Golden Oldies: Napoleon

89 years after its release, us modern kidz can finally see Abel Gance’s silent epic, Napoleon, in its glorious high-definition restoration. Simon Ramshaw went to see if the 50 years of work gone into this restoration was worth it, or whether it was a questionable cinematic revolution.

Simon Ramshaw
21st November 2016

DISCLAIMER: I did not actually see this on Sunday at the Tyneside Cinema, but on the previous Sunday at the Royal Festival Hall in London with a live performance of the score by its composer, Carl Davis. Also, Wes Anderson was there.*

We take a lot of things for granted. Films are one of them. A lucrative commodity that we spend £3.75 on at the Empire in an effort to catch up on the slew of edgy, flashy modern blockbusters we’re fed every week. But a man by the name of Abel Gance slapped us in the face 89 years ago with the OG edgy, flashy slice of cinema with his astonishingly-ambitious biopic, Napoleon.

Chronicling the rise and rise and rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (and most definitely not his downfall; that’s not exactly in the director’s political manifesto), Gance’s five and a half hour sprawling masterwork essentially invents the cinematic rulebook as far as anybody who’s remotely seen any films is concerned. Say what you will about Sergei Eisenstein’s revolutionary invention of montage in 1925, it’s difficult not to argue that Gance gave birth to a plethora of other stylistics, as well as a bunch of techniques that are rarely used today because they’re so barmy. Take the moment where Gance places his camera ontop of a swing above a moving crowd to show the passion of the French Revolution at its very height. Name one other director who would attempt that today (and don’t say Gaspar Noë…

"It is a stylistic explosion of cinematic invention, Gance deftly handles a number of different genres with ease"

As well as being a stylistic explosion of cinematic invention, Gance deftly handles a number of different genres with ease. One of the things I definitely wasn’t expecting to experience in Napoleon was frequent belly-laughs, but lo and behold, Gance magics them out of thin air. He’s got an eye for milking every drop of comedy from the most unlikely of places, even taking a good few minutes to focus on the comic absurdity of a man that literally ate death warrants during the Great Terror. It’s a lovely sequence, full of spot-on comic timing and fantastic physical comedy.

The film culminates in what can only be described as a triptych, with three cameras assembled next to one another to create an unparalleled width to the screen itself. It stands as a towering statement to Napoleon’s sheer ambition; it’ll show you things that you’ve never seen before in ways that you can only dream of.

Released today on crisp blu-ray by the BFI, Napoleon is worth every one of its 19,920 seconds.

                                                       *I didn’t meet him.

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