The Reel Critic: Napoleon


Albert Dieudonné as Napoleon Bonaparte in Abel Gance’s “Napoleon.”

By John Gosselin, Senior Writer

I have never seen a film as big as director Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” (1927).

In light of the recent French elections, this movie — with its nationalist themes, cinematic innovations and durable quality — appears especially relevant.

A major factor in its nationalist themes is the film’s sheer scope: the reconstructed five-hour cut trembles beside the original 9-hour version; thousands of extras appear in hundreds of unique costumes in dozens of unique locations designed to evoke an unparalleled sense of grandeur. The film’s scope matches its subject matter: it depicts Napoleon Bonaparte’s charge of the biggest army in Europe through some of France’s greatest battles. The reconstruction has a fully orchestrated score featuring the most famous pieces from the historic era. Even the characters’ hats are too big for their heads. Compared to other epic dramas from this era like “Intolerance” (1916) and “Cabiria” (1914), “Napoleon” makes them look like Buster Keaton shorts.

Unlike with his previous efforts, which were set in the present day and tended to be critical of France, with “Napoleon” Gance creates a nationalist, historic epic to celebrate not only Napoleon, but his country as well. These motives become clear early in the film when Gance dramatizes the first singing of the French national anthem “La Marseillaise.” As a crowd of hundreds begins to sing the song, images of an eagle and a man waiving the French flag are superimposed on the screen. This scene lasts for the duration of the song, meaning that the piano accompanist in some of the original screenings would have been able to play “La Marseillaise” during it.

Beyond this central scene and the nationalist themes, the film offers a wealth of interesting cinematic techniques. A triptych (three screen) finale pre-empted most wide-screen formats by nearly 30 years. It is difficult to feel the full effect of the three screens on my computer, or even on a television screen, but the effect it has in a large theater must be profound. Even still, the moment when the screen widens represents a supreme dramatic push into the end of the story.

Originally, Gance meant for it to be part of a series of six film which would encompass Napoleon’s entire life. However, the sheer scale of this first film prevented the completion of the entire project, so the moment when the screen expands takes on extra importance because it is the biggest moment of the film.

Another interesting technique includes the use of extremely quick cuts, sometimes lasting less than a second, or only a few frames. Without the need to synchronize his images to a soundtrack, Gance was able to edit short shots together. The most prevalent example of this technique occurs in the opening scene, a snowball fight at the young Napoleon’s boarding school. This scene foreshadows a later part of the film where Napoleon and the children against which he is having the snowball fight challenge him in a real military battle. To emphasize their opposition, the film cuts between Napoleon’s face and his enemies faces at an extremely fast pace until his enemies are hit with snowballs. This technique shows up in other parts of the film at similarly narratively important or stressful times, and gives the film a greater sense of unity over its long run time.

“Napoleon” is an attempt to build French nationalism, an attempt to treat film in new ways, and an attempt to captivate its audience in its process. It succeeds on all fronts, becoming one of my favorite movies as it does. A DVD copy of this film is available in the library.