Few films in the history of the medium have trumpeted the technical innovations of the art form in quite the same way Abel Gance's NAPOLEON did.
NAPOLEON could quite possibly qualify as the single most innovative motion picture ever made, in that it put on display a number of techniques that had not really been seen before, or at least, not used within the context of a narrative feature film. Yet, the film is not merely a technical demonstration a la THIS IS CINERAMA, nor is it a film that is only remembered today for having introduced some new process, such as THE JAZZ SINGER or BECKY SHARP.
Rather, NAPOLEON is one of the great human epics of all time. It is a controversial film, to be sure. Many resent Gance's deification of the Little Emperor who conquered much of Europe in an attempt to create a centralized French culture. Regardless of one's political views, I maintain that the film must be viewed objectively, and in doing so, will increase one's appreciation of the masterpiece that it is.
Few epics before or since have had such a strong central figure. Napoleon is portrayed by Albert Dieudonne, who seems to be channeling an intensity in his performance that sweeps the audience away in his passion and fervor. Dieudonne is not terribly well known for any other film performances, so in a sense, he really immortalized himself as Napoleon in this film. Certainly, it is one of the most impressive, career-defining performances an actor has ever delivered.
In his introduction to the cast and crew before filming commenced, Gance called for complete devotion and commitment to the project, even suggesting that they keep in mind the very drive that their ancestors had in bringing about the Revolution and applying it to the making of the film.
The film itself begins with Napleon's boyhood at the Brienne school, where he displays military strategy at an early age in a large scale snowball fight. Napoleon is shown as an intense youth, devoted to his studies, and to his homeland, the island of Corsica. The film continues with his political victory in Corsica over Pozzo Di Borgo, and his military victory in the Battle of Toulon. Rising tensions lead to the triumphant Italian Campaign of 1796, where the film ends. In the currently available US version, running three hours and fifty-four minutes, the story moves briskly and with an epic scale that never backs down.
Among the technical innovations referred to earlier are a rapid-cutting editing style, unlike anything seen before or since, in which images last only for a frame at a time; a split screen that breaks off into a number of different cubes; a camera mounted on horseback to photograph an exciting point of view shot for the chase across the marshes; a camera mounted on a pendulum, swinging dizzyingly over the hectic and chaotic National Convention; and finally, the famous "Triptych" technique used during the Italian Campaign sequence, a widescreen process predating Cinerama by about 25 years, and with multiple images on each of the three screens.
NAPOLEON was a very difficult film to see for a long time. Gance himself re-cut the film a number of times, including a 1934 version that is said to have been the first film to use a stereophonic soundtrack (actually, it was more an approximation of stereo-there was a mono track that was controlled through different speakers to create a dynamic effect), as well as a 1971 version that would be his final film. The original 1927 version ran close to 7 hours-about 6 of which have so far been restored by British historian Kevin Brownlow.
Brownlow's restoration project began in the 1960s, and by 1979, he had put together a comprehensible version running close to four hours. At the premiere, Brownlow telephoned Gance in his hotel room to let him listen to the thunderous applause of the audience. American distribution rights were handled by Francis Ford Coppola, who insisted on letting his father write the score (replacing the Brownlow-commissioned Carl Davis score, that is still used for European showings). Perhaps more crudely, Coppola insisted the film be cut to just under four hours to prevent having to pay overtime to musicians hired to play the score at live performances. The "Coppola" version is still the only one available in the US, despite Brownlow's current restoration running more than two hours longer.
Much has been said about the re-vitalization effect the NAPOLEON re-release had on silent film. It is hard to say whether it was NAPOLEON or the advent of video cassettes around the same time that really led to the massive re-interest in silent films, but regardless, NAPOLEON's place in cinematic history became a certainty with its restoration and new presentation.
Gance lived just long enough to see massive re-appreciation for his most famous and personal achievement. At the time of his death, he was working on a film on the life of Christopher Columbus, that was never completed.
Gance made many other films (LA ROUE and LUCREZA BORGA among them), of course. But with the possible exception of Jean Vigo, it is rather difficult to think of another filmmaker whose career rests so solidly, and whose reputation is ranked as highly, as Abel Gance, deservedly so, on the basis of a single film.