Thursday, January 2, 2014
During winter of 1779, the 10-year old Napoleon Bonaparte learns how to fight back while participating in a snow ball fight in the Brienne college. The boys tease him there and release Napoleon's hawk from the cage, but the bird returns to him...A decade later, during the French Revolution, Napoleon travels to Corsica to persuade the people that not the British or the Italian, but France is their homeland. He gains his first victory as a young military commander during the 1793 siege of Toulon, where he defeats the English soldiers. The Republic is still in crisis: Robespierre and Saint-Just start a Reign of Terror to suppress Royalists and counter-revolutionaries, and thus become unpopular. Napoleon marries Josephine, meets general Murat and leads a victorious campaign against Italy, in order to spread the Revolution and stabilize the divided France.
One of the most famous and critically acclaimed silent film of the 20s, Abel Gance's "Napoleon" is a quality biopic, but still a little bit overrated. All the virtues mentioned in the film indeed stand the test of time, with ease: Gance's visual style is brilliant in the first third, using movable camera and inventive tricks and ideas (a camera placed on a horse to get the POV of riding; the grown up Napoleon is first introduced from profile, and when someone asks his name, the subtitles say: "Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne)"; double exposure...) as well as clever storyline ideas (during the victory at the Toulon, the drummers are absent, but the drums are still "making noise" since a hail is tapping on top of them; Napoleon escapes from Corsica by attaching the flag of France to a pole of a boat to use it as a sail). The first half of the film is excellent, but the second one is so overstretched that the overlong 4-hours of running time simply take a toll on the film and exhaust the viewers' enthusiasm.
It is noticeable that Gance is patriotic about his topic, but he has the tendency of getting carried away way too much, of unstoppable fascination of *everything* about Napoleon - whether interesting or boring - and cramming even the most trivial moments from his life to the screen - the movie definitely needed a better editor who would restrain this "inflation" of events. It is a very strange feeling when, after the intermission, you just cannot wait for the next 90 minutes to finally pass in order to skip to the good part, the highlight, the triple, so called 'triptych' sequence that "enlarges" the screen on the left and right. It is indeed fascinating to see the conquest of Italy from that perspective, yet it cannot fully compensate for so much empty walk up to it. Likewise, the focus seems to be on the wrong place: how can you make a movie about Napoleon but not show almost nothing about his strategy or military brilliance? The whole film has only two sequences of that (the battle of Toulon and the ending campaign against Italy) whereas too much of the story is wasted on Napoleon's less interesting moments in life. For all of its genius, you cannot shake away the feeling that this was just the beginning, the 1st of six planned films about Napoleon, and that these later films - which were sadly never made - would have offered far more suspense and substance in the story.