Napoléon ; Abel Gance
Napoléon is a 1927 epic silent French film directed by Abel Gance that tells the story of Napoleon‘s early years. On screen, the title is Napoléon vu par Abel Gance, meaning “Napoleon as seen by Abel Gance”. The film is recognised as a masterwork of fluid camera motion, produced in a time when most camera shots were static. Many innovative techniques were used to make the film, including fast cutting, extensive close-ups, a wide variety of hand-held camera shots, location shooting, point of view shots,multiple-camera setups, multiple exposure, superimposition, underwater camera, kaleidoscopic images, film tinting, split screenand mosaic shots, multi-screen projection, and other visual effects. A revival of Napoléon in the mid-1950s influenced the filmmakers of the French New Wave.
The film begins in Brienne-le-Château with youthful Napoleon attending military school where he manages a snowball fight like a military campaign, yet he suffers the insults of other boys. It continues a decade later with scenes of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s presence at the periphery as a young army lieutenant. He returns to visit his family home in Corsica but politics shift against him and put him in mortal danger. He flees, taking his family to France. Serving as an officer of artillery in the Siege of Toulon, Napoleon’s genius for leadership is rewarded with a promotion to brigadier general. Jealous revolutionaries imprison Napoleon but then the political tide turns against the Revolution’s own leaders. Napoleon leaves prison, forming plans to invade Italy. He falls in love with the beautiful Joséphine de Beauharnais. The emergency government charges him with the task of protecting the National Assembly. Succeeding in this he is promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Interior, and he marries Joséphine. He takes control of the army which protects the French–Italian border, and propels it to victory in an invasion of Italy.
Gance planned for Napoléon to be the first of six movies about Napoleon’s career, a chronology of great triumph and defeat ending in Napoleon’s death in exile on the island of Saint Helena. After the difficulties encountered in making the first film, Gance realised that the costs involved would make the full project impossible.
The film was first released in a gala at the Palais Garnier (then the home of the Paris Opera) on 7 April 1927. Napoléon had been screened in only eight European cities when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the rights to it, but after screening it in London, it was cut drastically in length, and only the central panel of the three-screen Polyvision sequences were retained before it was put on limited release in the US. There, the silent masterpiece was indifferently received at a time when talkies were just starting to appear. The film was restored in 1981 after twenty years’ work by silent film historian Kevin Brownlow.