Since it came out this past November, Ridley Scott’s Napoleon has drawn a variety of critical reactions. Whatever else can be said about it, it certainly takes a different tack from past depictions of that particular French Emperor. It was, perhaps, Scott’s good luck not to have to go up against the Napoleon picture that Stanley Kubrick dreamed of making, but even so, there are plenty of other precedents dating from throughout cinema history. The most formidable must surely be Napoléon, from 1927, also known as Napoléon vu par Abel Gance (Abel Gance being one of France’s foremost silent-era auteurs), which depicts the protagonist’s early years over the course of, in at least one of its many versions, five and a half hours.
Granted that, almost a century later, a silent historical epic as long as three average movies may be considered something of a “hard sell.” But if you’re intrigued, consider starting with the half-hour-long introduction to Napoléon above by The Cinema Cartography’s Lewis Bond, previously featured here on Open Culture for his exegesis of everything from the rule-breaking of the French New Wave to the poetry of Andrei Tarkovsky and the copycat-ism of Quentin Tarantino to the aesthetic of anime. We can thus rest assured that when Bond says that Napoléon, “without hyperbole, is the most inventive cinematic endeavor in the history of the medium,” he doesn’t do so lightly.
Like any good video essayist, Bond first provides context, framing Gance as a kind of early nineteenth-century Romantic artist working in the early twentieth, a descendant of Victor Hugo working in film rather than literature. But whatever this information may do to enrich your viewing experience, “many of the great works don’t hide their greatness away,” and Napoléon is one of the works in which that greatness is “visible from the moment you set your eyes to it.” Even its very first sequence, in which a young Napoleon leads his military-school compatriots in a large-scale snowball fight, is executed with the kind of camera moves and image dissolves that would only find their way into standard cinematic grammar decades later.
This technical and formal ingenuity continues throughout the film: “with the sheer breadth of techniques, and just how ostentatious they are, it’s difficult to pack everything Napoléon presents us into a cohesive package.” This makes Gance, who always had “a penchant for displeasing his producers due to his constant desire to disrupt film language,” look like a Nouvelle Vague filmmaker avant la lettre. It also reveals his understanding that cinema, far from the novelty entertainment some had dismissed in his time, “was to be the medium in which our next great Homeric epic will emerge.” With Napoléon, Gance and his collaborators created not just a movie but a “panorama of existence, which would entrance the viewers in an almost religious delirium” — an experience sure to be intensified, for those whose religious leanings tend toward the cinematic, by the restored seven-hour cut scheduled to debut next year.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.