Napoleon / Napoleon Vu Par Abel Gance (1927)

“The destiny of an entire empire often hangs upon a single man.”

Napoleon Buonaparte (Albert Dieudonne) rises from humble obscurity to emerge as France’s greatest military leader.


Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary asserts that no other silent films are as “visually spectacular” as those of director Abel Gance, pointing out his prodigious experimental techniques — including “split-screen photography, hand-held cameras, super-impositions, rapid-fire editing, color tinting, and a mobile camera” — all in a movie made decades before The New Wave movement of the 1960s. Throughout the lengthy narrative (consisting of “six major episodes, each a film unto itself”), Gance manages to effectively humanize this larger-than-life historical icon, who is depicted as “always in the right place at the right time to help his troubled country”: in one of the film’s most celebrated sequences, we first see a willful young Napoleon (Vladimir Roudenko) as he engages in a snowball fight with his peers, while the seeds of this infamous leader’s insecurity, fury, and diligence are clearly laid out before us; later, we see surprising vulnerability as Napoleon nervously woos divorcee Josephine de Beauharnais (Gina Manes) and her two children.

Apparently Gance was stymied in his original desire to depict the entire arc of Napoleon’s life, so the resulting “truncated” film simply shows one man’s rise to power without the inevitable balance of his fall. Nonetheless, this is actually oddly effective as a rhetorical technique; by the end of the film, as split-screen cinematography shows a close-up of Napoleon’s face surrounded on either side by triumphant battle scenes, we understand that this was a man who was all too human, but simultaneously larger than life.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vladimir Roudenko as young Napoleon
  • Prodigious use of clever camera techniques, including split-screen images
  • Effective rapidfire editing
  • The justifiably famous “snowball scene”

Must See?
Yes. This massive French epic will take some time to get through, but is worth watching at least once.


(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

One Response to “Napoleon / Napoleon Vu Par Abel Gance (1927)”

  1. I find this film easy to admire but very difficult to like.

    Gance’s technique is admirable (although there should be more caution about claims that he “invented” all of the techniques that he deploys). My problem is with the portrayal of Napoleon. Curiously for an avowed pacifist (see ‘J’Accuse’), Gance seems to worship his war-mongering dictator. He also just isn’t very interesting.

    Gance’s fascination with Napoleon was something he returned to in ‘Battle of Austerlitz’ which I’ve seen recently. Although the Napoleon of the later film is more humanised (the film starts with a servant joking about his height), he still becomes a hero and the actor who portrays him can’t breathe any life into the character. A film about the Retreat from Moscow would have shown more about the reality of Napoleon.

    I prefer Gance’s ‘La Roue’ which has technical flair allied to a more involving plot – and the insane melodrama of his sound film ‘Venus Aveugle’ with his blind heroine taken on an imaginary voyage while her ship-prison never leaves port (“makes Stahl or Sirk look like Robert Bresson” as a great review on IMDB says).

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