In the hallowed halls of cinematic history there stand a few monolithic films, in the shadow of which all following films stand. 1927’s great, ever elusive Napoleon by director Abel Gance might be chiefest among them all. Not only is it a technical marvel that even few modern films can hold a candle to, it is also an incredibly difficult film to summarize and write about because of its incredible length. Napoleon is a four part film and runs over five hours. It is the only film I’ve ever seen with multiple intermissions, and is perhaps the single most lavish production ever made. It is difficult to categorize and even more difficult to see. Of the many films that I’ve seen, Napoleon stands as the largest, both in terms of running time (over five hours) and breadth of scale. Previously I’ve written about the idea that American filmmakers (especially D.W. Griffith) invented modern cinematic language, but how certain European films seem to dispel this myth. Napoleon is, admittedly, a much younger film than those typically discussed in this conversation, but I also see the showings of “modern” cinema contained within its frames more so than any silent film I’ve ever seen before. It is the oldest film in which I’ve ever seen handheld camera work, and the editing (much like Vertov’s 1929 film Man with a Movie Camera) is frantic and pointed and sophisticated in a way that its contemporaries were not. Napoleon is a difficult film to describe and summarize in a satisfactory way because of its sheer size. Where does one begin? And how can one describe it without turning into a history lecture? Here’s the thing, no one wants to read as I wax poetic about the history of the French Revolution and I know that, but wrapping your mind around a film like this one is difficult apart from its internal, narrative context.
In terms of historical characters, however, it makes sense that Napoleon Bonaparte would receive such a magnificent treatment on film. His life ranks in the annals of history with other military leaders like Alexander the Great and General Douglas McArthur. As I understand it he took part in 60 battles and only lost 7, and most of which were at the end of his military career. The film chronicles his time as a boy in military school all to way to his march into Italy. The opening sequence shows Napoleon as a boy at military school waging war in a snowball fight, and it is here that we first get a glimpse of the brilliant tactician that he will become. This opening “battle” is one of the most dizzying and brilliantly put together sequences I have ever seen in a film, and even rivals the opening battle of Saving Private Ryan (1998, dir. Steven Spielberg), which, I would guess, owes much to Napoleon. When I originally reviewed Man with a Movie Camera, I wrote:
“The ending of the film develops into an incredible montage of rapid cuts, ever building in tempo and pace, and is so incredibly modern-looking that one might believe it were from a modern film attempting to look old. It’s a marvelous achievement and is a type and style of editing which would not be widely used again until the 60s and 70s. In fact, the nearest thing I can think of is probably the shower scene in Psycho (1960, dir. Alfred Hitchcock), which features an incredible cut-to-shot ratio.” Man with a Movie Camera (1929, dir. Dziga Vertov)
But this brings to light one of the most dangerous things one can do when assessing old films: assuming that you are watching the originator of a certain technique. I watched Man with a Movie Camera thinking that I had found the film that invented much of our modern ideas of frantic montage, only to find in Napoleon a film two years older that is even more frantic in much of its editing. Napoleon at times layers images upon images, meanwhile frantically cutting between shots in the background, and within the course of only a few seconds there is a possibility we have seen hundreds of different camera shots and setups. The shower scene from Psycho, as I mentioned in the quote above, has an incredible cut-to-shot ratio, is decimated by the sheer volume of cuts visible in the opening scene of Napoleon. Snowballs are hurled through the air, young Bonaparte stands by overseeing his army of young soldiers, front lines change, flags are taken, and a battle is won. All the while Napoleon has not even been mentioned by name. In fact, it is not until after the battle that the young man is asked his name, but when we discover his identity it is no surprise to us. From where the audience sits, this introduction of Napoleon is only a precursor to what we know will come next: the conquering of Europe by a strategic mastermind.
In fact, you know in modern TV shows when a character is incredibly smart, but simply saying they are smart isn’t enough, so the show tries to show you how smart they are? What I’m talking about is often seen on detective TV shows like Sherlock (2010-), Psych (2006-2014), and Monk (2002-2009). First there is a close-up of the brilliant detective’s face and then the camera focuses in on the thing they are focusing on. They always notice things that no normal person would ever see and the audience is able to grasp this without even the faintest hint of dialogue. Napoleon might (I say might because it’s best not to make judgement calls about originators after all) be the earliest example of this. Both in the snowball fight and in later military campaigns, we see Bonaparte look out over the battle field as maps, soldiers, lines, math, and science flash through his mind. All of these things are shown to us in an attempt to let the audience see his mental thought process. At times it seems as though the chalk board of a world-class mathematician has spilled out across the projection screen, but it is simply a leader trying to win a battle. But the technical showings and innovations of the film are not found only in its editing.
The opening snowball battle is so brilliantly constructed, that apparently Abel Gance was worried his final conflict would never match up to it. I can certainly understand this fear as the snowball fight is an elegant and frenzied piece of cinema. His solution was to make the final battle as large as possible, so he shot some scenes with three cameras next to one another, in order to make a “wide screen” image. In most cases it functions more like a triptych by showing three different images, but at times he uses the three screens to paint a singular image. Sometimes we see Napoleon in the middle, standing on top of a mountain, meanwhile there is clear sky in the panels to his left and right. Other times we see him in the middle, meanwhile different scenes from the battle rage on around him. Finally Gance employs the editing techniques seen in the snowball fight and we are presented with layers upon layers of images, all superimposed over Napoleon as he oversees the battle and leads his army to victory. In the film’s final moment, as Napoleon leads his army into Italy, each of the three panels is tinted a different color (blue, white, red), forming an impression of the French flag. The film revels in its images, the score swells behind them as the “La Marseillaise” plays, and Napoleon stands before the camera presented as a French messiah. During one sequence of the film a light is pours out from behind Napoleon, giving the faintest impression of a halo forming around his head. He viewed himself as the savior of the French people and this film seems to do the same. If there has ever been a more heroic portrayal of a character than Abel Gance’s Napoleon, I have not seen it. He revels in the man and his military exploits and ends his film’s story just short of the man’s eventual downfall.
Napoleon is an incredible film and a very difficult one to find. It is not a film I will be able to revisit often, simply because of its runtime, but it is a film that I will revisit many times in the future. It is one of the greatest and most impressive films I have ever seen, and while I am not ready to label it as “the greatest film of all time” as some have, I can’t really begrudge them of giving it the title. This film is remarkable and the blu-ray disc put out by the British Film Institute will be a valued addition to my collection for years to come. The restoration is incredible and the packing of the blu-ray itself is immaculate. The BFI really outdid itself with this film. I highly, highly, recommend seeking this film out. It is broken into four acts across three discs and the separations of the discs are actually very good stopping points. I watched the film in three sittings across three days and enjoyed every moment of the experience. Also, this is the only film I’ve ever seen with two intermissions, which is something in and of itself. Very remarkable.