If you’ve never spent much time with them, you could imagine silent films to be creaking, dusty and boring. Static shooting, none of that fancy camera work we might expect these days and all that over gesticulating in lieu of dialogue. That’s true of a lot of programming films of the time, but from those directors that wanted to create new methods it’s a different story. From the earliest days of the studios and their experiments with new techniques and scale, the best silent films are still hypnotically good today.
Abel Gance was a French pioneer in movies, responsible for one of cinema’s earliest iconic moments when dead soldiers return to demand answers of the living in 1919’s J’accuse. A few years later, and released in 1927, Gance embarked on what was planned as the first of 6 films that tell the entire life story of Napoleon. Only this first part would ever be made, but what a film it is.
Napoleon tells of Bonaparte’s younger years and early days as a soldier leading up to him being promoted through the army and meeting and falling in love with Josephine, all part of his ultimate journey to becoming emperor. Stanley Kubrick referred to the acting and storytelling as 'crude', though to us that's an unfair assessment as the performances range from serviceable to excellent and are in keeping with the time, and the film is packed with compelling incident. What's true is neither are why this movie is more revered than ever nearly 90 years later.
Instead it’s the sheer dizzying array of the daring in technique employed throughout that make the film something truly special, deserving of the descriptive 'epic'. Any formal or restrained consideration of style was ditched almost entirely, replaced by a dazzlingly inventive approach that encompasses a variety of different camera work (hand-held, tracking, POV, close ups, just to start with), fast editing, split screen, tinting and any number of other tricks that culminate with the climatic Triptych sequence.
It’s breath-taking in scope and scale, with battle sequences and intimate scenes afforded the same level of innovation, whether the screen is full of spectacle or focussing on only Napoleon himself. That Gance's vision was pursued with this kind of passion, abandon and creativity ensures it stands out as a monument in cinematic history.
This five-and-a-half-hour restoration by Kevin Brownlow has been decades in the making and is the most complete version of the film that exists.
Napoleon is a celebration of what cinema can achieve, so if you have any interest in the history of film and how adventurous new ways of presenting stories came to be, this is utterly essential. Filmmaking like this demonstrated the impact possible from a unique, relatively new storytelling medium and consequently Napoleon's influence continues into the present. Never boring or dusty, it's a stirring, magnificent example of how much a film's ambition can absorb and enthral and remains a pinnacle of brilliance for the hugely creative Gance.
NAPOLEON / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR & WRITER: ABEL GANCE / STARRING: ALBERT DIEUDONNE, VLADIMIR ROUDENKO, EDMOND VAN DAELE, ALEXANDRE KOUBITZKY, ANTONIN ARTAUD / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW