Why Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoléon Is “the Most Creative Film Ever Made”

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch the New­ly Released Trail­er for Rid­ley Scott’s Napoleon, Star­ring Joaquin Phoenix

Napoleon: The Great­est Movie Stan­ley Kubrick Nev­er Made

Vin­tage Pho­tos of Vet­er­ans of the Napoleon­ic Wars, Tak­en Cir­ca 1858

Napoleon’s Dis­as­trous Inva­sion of Rus­sia Detailed in an 1869 Data Visu­al­iza­tion: It’s Been Called “the Best Sta­tis­ti­cal Graph­ic Ever Drawn”

Why Is Napoleon’s Hand Always in His Waist­coat?: The Ori­gins of This Dis­tinc­tive Pose Explained

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.


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