Through Napoleon, Abel Gance wanted to revive the spirit of the French Revolution, to not just describe the life of a great general but to celebrate the rebirth of an entire nation. It is a grand undertaking and after nearly a century it is finally available to see in something of its original glory. It has been the work of a lifetime for restorer Kevin Brownlow, who has championed the film ever since he first saw it in the 1950s.
Gance originally planned to produce six separate films spanning the life and career of Napoleon Bonaparte, from his youth to his defeat at Waterloo, his subsequent exile, and his death. It is testament to the director’s ambition that we can regard the five-hour epic he eventually created as a truncation of his original vision.
Act 1 begins at Brienne-le-Château, at the military academy where Napoleon spent some of his formative years. In a spirited prefiguration of the battles to come, the boy-general (played by Vladimir Roudenko), already wearing his iconic bicorne, directs some of his peers in an epic snowball fight against forces led by his two greatest schoolyard enemies, Philippeaux (Petit Vidal) and Peccaduc (Roblin). Even at this early stage, Napoleon is presented as the apotheosis of valour and virtue, a defender of justice, demonstrated by his single-handed assault of the enemy ramparts and conquest of the villains who lace their snowballs with stones.
The scene does not just serve as a tribute to Napoleon’s leadership, it also affords Abel Gance the opportunity to impress audiences with his innovative style. The snowball fight is composed of expressive close-ups, first-person shots and multiple exposures, just some of the technical effects that make Napoleon one of the most visually striking films of the silent era. It is, however, also the first of many indulgences, a scene which makes you wonder whether the film’s considerable running time is not just a product of an ambitious director but a lenient editor.
Such doubts will hardly last as Napoleon sweeps you up in its majestic, stirring tale of a man and a nation – inextricably linked – finding their identities. Albert Dieudonné stars as the adult Napoleon, a commanding yet troubled figure who struggles to reconcile the spirit of the Revolution with the inhumane acts of those who fight under its banner.
In one of the film’s striking early scenes, Napoleon watches as the furnace of the Revolution rages outside his window. The picture is tinted an ominous, bloody red, which makes the parade of piked heads and lynchings even more disturbing. The supposed libertarians who enact such monstrosities laugh like hyenas and clamber onto balconies to gain more leverage for their executions. Gance combines shots of their bloodied hands with ones of the copy of ‘The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ that hangs in Napoleon’s room, a cynical juxtaposition that suggests all freedoms come at a price. Napoleon laughs at the irony, before the sadness of it overwhelms him.
Such choices of montage are among the film’s greatest strengths. Gance cannot resist the melodramatic, though. Images of Napoleon navigating stormy seas in a tiny boat, using a billowing French flag as a sail, are intercut with scenes of chaos at the National Assembly in Paris. Robespierre (Edmond Van Daële) and his allies battle with the Girondins, as Napoleon is tossed about in his vessel, as if the tumult in his homeland is the source of the storm through which he battles. As heavy-handed as the symbolism is, it can also be profound. Alongside Carl Davis’s reworked score, Napoleon often treads into the realm of the operatic.
Abel Gance’s research for Napoleon was exhaustive, and his quest for historical authenticity is made explicit at certain points. Intertitles which quote from historical sources are labelled so, and in a peculiar break from the narrative, one of them even obliges to tell us that the Corsican locations which appear in the film are the actual places Napoleon visited. Jacques-Louis David’s painting, The Death of Marat, was a clear inspiration to Gance’s dramatization of his murder, right down to the posture of the Revolutionary’s body as he ends up slumped in the bathtub.
Finally, we arrive at Abel Gance’s visual coup de grâce, the jewel in Napoleon’s epic crown. As the general surveys his vast army, stood to attention and ready to march into Italy, the image triples in width. Three separate cameras, filming simultaneously, create a sprawling panoramic view of the soldiers arrayed in the Alps. As the film closes, this panorama dissolves into a more abstract montage of Napoleon straddling a mountain peak, the battles still to be fought, a globe across which the French armies will march, the eagle of liberty, and the Tricolore for which all this is being fought. To capture this grand vision, Abel Gance insisted that this part of the film be projected onto three separate screens lined up together. Even now, after its restoration and ninety years after it was made, it is an awe-inspiring piece of cinema.
On the one hand, Napoleon is a stirring tale of love and heroism, of one man’s might and humility. On the other, it is a nationalistic, overlong hagiography that celebrates the successes of a historical icon but ignores his failures. It is also, however, the work of a genius, a visionary decades ahead of his contemporaries. At certain moments, the film is as technically innovative as Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929) and as vast as War and Peace. It is a shame that Abel Gance’s original wish, to dramatize the entirety of Napoleon’s life, did not come to fruition. As it is, even in its shortened form, his work is a true epic of world cinema, the scale of which will never be replicated.