Napoléon (1927): Abel Gance’s French Silent Epic 

Abel Gance wrote, produced, and directed silent French epic film, Napoleon, focusing on the early years.

The formal title is “Napoléon vu par Abel Gance,” which translates into “Napoleon as seen by Abel Gance.”

Napoléon
A monochrome photographic portrait of a handsome man in his late 20s wearing a French general's uniform from the 1790s and a cocked hat over stringy dark hair that reaches his shoulders

Albert Dieudonné as Napoleon

The film displays masterfully fluid camera motion, at a time when most camera shots were static.

Many innovative techniques were used, including fast cutting, extensive close-ups, a wide variety of hand-held camera shots, location shooting, point of view shots, multiple-camera setups, multiple exposure, superimposition, underwater camera, kaleidoscopic images, film tinting, split screen and mosaic shots, multi-screen projection, and other visual effects.

A revival of Napoléon in the mid-1950s influenced the filmmakers of the French New Wave.

The film used the Keller-Dorian cinematography for its color sequences.

The tale begins in Brienne-le-Château with youthful Napoleon attending military school where he manages a snowball fight like a military campaign, yet he suffers the insults of other boys.

It continues a decade later with the French Revolution and Napoleon as a young army lieutenant. He returns to visit his family in Corsica but politics shift against him and put him in mortal danger. He flees, taking his family to France.

Serving as an artillery officer in the Siege of Toulon, Napoleon showed genius for leadership, and was promoted to brigadier general. Jealous revolutionaries imprison Napoleon but then the political tide turns against the Revolution’s own leaders.

Napoleon leaves prison, forming plans to invade Italy. He falls in love with the beautiful Joséphine de Beauharnais. The emergency government charges him with the task of protecting the National Assembly. He is promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Interior, and marries Joséphine. He takes control of the army which protects the French–Italian border, and invades Italy.

Gance planned for Napoléon to be the first of six films about Napoleon’s career, a chronology of triumph and defeat ending in Napoleon’s death in exile on the island of Saint Helena. After the difficulties encountered in making the first film, Gance dropped the project due to the immense costs involved.

Napoléon was first released in a gala at the Palais Garnier (home of the Paris Opera) on 7 April 1927.  After showings in only eight European cities, MGM bought the rights to it.

But after screening it in London, it was cut drastically in length, and only the central panel of the three-screen Polyvision sequences was retained before it was put on limited release in the U.S.

Initially, the film was indifferently received due to the fact that talkies (such as The Jazz Singer) were just starting to appear.

The film was restored in 1981 after twenty years’ work by film historian Kevin Brownlow.

Credits:

Produced, written, directed by Abel Gance
Music by
1927, France: Arthur Honegger
1927, Germany: Werner Heymann
1980, UK: Carl Davis
1980, US: Carmine Coppola

Cinematography Jules Kruger
Edited by Marguerite Beaugé (1927) and others
Distributed by Gaumont

Release date: April 4, 1927

Running time: 330 minutes (and various other lengths)