Charting the meteoric rise of one of the most influential figures in European history, from his humble beginnings in Corsica to conquering Italy for the French, this 1927 epic breaks more ground than the man himself.
Yes, before Napoloen was a pig in Animal Farm he was a real life bloke who looked like Noel Fielding, and was the greatest French military commander in history. Although this may just have been because he wasn’t a fourteen year old with no military experience and voices in her head.
Napoleon is remarkably ambitious in its scale (unlike the real Napoleon), in the number of events it seeks to show, the size of the things happening onscreen, the constant innovation in the techniques used and the running time.
The restored (and extended) version we saw comes in at an impressive five and a half hours, giving it almost an hour and a half on the previous longest film I’ve seen, Once Upon a Time in America. But for the most part it keeps the momentum up.
It begins in Napoleon’s (Albert Dieudonné) school days where he commands a snowball fight to a stunning victory. This is just a warm-up for the main act, but already the film shows its ability to create tension and a remarkably modern approach to shooting action, with cuts almost as swift as a modern film. It’s a tour du force from appropriately-named director Abel Gance.
Napoleon’s conflict in Corsica is well handled, and filmed on the actual historical locations, and his battles in the French revolution are better than anything in Les Miserables. Around the fourth hour it loses its way somewhat, diverting its attention to Napoleon’s love life and political machinations which are hard to follow.
But it returns triumphantly for a bombastic finale which uses three cameras to imitate the widescreen style which would become commonplace. It flips between a single wide shot and three separate images. At some points there are five or six different images onscreen as the different aspects of Napoleons psyche come in and out of focus with actual events, creating a visual symphony.
This is another way in which it innovates – it shows us his thoughts through non-canonical dream sequences made using clever camera trickery. In one scene he addresses the Council of 500 in his head, and in another he plans a battle in his mind.
This pristine restoration has a picture quality almost good enough to have been filmed now, and a flawless re-score which blends recognisable classical themes with national anthems to add to the depth of emotion on display.
Equal in scale to The Birth of a Nation, and just as innovative, it replaces hardcore racism with a much more moderate form of patriotism. It’s a Bonaparte from the rest.