From Now on, I AM THE REVOLUTION! Notes on Napoleon (1927)

Napoleon is… Look here’s the Wikipedia page, that’ll explain it. There is a lot worth celebrating about Gance’s epic. It manages to engage an audience for almost 6 hours with stunning visuals, expressive acting and now with Carl Davis’s help a brilliant musical landscape.
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The question that stuck me while watching this time was ‘is it actually a good film?’ The answer seems obvious, but overhearing a conversation about the cliches and cheesy moments made me think. The conversors decided it only seemed to be cliche due to its age, but I’d disagree. After studying a large range of silent cinema there is a tendency for exaggerated emotion. For instance … Decides to stay on the Moon with a man she’s only admitted feelings for hours before in Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon. The acting style is also very expressive, with silent cinema requiring a stage like use of large gesture to get the point of an exchange across. Napoleon however goes further than this. Numerous scenes show how amazing Napoleon is in comedic extremes. There are superimpositions of him and an eagle, childhood military genius by a snowball fight victory, sailing with a French flag, staring down a group of Corsican rebels with a determined look and all within the first 2 hours. This is beyond what’s seen in Die Nieberlugen, Intolerance or Ben Hur. It’s even more jarring as this is largely claimed to be a ‘historical’ account according to the intertitles.
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Is this then the case of bad cheesy writing saved by good production? I’d argue there are two things that save it from such a harsh judgement. First is the time period and second is Gance. After viewing other Gance epics, specifically here thinking of J’accuse and The End of the World, I would argue that Gance has an overly idealistic view of the world, but isn’t naive. While he believed Napoleon to be a great man, this film is clearly highly exaggerated on purpose. It’s the grand adventure story of Bonaparte, the swashbuckling version of his life. Now after the horrors of WWII it seems difficult to imagine a dictator being viewed as a hero, but before the stain of the Axis’ crimes it was possible.
(This does make the film slightly questionable politically now. There’s some odd moments as well where Napoleon is seen as the ultimate figure of revolution, rather than one of authority, which to the modern eye seem out of place. If suggest viewing the film historically, as a fragment of a world before the Nazis, where the Soviet Union could still be viewed positively and where a unified Europe seemed possible [Bonaparte’s speech on that incidentally getting a round of applause from the audience at the Festival Hall])
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Rather than being cliche and cheesy due to age or accident then, Napoleon is the attempt of Gance to turn his hero into a legendary figure. A creator of a grand country along the lines of the ancient figures of Arthur or Siegfried. The odd thing then is that it’s now viewed as a corner stone of art house film. Instead I’d say this is a real attempt at a populist, ‘fun’ version of the Bonaparte tale, with crowd pleasing appearances of famous historical figures and the tricolour.
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There’s little to compare it to now unfortunately, as there’s a real lack of creative and well made popular films, but the closest I can compare it to would be a Spielberg film, a Saving Private Ryan. Napoleon is a good film, a great film in fact, it’s just not a very straight one. It’s overblown and campy, filled with jokes and action. But who said that masterpieces couldn’t be fun anyway?
(Later I’ll return to Napoleon to do an in-depth examination of its layering and split screen effects, these were just some quick thoughts jotted down after watching it live on Sunday)
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