Friday, September 11, 2009

Napoleon (Abel Gance) ****

Director: Abel Gance

Cast: Albert Dieudonne, Vladimir Roudenko, Gina Manes, Edmond van Daele

Background: Abel Gance was a veteran of the silent cinema, his most notable previous work being La Roue, which ran for over 5 hours. As the silent era was ending, he set out to make a series of films (in 6 parts) about Napoleon's life.

Story: A biopic about the life of Napoleon Bonaparte (Albert Dieudonné), following him from his early days at a boarding school to his early military triumphs.

Thoughts: It should be noted that the only version I was able to find was a mediocre copy of the Francis Ford Coppola restoration, which cut out tons of Gance's film and played it at the wrong speed. That being said, this is still an amazing cinematic experience. Gance was a master of what could be accomplished with the camera during the silent era, and he utilizes every tool at his disposal to present a grand portrait of a legendary historical figure. If you're looking for an unbiased examination of Napoleon's life, you'll have to look elsewhere. This is instead a celebration of Napoleon the hero, showing how he perseveres against many setbacks, including imprisonment and stupid senior officers that ignore his advice. There's a little bit of romance in the latter half of the film as Napoleon and Josephine finally find their way to one another, but for the most part this focuses on his military exploits. Perhaps the greatest tribute I could pay this 4 hour film is that it isn't dull for one second. Gance fits in so much compelling material that you can easily see how another hour and a half could be added to the running time. Albert Dieudonne gives a charismatic and stoic performance as Napoleon, and you can sense the man's driving ambition through Dieudonne's eyes. There's a particularly stirring moment where he stops at a conference hall and gathers inspiration for an upcoming battle, remembering the revolutionaries who came before him. Special mention must also go to Vladimir Roudenko, who does a brilliant job as the young schoolboy Napoleon in the first hour of the film. The most eye opening moment is during the finale, in which Gance creates a 4:1 aspect ratio by lining up three cameras, allowing for some mesmerizing shots of the battlefield along with the opportunity to use one of them cut in to a close up of the stoic Napoleon as he leads troops into battle. This is an amazing and important piece of work and I can only hope to one day see the original version, as Gance intended.

Postscript: The other 5 films in the planned series were never completed. Gance's first sound picture (The End of the World) was too ambitious and flopped, so he went for safer projects throughout the 30s. World War 2 slowed down his career somewhat, but he returned to continue directing through the 60s.

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