Abel Gance | 5hr 33min
Before there were unspoken rules about how long big-budget movie spectacles should be, there was Napoleon, the last great epic of the silent era running at an extravagant 5 and a half hours. In terms of pure length, this was actually a step down for Abel Gance, whose drama La Roue from 1923 ran for 7 and a half hours. He was a filmmaker following in the fresh footsteps of D. W. Griffith, innovating the sort of editing and camera techniques that keep a project as weighty as this light on its feet, fizzling with a radical passion that sends French leader Napoleon Bonaparte plummeting to the brink of failure, before pulling him up again to the heights of historical glory. Additionally, Gance takes a great deal of narrative inspiration from Victor Hugo, weaving an eloquent literary voice through his intertitle narration, and detailing accounts of French revolutionary history with a similarly intellectual and patriotic fascination.
Authenticity is particularly important to Gance in unfolding the story of Napoleon, as he inserts his own voice into the film to announce that those lines of dialogue marked as “Historical” are authentic to reliable records, and proclaiming as we move to Corsica that all of the following scenes were shot on location where the real events occurred. “I would like to be my own posterity, to witness what a poet would have me think, feel, and say,” presages Napoleon in an opening epigraph, and evidently Gance views himself as that modern day poet to do justice to his story.
He doesn’t waste time either in setting up his main character as a stubborn yet strategically minded outsider, opening on a wintery field of young boys at a military school warring against each other in a snowball fight. From within a trench, Napoleon uses the reflection of his belt buckle to look over the edge before rushing forward and engaging with the enemy in close combat. Very quickly, battle breaks out, and this tiny model of war reveals the wise, courageous leader that up until now has lain dormant inside the young boy.
Napoleon’s excited ambition in this sequence is only matched by Gance’s fervent filmmaking, rapidly firing between static close-ups of his subject’s calm, controlled face and the surrounding chaos, where a camera has been strapped to the operator’s chest to simulate a handheld effect. Given the size and weight of film equipment in the 1920s, this on its own a pioneering technical move from Gance. In blending its movement with zealous montage editing, and then leading into multiple exposure shots of Napoleon’s visage over the snowball fight though, it is the immediate, visceral impact of these combined techniques which hits us before anything else, landing us right in the middle of a battle where only one boy is in total control.
From this point on, Gance just keeps on finding new mounts for his camera, using these creative positions to craft the sort of shots that bring us right into the action rather than keeping us at a distance from it. From rocking sailboats, charging horses, and even cannons we watch skirmishes and disasters unfold, often sharing the same points-of-view as Napoleon himself. It is that handheld effect which returns most frequently though, not just in battles but even amid meetings at the National Assembly and the Club of Cordeliers, where he delivers a rousing speech to a crowd of young revolutionaries. Gance plays these scenes like a symphony, rushing his camera through cheering masses, building this patriotic excitement upon the musical underscore of La Marseillaise as it is composed within the story, and finally accelerating the sequence’s rhythmic editing towards grand images of French victory.
Right from his early days as a young political hopeful, Napoleon’s obstinate courage and inspiring words remain the running character thread through all his greatest victories and trials, leading him to go so far as to confront a crowd of Corsican men and women who consider him a traitor for his incendiary anti-British sentiment. “If you could understand the dreams that fire my soul, you would follow me!” he passionately declares, momentarily subduing their contempt. Then as he races away on horseback, the shock subsides, and he is followed by an army of counter-revolutionaries looking to claim the bounty on his head. Once again, Gance makes us part of the chase as he tracks his camera along with the horses, though in wide insert shots that frame their silhouettes against low horizons, he also adds splashes of pictorial beauty into this dash for freedom. When Napoleon finally reaches a small boat on a shoreline, he hoists his stolen French flag up as a sail to catch the wind, literalising it a symbol of liberty.
There is seemingly no ceiling to Gance’s majestic storytelling ambition, as when stormy weather strikes we find his camera fixed to this boat, being tossed around on the surface of this dark ocean. Meanwhile, back at the National Assembly in Paris, the Jacobin movement against the monarchy is splintering between the moderate Girondists and the more radical Montagnards. The display of parallel editing here is simply among the best ever put to film, accelerating in frenzied rhythms as one man’s struggle against nature is set against a political calamity, offering even greater weight to both. Guillotines and eagles are superimposed on top of incensed anti-monarchists calling for executions, all while waves crash across the crowd in a furious tempest. Handheld camerawork is no longer enough on its own to capture the raw agitation of this environment, and so Gance attaches his camera to a large pendulum and swings it in long strokes above the assembly, forwards and backwards, as if to make us seasick.
The colours that Gance incorporates through tinting his film also run up against each other in this sequence, as he briskly cuts between the melancholy blue of the ocean and sepia yellow of the National Assembly, visually distinguishing between the corresponding struggles. Such vibrant hues as these permeate much of the film, washing scenes of deep personal reflection in purple as the French leader wistfully ponders his future at an ocean shore, and in an angry red as mob violence takes over the streets of Paris. In this way, Napoleon also strives to understand its central subject on an intimate level as well, transcending its sweeping historicity to uncover the emotional core of the French leader.
No doubt that Albert Diudonné deserves a great deal credit for this, carrying the weight of the biopic in his performance through scenes of both sincere fervour and quiet contemplation. Especially when the film approaches its final act, Gance begins to turn towards Napoleon’s personal relationships with those he loved and those whose love he never returned. For Violine, the daughter of an old friend, he is an unattainable icon of worship, represented in her bedroom as a small shrine. Draped in a white veil like a young bride, she imagines his figure as a shadow against her wall, present but intangible. Meanwhile he pictures the face of the woman he does love, Josephine, over a globe, leaning in to kiss the location where she manifests – right on top of Paris, no less. The vision of an empty theatre being filled with the ghosts of old mentors and deceased revolutionaries manifests in a similar manner through a skilful use of multiple exposure, and in doing so Gance finds a consistency in Napoleon’s attitudes towards love and patriotism. To him, they are one and the same, and by openly expressing one, he ardently demonstrates the other.
It is in this amalgamation of love and patriotism that we keep finding the beating heart of this grand historical tale, with Gance echoing in his filmmaking the same enthusiastically eccentric attitude with which the French leader approached warfare. As such, scenes of violent conflict become the canvas upon which his avant-garde experiments are unleashed in full force. Mosaics of individual shots that make up a small-scale pillow fight and three-way split screens which wedge Napoleon between images of war capture the sort of layered martial chaos which has rarely been translated to film so succinctly.
Nothing can prepare us though for the magnificent final act, taking us into the heart of the Battle of Montenotte through the widest aspect ratio ever committed to film – a staggering 4:1, achieved by placing three cameras side-by-side to capture a triptych of images. Gance is singular in his vision and unmatched when it comes to capturing such a tremendous scope within a single shot, fitting an astounding number of extras into his frame as military preparations commence. From atop a mountain, Napoleon delivers one last stirring speech, motivating the French spirit of revolution before launching into a march and battle that sweep across epic terrains and three-way split screens. All at once, kaleidoscopic landscapes, heroic marches, cheering Parisians, maps of Italy, spinning globes, Napoleon’s stoic face, and dreamy visions of his wife visually harmonise like polyphonic orchestrations composed by a cinematic maestro.
And then, in the final minute as Gance hurtles towards the finish line, an explosion of colour erupts – blue, white, and red tinting, each take up a third of the ultra-widescreen and turning his triptych into a French flag marking Napoleon’s tremendous victory for his nation. This level of epic filmmaking is simply remarkable, punctuating every key beat in this sprawling narrative with a flourish of artistic splendour wholly unique to Gance’s own trailblazing intuitions, and delivering a defining piece of silent cinema that is all too difficult to find these days. More than just developing and passing on a language of visual storytelling, Napoleon pioneered techniques that have not been touched since, carving out its own strange yet fascinating corner of film history that it inhabits alone.
Napoleon is not currently streaming in Australia.