Abel Gance's visionary silent epic NAPOLEON is a dazzling display of cinematic virtuosity that tells the story of the French emperor from his boyhood to the French Revolution to his triumphant conquering of Italy.
In 1781, young Napoleon Bonaparte (Vladimir Roudenko) demonstrates his fierce fighting skills during a snowball fight at military school. When some of his classmates let his pet eagle out its cage, he beats them all up, and the eagle eventually returns to him. Nine years later, Lieutenant Napoleon
(Albert Dieudonne) gets involved with members of the French Revolution at the Club des Cordeliers, including Danton (Alexandre Koubitzky), Marat (Antonin Artaud), and Robespierre (Edmond van Daele). He also encounters the beautiful Josephine de Beaucharnais (Gina Manes), who's told by a palmist
that she'll someday be queen. In 1792, France and England are at war, and Captain Napoleon returns to his native Corsica and tries to start a rebellion when he learns that the nationalist leader Pasquale Paoli (Maurice Schutz) plans to turn over the island to the British. Paoli puts a price on
Napoleon's head and he flees on horseback, stealing the French flag from Paoli's headquarters, and escapes in a boat, using the flag as a sail to get through a storm at sea. In 1793, England, Italy, and Spain sends 20,000 troops to the port of Toulon, but Napoleon rallies the French army and
launches a massive assault during a rainstorm at night on the British fortress at Little Gibraltar, forcing them to retreat.
In 1794, the brutal Robespierre and Saint-Just (Abel Gance) begin their Reign of Terror, guillotining Danton and others. Napoleon is arrested after he refuses to support Robespierre, and Josephine is also imprisoned, but they're released after Robespierre and Saint-Just are overthrown. Napoleon
becomes a national hero after putting down a Royalist insurrection, and he meets up with Josephine again at a Victims' Ball. In 1796, he marries Josephine, and is appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Army of Italy. He departs for Italy after being haunted by the ghosts of Danton and other dead
Revolutionary leaders. At Albenga, Napoleon gives a rousing speech to the demoralized French troops, and they go into battle at Montenette. Despite being vastly outnumbered, they succeed after five days, and a triumphant Napoleon stands atop a mountain as an eagle flies into the clouds.
Any synopsis of NAPOLEON would be woefully inadequate in conveying its stunning power and impact, which is created through purely cinematic means of incredibly mobile camerawork (often hand-held or strapped to horses), rapid-fire editing employing superimpositions and multiple exposures, and the
pioneering use of a widescreen triptych format called "Polyvision" that was the obvious inspiration for Cinerama and CinemaScope. The film has gone through many incarnations over the years since its 1927 premiere at the Paris Opera, which reportedly ran five hours long and included four Polyvision
sequences. In 1929, MGM released a butchered version in America that ran 80 minutes(!); in 1934, Gance shot some new footage, added stereophonic sound, and released it as NAPOLEON BONAPARTE, running 130 minutes; and in 1971, with financing provided largely by director Claude Lelouch, Gance
prepared a revised 275-minute version that integrated the silent and sound versions, called BONAPARTE ET LA REVOLUTION, which included the triptych as well as a new introductory color sequence. The version with which most people are familiar, however, is the 1979 restoration of the original silent
film, which was reconstructed by Robert A. Harris and Kevin Brownlow, and was first shown at the Telluride Film Festival with the 89-year-old Gance in attendance. It was later presented under the auspices of Francis Ford Coppola at a triumphant revival in 1981 at Radio City Music Hall.
Although three of the four triptych sequences are missing (Gance himself admitted to having destroyed them in 1952 in a fit of rage), the restored version is an extraordinary feat that offers myriad indelible images: the opening, featuring the wild snowball fight and the schoolboy's pillow
fight, which is split into nine separate frames; Napoleon's escape from Corsica, with the storm at sea crosscut with the storm at the Revolutionary convention, the camera swinging back and forth like a pendulum across the ocean and the convention, finally merging the two as lightning flashes over
a guillotine; the stabbing death of Marat in his bathtub; the decadent revelry of the Victims' Ball; the Revolutionary ghosts who appear to Napoleon; and finally, the 18-minute "Polyvision" march into Italy, as the screen widens to display three panels. Sometimes, the triptych shows one continuous
panoramic shot, and at others, it contain three separate images, usually with a close-up of Napoleon in the center, and battle scenes on the left and right. On a huge theater screen, the effect is breathtaking, particularly during the finale when images of Napoleon, Josephine, maps, globes,
written words, and flashbacks from Napoleon's past, rapidly jump back and forth, creating a cinematic paroxysm, finally exploding into a shot of an eagle soaring across the sky as the panels are tinted blue, white, and red. Gance has been accused of historical inaccuracies, as well as presenting a
flattering portrait of a neo-fascist Napoleon, but at its best, the film is an awe-inspiring folie de grandeur that remains one of the cinema's most powerful creations.
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- Review: Abel Gance's visionary silent epic NAPOLEON is a dazzling display of cinematic virtuosity that tells the story of the French emperor from his boyhood to the French Revolution to his triumphant conquering of Italy. In 1781, young Napoleon Bonaparte (Vladim… (more)