Napoléon (1927)

Genres - Epic, Historical Film  |   Sub-Genres - Historical Epic, Biopic [feature]  |   Run Time - 235 min.  |   Countries - France  |  
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Abel Gance's multi-camera, multi-projector masterpiece has been through so many versions that it's almost impossible to know where to start. Originally completed in 1927, the film was then shot and re-shot, with new material in sound in the '30s and '50s, and issued in a variety of versions that mixed old and new material with disconcerting abandon, nearly destroying the integrity of the original work. At long last, Kevin Brownlow stepped in and completed the definitive reconstruction of the film, which then premiered at the 1979 Telluride Film Festival. Gance, who was then 89, attended the festival, and had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see his 50-year-old film in something close to its original version. The restoration of the film was partly funded by Francis Ford Coppola, and the film was shown in New York to unanimous acclaim. More than 50 years ahead of its time, Gance's use of multiple cameras interlocked to produce a three-screen image dazzled audiences. Gance died shortly after the New York premiere at the age of ninety-two. Napoléon remains perhaps Gance's finest, and certainly his most ambitious work, and demonstrates that Gance's control of the medium was both sweeping and autocratic. More than any other narrative filmmaker of the period, Gance let his visuals rule his story, and his use of multiple screen imagery prefigures the tame experimentations of the Cinerama process by a quarter of a century. Gance's epic vision can only be appreciated on a theater screen; the epic scale of his cinematic canvas demands that viewer be completely immersed in the experience. Gance was a complete and uncompromising original as a filmmaker, and Napoléon is a unique work of art, such as one rarely sees in cinema. For such an epic production, it is ultimately a deeply personal film, in which the scale of the epic never threatens to overshadow the figure of its famed protagonist.