Napoléon vu par Abel Gance (1927)


(director/writer: Abel Gance; cinematographers: Jules Kruger/Joseph-Louis Mundwiller/Torpkoff; editors: Marguerite Beauge/Abel Gance; music: Carl Davis/Carmine Coppola/Arthur Honegger; cast: Albert Dieudonne (Napoleon Bonaparte), Yvette Dieudonne (Elisa Bonaparte), Suzanne Bianchetti (Marie-Antoinette), Marguerite Gance (Charlotte Corday), Edmond Van Daele (Robespierre), Conrad Veidt (Marquis de Sade), Alexandre Koubitzky (Danton), Paul Amiot (Fouquet Tinville), Annabella (Violine, Desiree Clary), Antonin Artaud (Marat), Pierre Batcheff (General Hoche); Runtime: 235; MPAA Rating: NR; MGM; 1927-silent-France-in French with English subtitles)

It turned out to be a commercial flop because the film cost too much to make.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Legendary French director Abel Gance (“J’Accuse”/”The Battle of Austerlitz”/”Beethoven”) directs and writes his masterpiece, a patriotic film about the life of Napoleon and his quest for empire. Gance hoped to film it in six parts and lionize Napoleon as a mythical Nietzschean superman. The first part, the only part filmed as money ran out, tells of Napoleon’s childhood days in military school and later of his rise to power. When first released in Paris as a five-hour version, it was rejected by the public. It was thereby shortened many times until the final edit by Kevin Brownlow was released in 1980. When released it was shown in NYC at the Radio City Music Hall. It featured Gance’s many innovations for silents such as, a triple screen process, using hand-held cameras and one camera saddled on a horse’s back, wide-angle lenses, superimpositions and rapid cutting. Considered to be a great film for all its technological advancements, it is also is known for its flair and sweep in making the epic an eye-catching zesty spectacle even if taking a base melodramatic and demagogic stance to promote Napoleon as France’s savior despite all his despotic tendencies.

There were fun sequences such as the opening snowball fight at the Brienne Military School and a humorous pillow fight in the dorm. There was an intellectually fine symbolic one that has Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne) sailing back from Corsica in a storm at the time the Paris’ Revolutionary Convention was erupting into a riot. And there was the incredibly shot climax, that concludes with the three-panel panorama of the French Army in 1796 successfully marching into Italy as conqueror. An innovative shot that’s considered by the cinema world at the time as the greatest accomplishment in cinema.

It turned out to be a commercial flop because the film cost too much to make and it was difficult to get it in shown in a wide range of theaters, as it had to be shown on a screen that was three times wider than the normal one. Gance’s elaborate artistic visions were good for the history of cinema (his film is considered one of cinema’s most important) but not for his backers, who failed to make a profit on his brilliant pioneering efforts because his films cost too much to make. It’s curious to note that Gance’s Napoleon was not well-received in America, as when it came there in 1929 American audiences clamored instead for the new talkies and Gance didn’t have the financial means to convert the silent.