Photo: The trailer for the restored version of Abel Gance’s “Napoleon.” Credit: San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
In the mid-1920s, the world was looking for inspiration on how to live passionately, doggedly pursue dreams, and fulfill destinies. The apogee of these paths came together in the historic figure of Napoleon Bonaparte. Dead for over 100 years, the great leader inspired patriotic fervor in his countrymen and elicited wonder and awe in others. In certain quarters, he became the first cultural icon and his name part of the general lexicon.
Anything about Napoleon was popular and made headlines. A vase he had broken decades ago went up for auction. His guns were offered for sale, and his clothes were auctioned. Books were written about him, as well as countless magazine and newspaper articles. Ramon Novarro wanted to play him onscreen, Rupert Julian yearned to direct a film of his life, and Charles Chaplin dreamed of producing a film about him. Director Rex Ingram found his young Napoleon lookalike for the film “Scaramouche” in future special effects legend Slavko Vorkapich.
The press quickly dubbed important and leading celebrities and athletes Napoleons of their fields. Red Grange was dubbed “the Napoleon of high school football,” Will Hays was nicknamed “Little Napoleon of the movies,” film producer Joseph Schenck was called “the Napoleon of filmmaking,” boxer Johnny Dundee was recognized as “the Napoleon of the prize ring.” Military and world leaders were compared to the great man, including Benito Mussolini of Italy. In France, a leading director yearned to fashion a film about the ruler.
Abel Gance, director of such films as “La Roue” and “J’Accuse,” read hundreds of books before turning out multiple scripts for “Napoleon” between 1924 and 1925, while begging for money from various organizations to finance his $17-million budget. He envisioned an epic and large-scale project: five films that would minutely detail the life of the revered figure, told with a cast of thousands and larger than life filmmaking. This project became an obsession with him, occupying his time and thoughts.
In a preface to his first screenplay, Gance laid out his principles and emotions to cast, crew, and audience. “You will have to rediscover within yourselves the enthusiasm, the madness, the power, mastery and self-sacrifice of the soldiers of Year II. Only personal initiative will matter. I want to feel as I watch your great surge of strength, powerful enough to sweep away all the dykes of our critical faculties…My friends, the screens of the whole world await you…For the first time in cinema, the audience must not be a spectator as it has always been up to now, leaving it the option of holding back and criticising. It must be an actor, just as it is in real life, as involved in the drama as the actors on the screen.”
Photo: Albert Dieudonné in “Napoleon.” Credit: San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
The April 24, 1927, New York Times reported on the mammoth “Napoleon” premiere in Paris, which the President of the Republic attended. London papers were calling the film “the dramatic event of the season,” as well as fashioning the most elaborate special effects seen to that time. “Mr. Gance is to be congratulated on producing film effects which are far in advance of anything which has yet been shown in France…Gance has thrown upon the screen the widest picture which has ever been shown.” A week later, the definitive six-hour version screened, recognized for its overpowering, forceful vision. Yet after only ten screenings, it was yanked from circulation in France and cut drastically.
“Daily Variety” reported on April 27, 1927, that Gaumont-Loew-Metro-Goldwyn had purchased the film for world distribution from the Societe-Generale de Films.
While the film generated a great response in Europe, even at its 1928 screening in Poland, it received a mostly chilly reception in the United States, especially since it had been butchered by Loew’s. The shortened length cut the story to shreds, making it difficult to follow.
The New York Times review on June 5, 1927, called the film “probably the greatest film that has ever been made in France,” praising its high standard of filmmaking, but felt it reduced the story of Napoleon too widely and failed to achieve what it set out to do. As it stated, “No camera is large enough to show so gigantic a figure without distorting the perspective, no lens exists with focus deep enough at once to catch its highlights and to probe the depth of its shadows. As to his stature there can surely be no doubt. Call him a superman, a demi-god. Vituperate him if you will. But always he towers gigantic.”
Reviewer James Graham Paris lavished praise on the camerawork and effects. “Technically the picture is of outstanding merit. The photography is all that can be desired.” To achieve such amazing scenes as the storm at sea and burning of the French fleet, Gance hired American Edward Scholl, a New York portrait painter, to sketch the battle at Toulon and many other scenes. Scholl was highly respected by the American film industry, as legendary director D. W. Griffith and renowned producer Thomas Ince employed him to enhance their films as well.
Paris particularly lavished praise on Gance’s creation of triple screens, which the director patented under the name Polyvision. “The triptych screen and triple projection M. Gance has invented and which were used to great advantage at the Paris Opera are a valuable contribution to the cinematograph’s art. Great things may come of them and it is conceivable that they may finally bring about a revolution in the showing of pictures.” Paris concluded that Gance’s film “is, in fact, a triumph of motion pictorial art.”
The December 21, 1927, Daily Variety called the film a flop. “It is the opinion of this reviewer that this chilly affair can never have any success outside of France and there only on account of the subject matter.”
MGM’s cut was so worthless and confusing that the Daily Variety reporter totally trashed the film on January 23, 1929, especially since the credited length was 70 minutes. “Napoleon” doesn’t mean anything to the great hord (sic) of picture house goers over here. Nap wasn’t good looking enough and they didn’t put in the right scenes for the flap over here…Al Gance gets the most credit. He directed. Whoever impersonated Napoleon looked more like Hearst.”
New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall reviewed the film for the February 17, 1929, paper, damning it with faint praise as well. He panned star M. Dieudonne’s acting, calling it posing and theatrical. Hall also described how the drastic cutting led to an abrupt ending, rendering the motion picture melodramatic and over the top. He did find some shots particularly elegant and dramatic, with fine attention to detail between the pickups.
Poor Gance continued to tinker with his film over the next several decades, editing and changing shots, expanding and shortening the film, but never promoting the original six-hour vision he had created.
In England, a young lad by the name Kevin Brownlow stumbled across the film, and immediately was swept away by its power. Over the next several decades, he began assembling footage to attempt to return it to grandeur. Painstakingly investigating vaults around the world, interviewing Gance, and madly researching the project, Brownlow has reconstituted the film to almost its complete length. Currently standing at over five and a half hours, the film is now recognized as one of silent’s and the world’s greatest films. San Francisco Silent Film Festival will present the film at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California March 24, 25, 31, and April 1, accompanied by the Oakland Symphony, led by composer Carl Davis. This re-premiere promises to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate Abel Gance and his remarkable film creation, while also recognizing the scholarship and dedication of Brownlow in restoring such a classic.
Hopefully audiences will leave the theatre praising the film and following the French critic’s Emile Vuillermoz’s 1920s words, “We must give the warmest possible welcome to this liberation of the screen’s vocabulary that we owe to a French film-maker.”