The experience of watching an epic silent film like Napoleon for the first time is already a draining one in itself – something that I haven’t felt coming towards me since I watched D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance. Prior to having seen Napoleon, I had already experienced once Abel Gance through The Wheel although I was still unready for what I was set to experience again. Reportedly it was only the first of what was supposed to be a series of five films covering Napoleon and if it were the case, then such a journey would only be heavenly to all degrees from what I can only imagine. Even trying to write about something so ahead of its own time is already a difficult challenge in itself, but ultimately only the best shows and it was unbelievably rewarding.
Abel Gance’s silent epic covers various facets of Napoleon’s life, going from his childhood to his own romances, not forgetting his significant role within the French Revolution. Yet it is never really as simple as covering Napoleon’s life where Abel Gance has managed to score such a grand triumph on the spot. Although telling the story of its own subject is one of the most important things to carry when covering the life of a figure much like Napoleon, Abel Gance has achieved something so out of the ordinary not only for his own time when he created Napoleon. Like the very best of biopics, there’s a great sense of character that finds itself acquired from how it studies what has formed Napoleon’s personality during the most important moments of his own life, but it’s how we are being told this story that makes the film stand out so easily.
To think of how much did D. W. Griffith accomplish with his 1916 epic Intolerance around three hours, Abel Gance goes even further by telling a single story spanning for near five hours in length. It is one amongst the most intimidating aspects of Napoleon but at one watches how Gance still plays a sort of subversion when it comes to what sort of an experiment is being performed on the spot. The story of Napoleon himself is split into differing segments of his own life but there’s always a sense of fluidity present that ever manages to keep a consistent flow, allowing for such an intimidating running time to feel much shorter within experience. Gance assembles tidbits of the life of Napoleon onto the screen to form a different sort of experience that proves itself rewarding for what it achieves on the spot goes far beyond its own time. In part it could very well be a myth but the craft is unlike anything else out there.
Every act of Napoleon finds itself dedicated to a different portion of Napoleon’s life yet the fact that it comes out as a perfect setup for what is set to come else within his own life is something clever on the inside. In part it can easily be seen as a myth for there may not be so much a clear idea of Napoleon during childhood although looking upon how everything adds up to the very next moment in time and what comes forth is nothing more than only some of the finest examples of storytelling committed to a screen of any size. But what’s most remarkable about how Napoleon details such moments of the figure’s life is how even though a segment may feel so different in tone from the past, there is always a perfect flow and blend as a result of the editing techniques coming into play – which still stand out today. But the cohesive nature all keeps a single character’s growth intact – arguably the most important facet of exploring a character like Napoleon.
Amongst many of the most impressive technical achievements that were ever present in Napoleon comes the use of split screen. While there were many fast-paced edits coming then and there especially in small sequences like a snowball fight (filmed in a manner that it looks like fighting on a battlefield, hinting only at Napoleon’s future from there), Gance has also achieved a visual style no other director has ever been able to match. If yet there were another thing about Napoleon coming to mind, it would be how Gance manages to give Napoleon his own presence on the screen – creating only such an insane sort of style that could never be matched again. Abel Gance’s techniques still remain as fascinating now as they ever were so back in its day.
I could probably write much more but it would be far too difficult of a task to uncover because everything about Napoleon finds itself flowing so perfectly on all grounds and it just blew my mind that something of this sort was made back in 1927. But even to think about how this was actually only one of what was supposed to be a saga of six films that would overall span over 30 hours, all that I could ever have imagined that if Abel Gance ever completed his vision, something godly were to be laid upon the screen on all counts. I’m not even sure how something of this sort could have ever been made the way that it was back in 1927, but alongside its technical achievements the psychological case study that it exhibits through how it explores Napoleon’s life is something of another kind. One of the greatest achievements to be committed to the screen, I’m not even fairly sure this is all human.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Gaumont.
Directed by Abel Gance
Screenplay by Abel Gance
Produced by Abel Gance
Starring Albert Dieudonné, Gina Manès, Antonin Artaud, Edmond Van Daële
Release Year: 1927
Running Time: 330 minutes