In which we follow the rise and rise of a commander with a fondness for headwear.
Where to begin with Napoleon when it feels like a film that has no end for much of its almost six-hour runtime. That’s not to say it drags, more than it beats on ceaselessly from the past, going through event after event from Bonaparte’s life in great and epic detail.
Initially envisaged as the first in a six-film series that would follow the course of Napoleon’s career from school days to his eventual death in exile on the island of Saint Helena, plans were cancelled on completion on this first entry. It’s no surprise as this single film is one of the grandest visions ever released by a director.
The film, which is presented in two parts on the BFI Player where I watched it, tracks Napoleon from his youth at a military school, where he finds he doesn’t fit in with his fellow students but does gain the confidence of at least one of his teachers. A decade later he finds himself in the midst of the French Revolution and leads a rebellion against the Corsican President. Bonaparte rises through the ranks of the military, winning an unexpected victory at the siege of Toulon against superior numbers of British and Spanish soldiers.
The revolutionary leaders are wary of the man now promoted to Brigadier General and try to have Napoleon executed for failing to obey them. The tide swiftly turns, and the leaders are themselves ousted, with Napoleon next elevated to General in Chief of the Army. With his stock ever rising, he marries and almost immediately leaves on a campaign to invade Italy. Arriving to meet his ragtag troops, Napoleon soon stirs them and leads them forwards into visions of victories set against the billowing blue, white a red flag of France.
The film’s title card reads “Napoleon as seen by Abel Gance” and it’s certainly the director Gance’s vision on display. The title character is heroic from the outset as he defeats his schoolyard bullies then later finds himself thrown out of the school only to lie on a canon with his eagle at his side. He’s often shot in close up, positioned as a commanding leader and filmed as if he’s constantly posing for his portrait. These close images also serve to highlight Napoleon’s isolation and status as an outsider, fighting only for France, while those around him often fight for themselves.
Aside from Gance’s clear love for his character, his vision is brought to life by the revolutionary camera and editing techniques used throughout the film. In an era marked by stationary set pieces, Gance hurls his lens wherever he can. We move with horses, take on character’s points of view and even head underwater as a storm batter’s the hero’s tiny boat intercut with scenes of revolution.
Most impressive is the final act’s use of widescreen, decades before the practice become common in cinema. By planting three cameras side-by-side then stitching the film together, Gance creates an incredible panorama for the final battle scenes which serves to end the movie on a suitably epic note.
I could write almost unendingly about Napoleon, its music is as exceptional as its direction and lead performance. Aside from the film itself is the wonderful story of the decades spent by film historian Kevin Brownlow who slowly rebuilt the film into the epic we can watch today.
There are some caveats to my praise, as no technical brilliance can overcome the six-hour runtime of this film. Though designed as a complete biography with five more parts to follow, as a single movie Napoleon can feel cold and repetitive. Scenes of battles and revolutionary meetings seem to come and go, come and go, only to return. They’re no doubt accurate and show the rise of the great General, but some variation would go a long way, it’s perhaps for this reason that the final widescreen act stands outs so brilliantly as visually distinct from everything that has come before.
I’d still of course recommend watching Napoleon, it’s a masterpiece of silent cinema. Watch in in its four acts over four nights to pace yourself to avoid the fatigue of hours three onwards. From the first playground snowball fight, you’ll be engrossed in the epic life of the young Paille-au-nez.
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