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Genre: Silent Period War Drama (France)
Starring: Albert Dieudonné
Directed By: Abel Gance (Lucrézia Borgia; J'Accuse!)
Overview: In Abel Gance's 4 hour epic, we showcase the youth and early career of the man who would defend a nation during their greatest Revolution.
Clearly, great effort was made to cast the right bunch of actors for this. The stoic Napoleon is great, the childhood one too. Meticulous detail is even extended to the extras, from the common toothless proletariat to the bourgeois prisoner. Though some of the children were bad actors, they were not the focus for very long. Yep, good job.
A few examples of Abel Gance's cinematic genius:
- Frequent use of metaphorical double exposures, like the world as the face of Josephine.
- Fast-paced, almost subliminal editing and hazy, too-close shots to represent haste and chaos
- Four-way and even nine way split screening to show the vast tumultuous of a given scene.
- Camera shot quickly forward again and again to represent the view of bullets (edited by censors)
- A scene where Napoléon rides a little boat during a raging storm while an uprising occurs back at home. Using the camera to sway in and out over the treacherous waves, then fading in to the political arena as the swaying continues. This representation of the political storm makes this the best scene in the whole film. High-art for the masses.
- For the first time, the use of three camera shots next to one another was used to make a panoramic rectangular image. Later, the widescreen film format would become standard.
There is definitely some Eisenstein influence here, but there is no denying the cinematic genius that was Abel Gance.
No, I can still hear you. Just stop.
The script suffers a little bit from over-narration, and the use of stating who is playing a certain role in the intertitles, like "NAPOLEON (Albert Dieudonné)". This was common enough back in the day, but I still find it distracting. There is good use of memoirs and letters rather than constant intertitling, but I wouldn't say there was anything special here.
The biggest let-down was the fact that this covers the life of Napoléon from his childhood to his Italian campaign. We never see Napoléon make himself Emperor. I suppose Abel Gance didn't want to focus on anything implying his descent into corruption or looking towards his more controversial ideas. As a story this is just too long. Personally it would have been nice to see a young upstart captain grown to imperial fame, rather that watch him as a boy, leading a snowball fight, for as good as that fight was.
It's a real shame this was such a long film, because perhaps more people would see it. I'll admit that it was something to endure, though it certainly picked up shortly into the second hour. As film studies go, this is most likely on the list of those professors who like to showcase the art of film. Due to it's length and need for editing, I can only tell you to see this if you have to, but the music was great, very inspirational.
Overall Rating: 70% (Not That Revolutionary)
Perhaps the 1934 re-edit would be better. It's 140 minutes, so the length is almost halved. There's even sound, dialogue and some scenes added or replaced. I know I won't convince any of you to see either version of this, but if I ever taught a course, excerpts from this film would certainly be on the must-see list, not only because the camerawork is original, unique and artful, but the fact that this was one of the first films to ever use, not just one, but MANY cinematic innovations. It's frikken mind-blowing.