Napoleon Bonaparte has served Hollywood almost as long as there have been films. Next, Joaquin Phoenix puts on his funny hat, starring in Ridley Scott’s film Napoleonwill be released on November 22nd. But the best Napoleon film remains the first.
Napoleon is a 1927 silent film written, directed and produced by Paris-born film pioneer Abel Gance. He imagined a six-part epic about Bonaparte’s life, but only completed the first part. That was enough, as the six-hour film traced the leader (played by Albert Dieudonné) from his early life through the French Revolution, ending with his invasion of Italy in 1792. It was a technical breakthrough, introducing techniques such as quick-cutting, hand-cutting cameras and overlaying.
Gance also invented a system he called Polyvision, the Imax of his time, which used three cameras and three projectors for a panoramic effect. After a few screenings in Europe, MGM purchased the film, cut it down to about two hours, and released it in a limited release in the United States in 1929, when it received a great response from audiences who were more excited about the new talkies. (A 1935 release attempted to add a soundtrack but failed.) THR said in his review pictured below. “The sound system just made a loud movie louder.”)
However, over the decades, the film has been recognized for its greatness. A five-hour restoration was celebrated at the 1979 Telluride Film Festival in the presence of the frail, 89-year-old Gance – a triumphant if belated recognition of his towering contribution to cinema.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to login.