiding the drama is Carl Davis’ wonderful score. He’s been working with Brownlow since 1980 on the film and blends his own music with classical pieces from the era being portrayed. Having 5 and a half hours of silent film to score is quite a task, but he does an incredible job. It’s a rousing, grand soundtrack which truly drives you through the film.
The film isn’t without it’s flaws though. With Gance’s name emblazoned in huge writing on the opening and closing credits and from quotes I’ve heard from the director, it seems as though he saw himself as a bit of a Napoleon character in making the film. This makes the superhuman treatment of the leader a bit much to take at times. He can change people’s minds with his stare and stands un-phased as explosions surround him or buildings crumble. It’s almost comedic in this aspect at times. The patriotism can be a bit much to stomach too, although the darker side of French history is on display, such as ‘The Terror’, so it’s not a simple case of “the French are good, foreigners are bad”.
It is rather long of course too – I had to watch it in three parts. It’s rarely dull, although Act III isn’t as exciting as the others and at times the film is almost too exciting – a breather might have been welcome here and there. Some of the political goings on in the third act feel a little rushed over at times too with the vast number of French names being difficult to keep on top of. It’s nice to see some more humanity in Napoleon in this third act though as he falls for Josephine. There is some strong humour here as he tries to woo her and is so nervous he ends up hiring an actor to give him lessons in romantic gestures!
Any issues I have can often be ignored due to the film’s age as well as the vast qualities on display elsewhere. It truly is a thrilling tour-de-force of filmmaking. It’s overlong and overblown perhaps, but the latter is part of its charm in a way. The film is so bold and epic it’s a tremendous experience and a phenomenal achievement. It’s endlessly rousing and thrilling, almost exhaustingly so. Five and a half hours of silent film viewing may seem like a daunting prospect, but with action, romance, comedy and visual trickery in spades it’s far more enjoyable than you might imagine. A true cinematic marvel.
Napoleon is out now on Blu-Ray & DVD in the UK, released by the BFI. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the film looks and sounds remarkable considering how much of the material had been thought lost.
The film is supplemented by plenty of special features. Here’s the list:
– The Charm of Dynamite (Kevin Brownlow, 1968, 51 mins): BBC documentary on Glance’s silent films, narrated by Lindsay Anderson.
– Composing Napoleon – An Interview with Carl Davis (2016, 45 mins).
– Feature-length commentary by Paul Cuff.
– Napoleon digital restoration featurette (2016, 5 mins).
– Stills and Special Collections Gallery.
– Alternative single-screening ending.
– Individual triptych panel presentations.
– Illustrated 60-page book with writing by Paul Cuff, Kevin Brownlow and Hervé Dumont, an extensive interview with Carl Davis; and full film, music and restoration credits
It’s a substantial set which gives you everything you’d want or need from the release. I haven’t finished working my way through everything (a 5 and a half hour commentary takes a while!), but I’ve had a good whack at it and can thoroughly recommend people delve into the special features to provide a richer understanding of the film and the work that went into restoring it.