Abel Gance’s Napoleon Makes the Case that Film Preservation Still Has a Way to Go
Note: This is the hundred-and-forty-fourth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fourth favorite 1927 film, NAPOLEON, directed by Abel Gance.
NAPOLEON, French director Abel Gance’s monumental epic, was aiming for a nine hour run time in its initial edit, and it was to be the first epic installment of a six film series documenting the life of the great historical figure. Gance quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen after the monumental effort and cost that went into his film that, ultimately, was released in 1927. But that effort and cost yielded one of the most spectacular films of all time. And it’s incredibly difficult to access it today. That shouldn’t be the case.
The difficulty of tracking down the most complete and beautifully restored NAPOLEON version, Kevin Brownlow’s 2000 five-and-a-half-hour edit mastered into stunning HD for a 2016 BFI Blu-ray release, is relative. Sure, you could be British and have a Blu-ray player. Problem solved. Or you could have a region-free or region B Blu-ray player. And then you could import the physical Blu-ray disc. Or you could track down an oft-circulated nearly four-hour long version edited by Francis Ford Coppola in 1980, which has ended up on VHS and Blu-ray all over the place. If you did so, though, you’d watch a film not running at the correct frame rate and one with an inferior score to Carl Davis’ (Coppola’s version was scored by his father Carmine). Or you could find some other variant version of Gance’s masterpiece, rendered down into dumbfoundingly bad quality and a shredded-to-pieces edit.
This isn’t to say that any previous version of NAPOLEON need be as complete as Brownlow’s currently definitive version; more and more material has been discovered over the decades that the seminal filmmaker and film historian has been involved with the movie. But when one can’t easily find one of the finest films ever made, even by relatively illegitimate means and with the relatively detailed knowledge of someone who writes about this stuff regularly, there’s something still quite wrong with how film ownership and preservation is managed.
Look, of course things have improved tremendously. We are living in the most accessible age; nearly any kind of media is almost immediately at our fingertips. Which makes it all the more frustrating that NAPOLEON can’t reliably be found on the internet. Perhaps I should specify that it’s frustrating that the aforementioned BFI restoration of NAPOLEON can’t be reliably (and again, easily) found on the internet. Because if we want to see film history and its greatest creative works propagated and made available for the most dialed-in-to-information-sharing-networks generations, it has to be easier than it is to watch a gotdamn five-and-a-half-hour-long movie if someone wants to.
And I want to! Let me be clear on my process for these film essays on my favorite movies: I have certainly watched the films before, and just before writing about them, I view them again. I have not done that for NAPOLEON in this case, for reasons listed above. I want to watch Brownlow’s superior version, which I need to stress is so visually sharp for the BFI restoration that I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. But how did I watch it before if I didn’t do that whole “circumvent the region-locked Blu-ray” thing? Well, honestly, I can’t remember. I just know I watched the full thing in tremendous quality somewhere, perhaps the Internet Archive; I was able to find the first part of the film there in preparation for this piece, but not more than that. It’s pretty remarkable, however, that NAPOLEON still resonates so strongly within me, despite only viewing it the one time over a year ago. Sure, it’s hard to forget that one time I sat and watched a 330 minute long film in one sitting, but the strength of the film does not entirely lie in its epic scope.
To be clear, though, NAPOLEON’s breadth is not nothing. The very audacity of presenting such an epic story is valuable in itself, but of course, it wouldn’t quite be enjoyable if the technique with which that story was told was lacking. And thankfully, the technique with which Gance and his collaborators created NAPOLEON is top-of-its-class. Doubling down on the visual inventiveness he pioneered with LA ROUE (1923, an influence on Sergei Eisenstein’s montage movement), and even earlier with J’ACCUSE (1919), NAPOLEON is dizzying and powerful. As summarized by Wikipedia (lol), NAPOLEON was notable for its use of “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.” This is not just an inventory of words; it truly encapsulates the feeling you get watching the progression of NAPOLEON. The film’s visual communication is so stunningly effective.
That multi-screen projection point is probably the most notable, immediate innovation. Gance shot the final reel of the film in “Polyvision,” a three-camera process that created a triptych of cinema, almost exactly 25 years before the Cinerama process debuted in 1952. Although the two outside Polyvision panels were cut from the contemporary mass distribution of the film, and therefore was not likely to have made much of an effect on the development of Cinerama, the triptych effect was recreated well for the most recent version of NAPOLEON. And the “triptych” nomenclature is not just paying lip service; the Polyvision sequence is a beautiful work of art in and of itself, a multitude of moving images contained in the most expansive vista then put to screen.
[watch the film in whatever form wherever you may]
NAPOLEON’s performances and story take a backseat to the film’s own history and its cinematography, set design, and costumes. That may be appropriate; certainly, the technical elements utilize convincing film language to invest an audience in the personification of Napoleon by Albert Dieudonné. But it doesn’t quite matter what Gance has to say about the man. It’s how he said it.