Before the advent of synchronized sound, the basic craft of cinema had been fully realized. While Porter, Vertov, Eisenstein and Griffith helped build the grammar, Abel Gance’s Napoleon feels like a gaze into the future, a film with such audacious techniques that it over 80 years later cinema is still catching up with Gance’s idea of cinema.
Take a moment at the midpoint of the film. After a major victory, Napoléon Bonaparte (Albert Dieudonné) stands cold and distant amid a raucous party being held in his name. He spots a woman. Not just any woman, a woman who evokes vivid memories. In the blink of an eye, Gance rapidly gives the audience those memories, slammed together into something almost subliminal. It’s a technique that hasn’t hit mainstream filmmaking until this past decade.
Gance delivers such audacious techniques consistently throughout the film. Even the final battle used a new technique: Polivision. This technique uses three cameras and three projectors to make a wider image, a crude version of our widescreen and a precursor to CinemaScope (a curved screen with an extra wide image). It is for the film’s best that Gance does not try to use this technique throughout the film. The scale of the final battle works well with widescreen and the technique would distract in many of the conversations that take place primarily in close-ups.
And while it fails to completely make one completely seamless image, Gance does use the three cameras as three separate frames, a precursor to the use of split screen (a couple of earlier silent films use split screen, although not to this bold effect). He uses movements within each individual frame in order to convey an overall sense of momentum and composition that feels much more complicated and visually alluring than most modern uses of split screen, which are often only pedantically used to capture a phone call or show parallel events happening at the same moment.
In terms of storytelling, Gance, who also wrote the screenplay, presents a protagonist with a bold, singular vision. He faces many hardships, but Gance portrays him as strong and distant. There are humanizing elements to him, mostly in his romance, but it’s clear that he faces adversary head-on with nary a sign of weakness or hesitation. Therefore, the conflict is never Napoleon as a flawed character, but a world in which Napoleon threatens an old order and whose singular vision may consume himself as well as others.
Some of the political intrigue involving the secondary characters does become a bit murky at times. Not every event has a clear impact on the core events of the film. Part of this may be that the widely available version is the 4 hours cut, with Gance’s vision of a 6 hour cup perhaps being the most complete version (just two of 19 versions of Napoleon). Even then, Gance throws in enough context and history to present a world in which Napoleon doesn’t see the revolution as nearly clear-cut as many of his elders and contemporaries.
Napoleon is one of the great epics of the silent era, a film that helped influence and shape the history of film. While many silent era films may appear crude in the eyes of modern audiences, Napoleon feels like cinema fully formed, at least in its ideas. While technology would help better realize Gance’s total vision, few modern filmmakers can challenge the skill of his craft on display in terms of the breath of technique, scale and storytelling.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing