Widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, as well as one of the longest restoration projects in cinema history – ‘Napoleon, as seen by Abel Gance’ is now out on Blu-ray for the first time.
There aren’t many films that have as big a reputation as Napoleon – but reputations have to be earned over and over again. The 50-year restoration history suggests that something worthwhile is at stake here – but does the film really warrant its reputation, and why?
Originally conceived by Gance as the first of six films about Napoleon (Dieudonné), this five-and-a-half-hour epic features full scale historical recreations of episodes from his personal and political life, through the French Revolution and his infatuation with and politically motivated marriage to Josephine (Manès), up to the Italian campaign of 1796, when he was still only 27.
I feared five hours of bombastic drone that would seem inappropriate and distasteful given the world’s state; but in truth the film is constantly surprising. It has well-paced changes of tone: from cheesy mythifying tall stories to wonderfully bizarre intimate moments; from heartfelt and rousing hymns to the universal republic of Europe to a cynical edge that creeps in and inflects the film as a whole, suggesting a critical perspective on the hero’s journey
Formally there is some astonishing stuff here, especially the dynamic handheld camera work that adds high-modernist energy to scenes such as the opening snowball battle. The last hour deploys a wide-screen triptych approach – it looks as if three cameras were placed side by side in filming – to great effect, although there is a hollowness to the grandeur by this point, an awareness that discourse rather than action are the stuff from which legends are made.
That is one of the very-resonant elements of the film: the Great Man builds his myth as much by addressing his troops, marketing his image (in the form of dolls and cutouts that feature the iconic image of him hatted with his hands behind his back), and canvassing popular opinion as by winning battles.
There are relative ‘downs’ as well as absolute bullseye ‘ups’ here. For me, the prolonged Siege of Toulon segment carried its bitter blend of a note for far too long, its visual reliance on heroic historical painting undercutting the grimy blood-and-mud view of war it presents. I’m being picky, as this part also contains my favourite shot from the film. There’s a close-up of Napoleon’s face behind a sheet of rain; he then moves into the rain, the light intensifies so that the rain bouncing off his bicorne hat turns into dazzling explosions of mercury as he spits ‘Speechmakers!’ at the dithering generals.
The film has been digitally restored by the BFI National Archive and Academy Award-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow, with a booming Romantic score by Carl Davis. The home entertainment release also has some great extras, including:
- The Charm of Dynamite (Kevin Brownlow, 1968, 51 mins): BBC documentary on Gance’s silent films, narrated by Lindsay Anderson
- Composing Napoleon – An Interview with Carl Davis (2016, 45 mins)
- Feature-length commentary by Paul Cuff
- Alternative single-screen ending
- Individual triptych panel presentations
- Illustrated 60-page book with writing by Paul Cuff, Kevin Brownlow and Hervé Dumont
Review by Colin Dibben
Napoleon is out on Blu-ray, DVD, and BFI Player on 21 November