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Sunday, 28 November 2010

Napoleon (1927)

Finally after much searching I have found a version of Abel Gance's 1927 masterpiece, Napoleon.
I was expecting a lot, as I had heard many great things about this film and was anxious to see it, I felt that my education in film would be incomplete if I didn't.

All I can say is that this film greatly impressed me, as a film buff and as an admirer of Napoleon.

So here are my thoughts on this magnificent film as well as the many reasons you should see it. 

In a technical sense this film really outshines all it's contemporaries, and even some films today. These were the early days of cinema, and Abel Gance really tested all the existing techniques he could and also invented new ones, such as super-imposed images, hand-held camera, camera on various vehicles and strapped on a horse, swinging camera, over head camera, tracking shots, camera semi submerged in water, faster editing than anything else at the time, and of course the various taints to the image such as Blue, Red, Green, Orange, White....

In a way, Abel Gance was one of the great pioneers of cinema, testing and inventing all sorts of techniques which are widely used today. What really makes this film stand-out and above most or even all of it's contemporaries is the extravagant camera work, nothing like this had ever been done before, and without such effort put into to it, the film would have been considerably flatter and duller.
Yet for all that he doesn't let the film descend into a piece of experimental cinema, the story and characters stay strong and present throughout and are rarely completely overshadowed by the visuals.

The film really starts of with a BANG!, the famous snow ball fight at Brienne, where Napoleon first displays his genius, this scene is exceptionally well shot and edited, and is just a joy to watch. It's filmed with chest mounted cameras and it really pulls the viewer into the action and ultimately into the whole film because once you have seen that scene you will want to see the rest.

Nothing I've seen before in a silent film even comes close to what is achieved in Napoleon. The outdoor scenes completely blew me away, I never would have thought that could have been done and done so skilfully at such a an early date in the history of Cinema.
A short but great example of the extraordinary methods used can be found here.

There are two different scores for this film, one by Carmine Coppola and one by Carl Davis. (I'll elaborate more on the different versions of the film and the controversy surrounding it's restoration later). I heard the one by Carl Davis, and I must say I can't imagine anything better suited for such a film, it is inspiring and triumphant yet also subtly touching, without it the film would only be half as great.
It contains many, many pieces by composers such as Mozart and Bach, so all these are just wonderful, some of the finest music ever written, it also contains pieces unique to the film such has the main theme which I particularly enjoyed. And of course La Marseillaise is played in different variants quite a few times and it is admittedly very fitting.

The editing was astounding, I had not expected anything like it, for a large part of the film it is very stable and extremely well done,especially for it's time, but there are scenes of editing genius throughout the film, such as the climax of the snowball fight which gradually presents each image faster and faster over a rather long period of time, it's keeps getting faster until all that is seen is a blur until  young Napoleon's face is seen. 
The editing really deserved a  mention because it  can be called ,more than any other aspect of this film, ground breaking and visionary. It is the style of editing usual associated with Eisenstein and often said to be invented by him which of course isn't true as Eisenstein himself was inspired by the truly amazing work done by Abel Gance on this film.
The editing only seems more impressive when one considers the methods that were used in those days, Gance edited his film entirely by sight, not using any other tool than his own eyes, such a task is hard for me to imagine, especially considering how many short cuts the film contains.

The various taints used were beautiful, I had watched The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari just before and had been very impressed with the image taints, but here I was just speechless, each colour gives a unique feel to the scene and as a whole they make the film seem very alive and vibrant. Naturally a deep red was used during the battle scenes, which was a good choice that really enhanced those particular scenes, the scenes with Josephine later on in the film were often very white and clear.

This blue taint works particularly well for landscapes, in my opinion.

All in all this film is a must see for all serious students of film, even if it's only for it's technical side which is far ahead of it's time, one might even say "visionary".
But if you are, like me, an admirer of Napoleon or are interested in France's history and that of the French Revolution in particular then this film is indispensable, in my opinion it's the definitive work on the early life of one of the most important figures in European history, but it also provides a truly excellent insight into the people and events surrounding the disastrous French Revolution.

The Acting:
Well, as in all Silent films, the acting consists of much movement and expression. This is something I really enjoy watching and I'm always surprised at how well these stories are told without sound.
The child actor who portrays Napoleon in his youth at Brienne and during the amazing snowball fight sequence was very talented. He displays the fierce, proud and untamed nature of the character admirably and is also capable of pulling off some amazing scenes, some of the best of the entire film, such as the famous snowball fight, the scene where he learns about Saint Helena for the first time and the whole scene involving the eagle. All of these are superb scenes that are only improved by the great talent of this child actor, Vladimir Roudenko.

Albert Dieudonné: A perfect choice for the role.
Albert Dieudonné portrays the older Napoleon, and he couldn't have been better. I often have problems with how historical persons are portrayed in film, but in this instance all my expectations were filled. Everything about this performance captures Napoleon as I imagine him to have been as a young man. The posture, the gestures, the outfit and just the overall representation of the character are brilliant.
I didn't really notice any flaws in Dieudonné's performance, he seemed to be living the character to such a degree that he "was" Napoleon.
The rest of the cast vary somewhat in the quality of their performances, I thought Edmond van Daele ,who played the infamous Robespierre, wasn't quite as great as some of the other supporting cast members such as Alexandre Koubinsky as Danton, Antonin Artaud as Murat, Abel Gance as St Just and Gina Manes as Josephine, all of these were really good, Koubinsky gave passionate speeches very well and Artaud was sufficiently bloodthirsty and sinister. Abel Gance, as if he didn't have enough work already, plays St Just and he plays him very well, even though he isn't as important as the three previously mentioned. Gina Manes was very good as Josephine, she portrayed her exactly as I had imagined, she seemed very much to be a aristocratic woman of that time.

The Story/ Script: 
Contrary to what one might think, this film does not cover the whole of Napoleon Bonaparte's life, it only shows his formative years, from his time at the academy at Brienne, to his invasion of Italy in 1797.
So most of the film is spent showing how he became to the saviour of France and the conqueror of Europe, his influences, his early friends, his early loves, his early ambitions. In this film we are shown how a genius began his brilliant although ultimately doomed career.
The film opens with the now famous snowball fight scene, this scene plays a large part in developing this young Napoleon as a character as we see him commanding the other children, performing acts of reckless bravery and eventually winning the battle.
Many of these early scenes are important in understanding Napoleon, he was fierce and proud of his origins, for he came from Corsica, which was considered an uncivilised and savage part of the world by most Frenchmen, so he had to rise above these prejudices. Another powerful scene that gives insight into the character is the scene when he first hears about Saint Helene, the island where he was to die

As Napoleon grows up he eventually enlists in the Army, only to be caught up in the French Revolution. This takes up a very large part of the film, we are shown in great detail, the "Three Gods of the Revolution", Robespierre, Danton and Murat, as well as the eventual Terreur in which thousands were slain and France came very near to collapse. But then young Napoleon, by now a General and victor of the siege of Toulon, saves France and unifies it against Her enemies.

So basically the story deals with the rise of Napoleon from a young Captain, to Commander of Artillery to General, to Commander in Chief of The Armies In Italy, all before he was 30 years of age.
The film sets everything in place for the 5 films that were to follow, which would have chronicled the whole of his life in extraordinary detail. Sadly the other parts were never made due to financial reasons, this is surely one of the greatest losses of Cinema.

The plot of the film itself is very well constructed, I thought the pacing was very good, of course many scenes go on for a very long time, much longer than modern audiences would expect or enjoy, but I was fascinated all the way through. All the important scenes were very well tied to together, which is great as other wise the film might of seemed like a collection of individual scenes, as some other films do.

Seeing as this is a silent film I can't comment on the dialogue, but I can say that the inter-cards were very well done, many direct quotes out of history (ie. Danton lasts words: "Don't forget to show my head to the people. It's well worth seeing."). Although it did seem to me like a few inter-cards were missing, but I suppose that is to be expected after a film has been lost for a long period of time then gradually rediscovered.

I think I've said enough about the story, if you admire Napoleon are wish to see the French Revolution and the events surrounding it presented in a highly realistic way, then this film is for you. I came away with a much better understanding of Napoleon that I had before.

One of the great achievements in Cinema, it has no rivals, it stands alone as a masterpiece of amazing proportions. I am saddened that it isn't widely available today, as the work of this genius, Abel Gance, should be seen by all serious students of Cinema.

One of the great Masters of cinema, Abel Gance.
Now I think I should explain why it isn't widely available and what all the fuss surrounding this film is about.
So, in the late 1970's, Kevin Brownlow started restoring this film which was largely forgotten at the time and unavailable in full.
In 1980, a restored version was released and received much acclaim. But then Francis Ford Coppola and his company Zoetrope acquired the film and it was re-edited to fit a new score composed by Carmine Coppola. This was when the film was truly revived and Abel Gance was at last recognised as a master director, he died shortly afterwards at the age of 92, having been around since the beginnings of cinema, he had seen it evolve.
Meanwhile Brownlow continued restoring the film, adding various amounts of newly discovered footage, and in general just tidying it up. He then screened the fully restored version ,with a different score by Carl Davis, at the British Film Festival in 2000.
This screening was adamantly contested by Coppola, who refused to have t screened without his father's score, which was too short to fit the fully restored version.
To this day the question of who owns the film and what version should be shown is still unresolved, and the film is unavailable except for a small amount of DVD's which are all the Coppola version.

I truly hope the fully restored version with the excellent score by Carl Davis will be widely available on DVD someday.

I hope I've persuaded you to see this film, even if you see the inferior Coppola cut it's still worth it just to glimpse how great the film is, of course I would still recommend the full version.

Here the link to the version I saw, i'm not sure if it will work and if you're against downloading for any reasons just ignore this, although you'll be making a bug mistake: Demonoid Torrent

You can find a version of the film in several parts on YouTube, here is part 1.
and don't forget too check out this extremely interesting interview of Kevin Brownlow.


  1. Ahh, very nice. This is an excellent film, but I have only seen the Coppola version. Excellent work on this review as well. Quite impressive.

  2. Thanks Sparky, I really appreciate it, this review was a lot of work as I wanted to bring this film to people's attention, because it is ,as you say, an excellent film, such a shame it isn't widely available...
    thanks again!

  3. Great review. If you get nominated for member review of the week, I'll vote for you.

  4. That's cool, I'm going to vote for your review of "Stone" you know, now that was a good review!

    Thanks for reading Rohit!

  5. *whistles*


    Now THIS is a review to be reckoned with.

    Hey Jack! This is Nathanael Hood, editor of Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear. I just want to thank you for subscribing to my site. I've returned the favor, as you can see.

    I hope that as two fledgling bloggers we can help each other grow and develop.

    Thank you so much!

    Good luck!

  6. Thanks Nathanael,

    You're site could hardly be ignored, it's very well set up, well written and deals with my favourite subject.

    I look forward to following your work and I'm glad your following mine!

  7. Great review which makes me want to see this film. I too am interested in Napoleon and found the Rod Steiger film featuring him which I saw somewhere (was it War and Peace) unsatisfying.

  8. Thanks,

    I saw that film just before this one, I believe it's called "Waterloo", I thought Rod Steiger did a pretty good Napoleon, but the fact that he spoke American really ruined it for me...
    I would highly recommend this one, it offers a far more detailed view of Napoleon although it is only his early life.