For a time he was the most feared and powerful man in the world, he gave his name to an era of history, and he was a character in both War and Peace and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But before he would command hundreds of thousands of troops and be crowned an emperor, he would first need to win a snowball fight. At least that’s how it all starts in director Abel Gance’s 1927 silent epic Napoleon. The massive, sprawling film spends over five hours (in the version we watched) documenting the early years of Napoleon’s rise to power, beginning with his days at school and moving through the first years of the French Revolution, the siege of Toulon, the Reign of Terror, Napoleon’s courtship of and marriage to Josephine, and his invasion into Italy. The film features a remarkable array of cinematic techniques and innovations to tackle the incredibly complex story of not just a remarkable man but also the fate of a nation in transition. Perhaps Gance’s most famous innovation in Napoleon was the first use of a widescreen format, which he accomplished by utilizing three cameras which would simultaneously film scenes that would then be projected onto three linked screens. Unfortunately unavailable on DVD, Napoleon is tricky to track down but it presents truly remarkable spectacle on a scale most movies can only dream of. (310 min.)
J. – Before we get into the content of the film itself, I suppose it is worth first addressing the main obstacle to watching Napoleon: the colossal length of the film. You and I put off watching this movie for weeks simply because we were intimidated by the prospect of watching a 5-plus hour silent film (especially after the pain of the 4 hour restored version of Greed). So I think it’s worth starting this yammer off by saying that, yes, Napoleon absolutely is too long and does suffer for it. However, it also happens to be rather awesome, and while it could have been tighter, it absolutely is still smashing entertainment — just perhaps the kind of entertainment that should be spaced out over two evenings (which is what we did).
S. – I was dragging my feet at the prospect of another mammoth-length movie and it was with an air of resignation that I sat down in front of Napoleon. Fortunately it is quite a spectacle, and while it is slow in patches this is compensated for by scenes that are remarkable. This film is big in scale, big in character and big in ambition. After watching L’Atalante, where you mentioned director Jean Vigo did not try to manipulate the viewer’s emotions, Napoleon is the polar opposite, with Gance bringing the full weight of his powers to rouse the audience to rally behind the magnificent nation of France. The movement of the camera right into the heart of the action was used to particularly good effect.
J. – Yeah, it certainly is not a subtle film, but it really makes that work in its favor by going so far in the other direction that it becomes impossible to mind the sloganeering. The staging is so massive, so willing to be over-the-top and ridiculous, and so visually striking that the blatant symbolism and jingoism become absolutely enthralling.
I like what you said about the camera moving right into the action, S. Because the film really does that from the get-go. I got a big kick out of the opening scenes focusing on Napoleon’s childhood at a boarding school. The scene where the young Napoleon (Vladimir Roudenko) leads a troop of school kids in a snowball fight against a much larger clique is amazing filmmaking. The camera darts about everywhere, flying after the kids into battle, often through the use of handheld cameras. And the editing and pacing accelerates to a dizzying freneticism, with the camera whizzing about in furious pans that serve little purpose but to create a blur of light and shadow: all the better to convey the hectic intensity of the battle. It was a fantastic move on Gance’s part to start this way, because it uses this small-scale schoolboy conflict to alert us to Napoleon’s seemingly innate genius for command and also to familiarize the audience with the rapid-fire style the director would later use in the more epic and adult battles to come.
S. – Watching this movie reminded me very much of modern day superhero flicks. Napoleon (Albert Dieudonné) is a troubled but brilliant character, who finds himself on the fringes of society. Despite being misunderstood by those around him he cannot silently watch his country lose its identity and is passionately driven to defend the French ideal the only way he knows how. Opponents baying for his blood do not give him any pause, he knows what is right and has the audacity to see it through. I particularly liked some of the effects Gance used to convey Napoleon’s military genius, including superimposing cartoons of tactical manoeuvres over close-ups and having his eyes literally light-up as he plans his next move. These effects gave the film a surprisingly modern feel and a tonne of energy.
J. – The way it illustrated his tactical genius was a marvelous effect, and was really reminiscent of the way modern filmmakers might handle a scene involving computers or perhaps the vision of the Terminator, so it was way ahead of its time. In general the filmmaking on display seemed to be incredibly advanced and modern, particularly the use of handheld cameras and the intensity of the action through rapid cutting. The film sometimes cuts between shots with a maniacal fury; there was one scene where it flashed from face to face in a crowd so fast that it may very well have only left each shot on screen for a single frame.
Napoleon also made amazing use of double exposures and super-impositions. Layering shot upon shot on top of each other to create a remarkable montage of images. The movie did this very frequently, using the technique during most of the dramatic crescendos of the film (and there are quite a few). It was a great way to raise the excitement and convey the confusion of battle or even fury in the National Assembly. It also enabled Gance to keep Napoleon at the fore at all times, superimposing an image of the man into a scene to show his influence on affairs or to juxtapose his current situation with events happening elsewhere.
S. – While the film is literally infused with the hero of the story we are still allowed to witness the less admirable traits of Napoleon’s character. He is shown to be frequently short-tempered, judgmental, out-spoken and so preoccupied with his own thoughts that he fails to notice what is happening in the lives of those around him. Memorably, after demanding a hasty wedding ceremony with Josephine he is too distracted to turn up. After being fetched to the venue he harangues the celebrant to skip to the vital part, signs the document and walks away without even a glance in the bride’s direction. The overall effect creates the image of Napoleon as a monomaniacal visionary. Dieudonné is a charismatic and convincing Napoleon, bringing weight to a role that could easily have slipped into farce with the wrong actor.
J. – I don’t know if it would have been a farce in the wrong hands, but Dieudonné absolutely gives a rounded and appealing performance in the role. And it is rather charming that his Napoleon can be so grim and resolute with regard to war and politics but so clumsy and ridiculous in his attempts to woo Josephine. One funny scene I think really nailed for me how good Dieudonné and the rest of the cast are in this film: Napoleon gets lessons from an actor on how to be romantic and his broad gestures are laughably bad — and meant to be so. But what is interesting is that this “bad” acting is not terribly dissimilar from the overreaching performances one finds in a number of lesser silent films, but in this movie it appeared strikingly out of place. I don’t think I’d realized how nuanced most of the performances had been until that point; I was too swept up in the film to make note of it.
I think part of the reason for these solid performances is Gance’s excellent use of close-ups. There is a whole lot of story and incident in this movie, but it always takes time to come back to the faces of the characters to register their thoughts and feelings. I particularly loved the close-up that introduced Robespierre (Edmond Van Daële), looking super-badass in his black-lens glasses. I don’t think they even had sunglasses back then, but it was a master stroke and defined the character in a heartbeat.
S. – Robespierre was brilliantly presented as the villain, again in a manner parallel to a superhero flick, using a striking visual presence. The close-ups of that mirthless face with blacked-out eyes were chilling and invited no empathy. The battle of Toulon was also on par with any contemporary blockbuster. Driving rain, scores of soldiers, creative use of tints and lighting all swirling around a dynamic Napoleon. The confusion and intensity of battle were deftly conveyed with the prowess and cunning of a leader clearly in his element. I felt like part of this scene was very reminiscent of the opening schoolyard snow battle, except the white, innocent lighting of boyhood high jinx was replaced with an ominous red tone.
J. – The Toulon battle was amazing, and must have been tremendously difficult to put together. It was wonderfully chaotic and since it took place at night it allowed for some very compelling lighting. Although the scene that I think best brought together the techniques of the film into a powerful whole was the juxtaposition of Napoleon fighting a raging storm in a small sailing vessel and the tumult of the National Assembly as the Reign of Terror was initiated by Robespierre. Cutting back between the roiling, boiling sea and the pandemonium in the Assembly escalated into an amazing splicing together of images. I particularly loved the remarkable shot in which a swinging camera managed to warp the crowd in parliament into looking like the waves of a turbulent sea. I was generally floored by the entire scene.
Unfortunately, we probably missed out on the scenes that stood the greatest chance of topping the Toulon battle and the National Assembly sequence. We mentioned in the introduction how Napoleon was the first widescreen movie, a feat it accomplished through the use of three screens being projected on simultaneously. (Which incidentally would have created an aspect ratio of 4:1; over twice the width of most modern films — basically making it the widest widescreen ever.) This effect was only used for the last reel of the film, but the version we watched only had the center screen, so we were missing two-thirds of the image. The invasion of Italy scenes were still very good, but I am dying to see what we missed.
S. – Napoleon contained some of the most innovative scenes I have seen in any of the Sight and Sound films we have watched so far. Missing out on the triptych Gance created for the finale is a terrible loss. To think that this was intended as just the first installment of six(!) following the life of Napoleon, we can only imagine what other wonders the director had in store. But while many of the scenes were magnificent, the run time of the film is just too long. The decision to opt for completeness in telling this story was made at the cost of pace. However, it does feel rather mean to quibble about a tendency to step slowly through the plot when it is the vehicle for some unforgettable vision.
(An aside — Napoleon was painstakingly restored by the silent film historian Kevin Brownlow after decades of effort to find bits and pieces of the film, which was mercilessly edited not long after its premier. The version we watched was a Brownlow restoration from many years back (a newer restoration is 30 min longer), and sadly one that didn’t contain the full triptych scenes, which to be honest would probably be too wide to adequately watch on a TV anyway. Every once in awhile Brownlow will stage a public showing of the film which involves three giant screens, a live orchestra, and several intermissions. It’s supposed to be a remarkable experience)