BACK-STORY: “Napoleon” is a silent classic written, directed, produced, and acted in by Abel Gance. It is a French film that was released in 1927. It was planned as the first of six episodes, but only the first was made because of cost. Just this first one was originally over six hours long (in one of the many versions). In spite of its importance in cinema history it did not do well in the U.S., partly because audiences were making the transition to “talkies”. The film rose from the dead in 1981 when after twenty years of searching the world for copies of the movie, silent film historian Kevin Brownlow (the first film historian to win an Academy Award) restored the movie. Recently it was shown in Oakland (sponsored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival) to rave reviews.
OPENING: The movie opens in 1781 at Brienne College (more like a boarding school) in France. Napoleon (Vladimir Roudenko) is ten years old. He is commanding a group of boys in a snowball fight against a larger force led by two bullies. Little Napoleon is defending a snow fort when the bullies hit him in the face with a rock-laced snowball (wait – can they do that?) The enraged Napoleon leads a counterattack that degenerates into a melee. Napoleon’s leadership wins the battle. One of his teachers comments: “He is made of granite heated in a volcano.”
SUMMARY: Napoleon is charismatic, commanding, and cocky, but he’s a Corsican with a weird accent and thus isolated from the rest of the boys and picked on. His only friend is a cook named Tristan. Oh, and his pet eagle. When the bullies set the eagle free, another melee results. Feathers fly (literally because there’s some pillows involved). Napoleon is kicked out, but his eagle comes back. (As it will cinematically throughout the film.)
Jump to the French Revolution and a twentysomething Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne). It’s the Reign of Terror and Danton is hosting a raucous political gathering when copies of “La Marseillaise” arrive. Everybody now! (The song will reappear throughout the movie also.) Napoleon happens to be there, but he’s not the singing type. He’s more the calm in the middle of the storm type. Napoleon tells the song deliverer “your hymn will save many a cannon”. Say what?
Napoleon returns home to Corsica and gets embroiled in island politics and has to flee in a horse chase that includes a horse falling on its face. Napoleon escapes in a boat using the Frech flag as a sail. There is a storm because Gance wants to show off his ability to film a storm on the sea. He has a lot of ability. This scene is interspersed with a stormy National Convention meeting. At one point the cinematography makes the assembly look like waves. Cool. Napoleon is rescued by a ship that happens to be carrying his brothers to France. Cut to a British ship where an officer named Nelson urges the captain to sink Napoleon’s ship. The captain tut-tuts the idea since the ship is unimportant. Or so he thinks!
Napoleon is sent to command the artillery at the siege of Toulon. He ruffles feathers (figuratively this time) because he’s Napoleon and everyone else is an idiot. He explains his plan using animation! (Damn Gance, is there anything you can’t do?) The general laughs at artillery until a cannon ball lands on his table. I’m pretty sure this did not actually happen. Napoleon leads the night assault in a driving rainstorm in one of the wettest scenes in movie history. The fighting is chaotic and Napoleon is in the thick of it. There are flashbacks to the snowball fight.
The movie now shifts to what has been happening lately to the Reign of Terrorists – Danton, Robespierre, Murat, and Saint-Just (Gance). The famous Murat assassination in a bathtub is reenacted. Napoleon and Josephine (Gina Manes) are arrested as counterrevolutionaries and imprisoned separately with the guillotine awaiting . Luckily, Tristan is working at the guillotine assignment center and eats the paperwork (that is not a metaphor). The Reign of Terror ends and the future lovebirds are freed and meet at a Victim’s Ball that evolves into a 1920s speakeasy with flappers. I thought I glimpsed a breast or two in the saturnalia. (Sorry, I did not note the time in the movie.) Napoleon, as usual, remains the calm in the middle of the storm.
Napoleon is in love with Josephine. He gets acting lessons to woo her, not realizing she doesn’t require hard work. Napoleon is two hours late for the wedding because he is a workaholic and then leaves two days later to take command of the Army of Italy. Before he leaves, he visits the vacant National Convention hall and communes with the ghosts of the Terror quartet. They tell him to carry on and spread the Revolution. He pledges to conquer and unite Europe.
CLOSING: When Napoleon arrives at his new army, he finds it ill-disciplined and in terrible shape. The snooty generals threaten mutiny, but Napoleon stares them into submission. He does this a lot - it's his super power. “With his piercing looks, this little stump of a man frightens me.” The movie closes with the famous triptych section that covers a lot of marching and fighting. I’m pretty sure Napoleon wins because he stands on top of a mountain gazing at the end. Napoleon’s movie life flashes before our eyes. There’s that eagle again.
Acting - B
Action - 6/10
Accuracy - B
Realism - B-
Plot - B
Overall - B
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Only if they are cinephiles. Or if they want to see a truly amazing movie. It’s more of a biopic than a war movie. It does have some romance in the Napoleon /Josephine relationship.
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: “Napoleon” is not meant to be a documentary. Since most people do not know much about his childhood and early career, you get the basics here. Gance certainly gets the personality right. He also does a good job in filtering in the Reign of Terror and its personalities. It helps to have a rudimentary knowledge of the French Revolution.
The Brienne College section rings true. Napoleon was treated as an outsider. However, he did not win the big snowball fight. Just kidding. His return home is well done. His mother did love him and the family did revolve around him. He did get caught up in the island’s politics, but they were boring and confusing so I can’t vouch for the movie’s accuracy. I’m pretty sure he did not escape in a dinghy and almost die in a storm only to be picked up by a ship carrying his brothers which was spared Nelson’s destruction because of a clueless British captain.
The Toulon section is fine. Napoleon did come into his own at the siege. He did push for the attack on the redoubt which cracked open the British position. He was in the thick of the fighting and was actually bayonetted (which is strangely not shown in the movie).
Napoleon did get put under house arrest during the Terror, but was not imprisoned. I found no evidence that Josephine was put in prison. I’m pretty sure they were not spared the guillotine because someone ate the documents. The scene at the Victims’ Ball is based on the legend that relatives of guillotine victims would get together to celebrate their survival after the death of Robespierre. These were supposedly wild affairs that were orgiastic in nature so the movie is pretty close, if they ever occurred.
The whole Josephine romance smacks of whatever the French equivalent of Hollywood is. The movie does accurately depict that she was Barras’ mistress before he passed her on to Napoleon. Napoleon was infatuated with her and did write her copious love letters.
The Army of Italy part is too simplistic. The basics are right. The army was in bad shape and greatly outnumbered. Napoleon did show a lot of “l’audace” by going on the offensive. It would have been cool if Gance had chosen to reenact the Bridge at Lodi incident when Napoleon led his troops across a fire-swept bridge and thus cemented his charismatic hold over his men. Speaking of which, where was the “whiff of grapeshot” episode. A modern filmmaker would not pass up the opportunity to blast a mob with cannons
CRITIQUE: You don’t have to go to film school if you see this movie. Plus it is slightly shorter than film school. Gance throws the kitchen sink at this movie. Quick cuts, close-ups, hand-held, superimposition, multiple exposures, POV, blurred action. The only thing I did not see was slo-mo. The variety is amazing. There is even a variety of tinting. Some scenes are blueish, some are brownish, and some are greyish. The cinematography is mesmerizing. Some scenes build to a crescendo of action. The bells and whistles overcome the flaws, of which there are a few. Some scenes are too long. The first half (up to the death of Murat) is stronger than the second half.
And then after all this, he closes with the famous triptych section. Gance called the technique “panavision”. It anticipated Cinerama by thirty years. The Italy invasion scenes are projected by a trio of projectors on a widened screen. Here variety comes to the fore again. Sometimes it’s a widescreen view. Sometimes the left and right images are mirrors of each other (why?). Other times three different views are on screen.
The acting is typical for a silent movie. Those facial expressions! And the close-ups. Basically their faces express like the Japanese inflect in their movies. I had a hard time not laughing a few times. They are so earnest! There is some intentional comedy of the slapstick variety like the Fathers getting hit by snowballs. Both Roudenko and Dieudonne are excellent as Napoleon. The rest of the cast are satisfactory. The score is worth noting. The version I watched used the score developed by Carmine Coppola (Francis Ford Coppola’s father) which incorporated classical music sources. It fit the movie very well and adds to the experience.
The theme of the movie is destiny. Napoleon is destined to rule. Gance was obviously a big fan of his. The symbolismis pretty obvert. The eagle representing Napoleon's destiny and the French flag as his sail. The movie is patriotic and hagiographic. It would have been interesting to find out if that would have continued throughout all six movies.
CONCLUSION: Once again I am puzzled by Military History magazine’s decision making process when it came to choosing the 100 Greatest War Movies. Some of the movies seem obviously chosen because of their cinematic importance (ex. Battleship Potemkin, The General) instead of whether they are great war movies. If that is the reasoning behind the editors’ definition of “greatest”, how can “Napoleon” be rated at #37? Most film historians would place it among the top ten greatest motion pictures of all genres. There seems to be a disconnect here.
I will be interested to see where it ends up on my 100 Best list. I certainly enjoyed it and feel good about having seen it. It truly can be called a must-see for all cinephiles and I envy those who were privileged to see it in Oakland. What an experience that must have been! This project has taught me to watch movies more critically as to direction and cinematography. I am still an amateur in these areas, but even I can see the brilliance of Gance’s work. Most war movies you don’t notice the director’s technique and that’s okay, but sometimes you want to marvel at the craft. This movie is marvelous.
You can watch the Coppola version on You Tube. Thank goodness for You Tube. Shame on you, Netflix.