An enormous film deserves an enormous preservation effort. Film historian Kevin Brownlow spent more than thirty years tracking down film sources across the world to make up the five-and-a-half hour cut of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, completed with the BFI in 2000. Now the BFI have digitally restored the film in 2K as part of a theatrical and video release, close to the film’s 90th anniversary. A scene might still be missing, and not every single frame is present. but such things can’t besmirch perhaps the most dynamic film of the silent era.
Following the Corsican general’s life from his childhood in Brienne military academy to leading Revolutionary French forces to invade Italy, French director Abel Gance (who himself has a brief role) had already utilised frame-by-frame montages to unforgettable effect in La Roue. Napoleon uses that and so much more to convey a story of a man and country who change more in a few years than most ever will in their whole lives. And Gance’s camera can’t contain its excitement at all the momentousness. The film’s most obvious claim to fame is its outrageously wide triptych, 4:1 aspect ratio of the final scenes in Italy. Gance literally shot three 1.33:1 frames side-by-side to achieve an image wider than 70mm and Cinerama would achieve.
The film’s versatility of camera placement, movement and angles is stunning for its time; almost any major scene could be held up as an all-timer: the thrilling deep staging and multiple exposures during the opening snowball fight; the rapturous birth of La Marseillaise; the horseback chase sequence whose clarity outmatches much modern action filmed today; the intercutting of Napoleon stuck at sea and the camera swooping over a chaotic Convention. What’s astonishing is that Gance intended the film to be just one of a six-part saga detailing the whole of Napoleon’s life; the foreshadowing of his eventual exile to Saint Helena can be seen in an early classroom scene. Although those plans were abandoned due to their sheer budgetary weight, the reputation of Gance and his film has continued to grow.
The sheer scale of Napoleon’s life and achievement also overcame Stanley Kubrick’s own designs for one film about him, after all. The film’s other great asset is how it presents Napoleon’s ambitions as resolutely personal. Ensuring to derive most of its intertitles from historical sources, Napoleon is shown at best to be a reluctant man of the people; he wants the best for France but refuses to indulge its citizens’ whims. Just look at how Gance uses red tint and flashing shadow to drape Napoleon in revolutionary violence he cannot bring himself to support; the irony of the mob killing to obtain human rights is bitter indeed. Look as well to the scene much later on when Napoleon addresses the empty Convention chamber, in cold blue tint, with his vision for Europe. That vision and the man’s strength of ideals means he rises above the political greed detailed in the film to becomes France’s great hope.
At the heart of all these great scenes lies a great central performance. Albert Dieudonné’s measured expressions and fierce gaze give Napoleon the exact authority and self-belief required to portray a man able to move hostile crowds to his point of view. Backed up by yet another incomparable Carl Davis score, you can feel the weight of history throughout. Metropolis, another 1927 silent film rescued from half-complete obscurity, is clearly a more prominent film than Napoleon but where it remains an influential triumph of design, Napoleon is arguably the more cinematically engaging and innovative creation from that year.