In the early days of cinema, filmmakers often did it all—producing, directing, writing, acting, and editing. Such was the case with French filmmaker Abel Gance, best known for his pioneering work during the silent era on two films: J'Accuse (1919) and Napoleon (1927). Failing to adjust adequately to the "talkie" era, Gance spent a great deal of time re-editing and adjusting these two masterworks for sound. Unfortunately, neither has been formatted for DVD.
Originally planning to create a massive epic chronicling Napoleon's entire life, Gance scratched together only enough funds to span from his collegiate days to the triumphant Italian campaign. That leaves out his Egyptian conquest, French crowning, Russian invasion, Waterloo downfall, and final exile. Edited down to four hours from its original six and a half, Francis Ford Coppola has made Napoleon available on VHS. A five and a half hour restored version may one day surface should the legal entanglements ever get straightened out, but Zoetrope's edition preserves Gance's significant innovations.
Getting away from static camera placement, Gance actually mounts a handheld camera on horseback for a battle scene and places the camera on an overhead pendulum to gain the effect of a turbulent sea storm that he inter-cuts for a remarkable sequence. While Napoleon's tiny dinghy is tossed around during a raging storm, waves of an angry National Convention crowd simultaneously surges back and forth during Robespierre's reign of terror. Today, this rhythmic seasick inducing movement seems too over the top—a barefaced visual reference connecting the two events—but this establishes a noteworthy precedent, considering its 1927 origins.
Most memorable is the oft-cited opening snowball fight that introduces the future Emperor's tenacious character and hints at his tactical prowess. The camera hones in on the collegiate leader (played by Vladimir Roudenko) as he determinedly overcomes the numerical odds to best his foes, who ironically will also oppose him in real battles to come across Europe. Adding to the mythology, Gance portrays Napoleon as an eccentric outsider in the Catholic school, with only one professor recognizing his genius and with a pet eagle as his only friend. Symbolizing liberty and independence, the eagle reappears during the film when Napoleon rises in power—most notably during the 20 minute finale when Gance required three projectors to display his imagery. As in the finale of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," Gance strives mightily to overwhelm the audience with visual fireworks across the three panels. He even includes a deliberately tinted triplicate sequence to matches the red, white, and blue of French national flag as "La Marseillaise" triumphantly blasts away.
Despite the majesty of Gance's epic and iconic portrayal of its her, the finest moments are the quieter ones that paint a more human picture of the adult Napoleon (Albert Dieudonné). Obviously love-struck when first gazing at Josephine (Gina Manès), the bold leader tentatively but steadily pursues her. And when they finally wed in a small civil ceremony, Napoleon humorously brushes aside the long formality by instructing the official to "skip all that" and get to the vow and legal signatures.
Of course, what most are going to remember are the grand scenes with the snowball fight, the National Convention, and the exploding fireworks of the finale that mythologize Napoleon as the man to lead France into the promised land. The fates worked against Gance to allow him to paint the full portrait that he had envisioned, but what he has crafted remains a film that all serious buffs simply have to see. Hopefully, a more complete version will find its way into DVD release in the near future, but the current VHS copy still offers unique pleasures.