Napoléon (1927 film)


A monochrome photographic portrait of a handsome man in his late 20s wearing a French general's uniform from the 1790s and a cocked hat over stringy dark hair that reaches his shoulders

Directed by Abel Gance
Produced by Abel Gance
Written by Abel Gance
Music by
Cinematography Jules Kruger
Edited by
Distributed by Gaumont
Release dates
  • 7 April 1927 (1927-04-07)
Running time
330 minutes (and various other lengths)
Country France
Language Silent film with intertitles

Napoléon is a 1927 silent French epic film written, produced, and directed by Abel Gance that tells the story of Napoleon's early years. On screen, the title is Napoléon vu par Abel Gance, meaning "Napoleon as seen by Abel Gance". The film is recognised as a masterwork of fluid camera motion, produced in a time when most camera shots were static. Many innovative techniques were used to make the film, including fast cutting, extensive close-ups, a wide variety of hand-held camera shots, location shooting, point of view shots, multiple-camera setups, multiple exposure, superimposition, underwater camera, kaleidoscopic images, film tinting, split screen and mosaic shots, multi-screen projection, and other visual effects.[1][2] A revival of Napoléon in the mid-1950s influenced the filmmakers of the French New Wave.[3]

The film begins in Brienne-le-Château with youthful Napoleon attending military school where he manages a snowball fight like a military campaign, yet he suffers the insults of other boys. It continues a decade later with scenes of the French Revolution and Napoleon's presence at the periphery as a young army lieutenant. He returns to visit his family home in Corsica but politics shift against him and put him in mortal danger. He flees, taking his family to France. Serving as an officer of artillery in the Siege of Toulon, Napoleon's genius for leadership is rewarded with a promotion to brigadier general. Jealous revolutionaries imprison Napoleon but then the political tide turns against the Revolution's own leaders. Napoleon leaves prison, forming plans to invade Italy. He falls in love with the beautiful Joséphine de Beauharnais. The emergency government charges him with the task of protecting the National Assembly. Succeeding in this he is promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Interior, and he marries Joséphine. He takes control of the army which protects the French–Italian border, and propels it to victory in an invasion of Italy.

Gance planned for Napoléon to be the first of six films about Napoleon's career, a chronology of great triumph and defeat ending in Napoleon's death in exile on the island of Saint Helena. After the difficulties encountered in making the first film, Gance realised that the costs involved would make the full project impossible.

Napoléon was first released in a gala at the Palais Garnier (then the home of the Paris Opera) on 7 April 1927. Napoléon had been screened in only eight European cities when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the rights to it, but after screening it in London, it was cut drastically in length, and only the central panel of the three-screen Polyvision sequences were retained before it was put on limited release in the United States. There, the film was indifferently received at a time when talkies were just starting to appear. The film was restored in 1981 after twenty years' work by silent film historian Kevin Brownlow.


The scenario of the film as originally written by Gance was published in 1927 by Librairie Plon. Much of the scenario describes scenes that were rejected during initial editing, and do not appear in any known version of the film. The following plot includes only those scenes that are known to have been included in some version of the film. Not every scene described below can be viewed today.[4]

Part One


In the winter of 1779–1780, ten-year-old Napoleon Buonaparte (Vladimir Roudenko) is enrolled at Brienne College, a military school for sons of nobility, run by the religious Minim Fathers in Brienne-le-Château, France. The boys at the school are holding a snowball fight organized as a battlefield. Two bullies—Philippeaux (Petit Vidal) and Peccaduc (Roblin)—schoolyard antagonists of Napoleon, are leading the larger side, outnumbering the side that Napoleon fights for. These two sneak up on Napoleon with snowballs enclosing stones. A hardened snowball draws blood on Napoleon's face. Napoleon is warned of another rock-snowball by a shout from Tristan Fleuri (Nicolas Koline), the school's scullion and a friend to Napoleon. Napoleon recovers himself and dashes alone to the enemy snowbank to engage the two bullies in close combat. The Minim Fathers, watching the snowball fight from windows and doorways, applaud the action. Napoleon returns to his troops and encourages them to attack ferociously. He watches keenly and calmly as this attack progresses, assessing the balance of the struggle and giving appropriate orders. He smiles as his troops turn the tide of battle. Carrying his side's flag, he leads his forces in a final charge and raises the flag at the enemy stronghold.

The monks come out of the school buildings to discover who led the victory. A young military instructor, Jean-Charles Pichegru (René Jeanne), asks Napoleon for his name. Napoleon responds "Nap-eye-ony" in Corsican-accented French, and is laughed at by the others. Despite the fact Pichegru thought Napoleon had said "Paille-au-nez" (straw in the nose), Pichegru tells him that he will go far.

In class, the boys study geography. Napoleon is angered by the condescending textbook description of Corsica. He is taunted by the other boys, and kicked by the two bullies who hold flanking seats. Another of the class's island examples is Saint Helena, which puts Napoleon into a pensive daydream.

Unhappy in school, Napoleon writes about his difficulties in a letter to his family. A bully reports to a monk that Napoleon is hiding letters in his bed, and the monk tears the letter to pieces. Angry, Napoleon goes to visit the attic quarters of his friend Fleuri, a place of refuge where Napoleon keeps his captive bird, a young eagle that was sent to him from Corsica by an uncle. Napoleon tenderly pets the eagle's head, then leaves to fetch water for the bird. The two bullies take this opportunity to set the bird free. Napoleon finds the bird gone and runs to the dormitory to demand the culprit show himself. None of the boys admits to the deed. Napoleon exclaims that they are all guilty, and begins to fight them all, jumping from bed to bed. In the clash, pillows are split and feathers fly through the air as the Minim Fathers work to restore order. They collar Napoleon and throw him outside in the snow. Napoleon cries to himself on the limber of a cannon, then he looks up to see the young eagle in a tree. He calls to the eagle which flies down to the cannon barrel. Napoleon caresses the eagle and smiles through his tears.

The French Revolution

In 1792, the great hall of the Club of the Cordeliers is filled with revolutionary zeal as hundreds of members wait for a meeting to begin. The leaders of the group, Georges Danton (Alexandre Koubitzky), Jean-Paul Marat (Antonin Artaud) and Maximilien Robespierre (Edmond Van Daële), are seen conferring. Camille Desmoulins (Robert Vidalin), Danton's secretary, interrupts Danton to tell of a new song that has been printed, called "La Marseillaise". A young army captain, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle (Harry Krimer) has written the words and brought the song to the club. Danton directs de Lisle to sing the song to the club. The sheet music is distributed and the club learns to sing the song, rising in fervor with each passage. At the edge of the crowd, Napoleon (Albert Dieudonné), now a young army lieutenant, thanks de Lisle as he leaves: "Your hymn will save many a cannon."

Splashed with water in a narrow Paris street, Napoleon is noticed by Joséphine de Beauharnais (Gina Manès) and Paul Barras (Max Maxudian) as they step from a carriage on their way into the house of Mademoiselle Lenormand (Carrie Carvalho), the fortune teller. Inside, Lenormand exclaims to Joséphine that she has the amazing fortune to be the future queen.

On the night of 10 August 1792, Napoleon watches impassively as mob rule takes over Paris and a man is hung by revolutionaries. In front of the National Assembly, Danton tells the crowd that they have cracked the monarchy. Napoleon senses a purpose rising within him, to bring order to the chaos. The mob violence has tempered his character.

Napoleon, on leave from the French Army, travels to Corsica with his sister, Élisa (Yvette Dieudonné). They are greeted by his mother, Letizia Buonaparte (Eugénie Buffet) and the rest of his family at their summer home in Les Milelli. The shepherd Santo-Ricci (Henri Baudin) interrupts the happy welcome to tell Napoleon the bad news that Corsica's president, Pasquale Paoli (Maurice Schutz) is planning to give the island to the British. Napoleon declares his intention to prevent this fate.

Riding a horse and revisiting places of his childhood, Napoleon stops in Milelli gardens and considers whether to retreat and protect his family, or to advance into the political arena. Later in the streets of Ajaccio, Pozzo di Borgo (Acho Chakatouny) encourages a mob to put Napoleon to death for opposing Paoli, and the townsfolk surround the Buonaparte home. Napoleon stands outside the door and stares the crowd down, dispersing them silently. Paoli signs a death warrant, putting a price on Napoleon's head. Napoleon's brothers, Lucien (Sylvio Cavicchia) and Joseph (Georges Lampin), leave for Calvi to see if French authorities can intervene. Napoleon faces the danger alone, walking into an inn where men are arguing politics, all of whom would like to see him dead. He confronts the men and says, "Our fatherland is France ...with me!" His arguments subdue the crowd, but di Borgo enters the inn, accompanied by gendarmes. Napoleon evades capture and rides away on his horse, pursued by di Borgo and his men.

Upstairs in the Ajaccio town hall, a council declares war on France even while the French flag flies outside the window. Napoleon climbs up the balcony and takes down the flag, shouting to the council, "It is too great for you!" The men fire their pistols at Napoleon but miss as he rides away.

While chasing Napoleon, di Borgo stretches a rope across a road that Napoleon is likely to take. As expected, Napoleon rides toward the rope, but he draws his saber and cuts it down. Napoleon continues at high speed to the shore where he finds a small boat. He abandons the horse and gets into the boat, discovering that it has no oars or sail. He unfurls the French flag from Ajaccio and uses it as a sail. He is drawn out into the open sea.

Meanwhile in Paris, meeting in the National Assembly, the majority Girondists are losing to the Montagnards: Robespierre, Danton, Marat and their followers. Robespierre calls for all Girondists to be indicted. (Napoleon's boat is tossed by increasing waves.) The Girondists seek to flee but are repulsed. (A storm throws Napoleon back and forth in his boat.) The assembly hall rolls with the struggle between Girondists and Montagnards. (Napoleon grimly bails water to prevent his violently rocking boat from sinking.)

Later, in calm water, the small boat is seen by Lucien and Joseph Buonaparte aboard a French ship, Le Hasard. The larger ship is steered to rescue the unknown boat, and as it is pulled close, Napoleon is recognised, lying unconscious at the bottom, gripping the French flag. Waking, Napoleon directs the ship to a cove in Corsica where the Buonaparte family is rescued. The ship sails for France carrying a future queen, three future kings, and the future Emperor of France. A British warship, the HMS Agamemnon, sights Le Hasard, and a young officer, Horatio Nelson (Olaf Fjord), asks his captain if he might be allowed to shoot at the enemy vessel and sink it. The captain denies the request, saying that the target is too unimportant to waste powder and shot. As Le Hasard sails away, an eagle flies to the Buonapartes and lands on the ship's flag pole.

Part Two

Actor Albert Dieudonné played Napoleon

In July 1793, fanatic Girondist Charlotte Corday (Marguerite Gance) visits Marat in his home and kills him with a knife. Two months later, General Jean François Carteaux (Léon Courtois), in control of a French army, is ineffectively besieging the port of Toulon, held by 20,000 English, Spanish and Italian troops. Captain Napoleon is assigned to the artillery section and is dismayed by the obvious lack of French discipline. He confronts Carteaux in an inn run by Tristan Fleuri, formerly the scullion of Brienne. Napoleon advises Carteaux how best to engage the artillery against Toulon, but Carteaux is dismissive. An enemy artillery shot hits the inn and scatters the officers. Napoleon stays to study a map of Toulon while Fleuri's young son Marcellin (Serge Freddy-Karl) mimes with Napoleon's hat and sword. Fleuri's beautiful daughter Violine Fleuri (Annabella) admires Napoleon silently.

General Jacques François Dugommier (Alexandre Bernard) replaces Carteaux and asks Napoleon to join in war planning. Later, Napoleon sees a cannon being removed from a fortification and demands that it be returned. He fires a shot at the enemy, and establishes the position as the "Battery of Men Without Fear". French soldiers rally around Napoleon with heightened spirits. Dugommier advances Napoleon to the position of commander-in-chief of the artillery.

French troops under Napoleon prepare for a midnight attack. Veteran soldier Moustache (Henry Krauss) tells 7-year-old Marcellin, now a drummer boy, that the heroic drummer boy Joseph Agricol Viala was 13 when he was killed in battle. Marcellin takes courage; he expects to have six years of life left. Napoleon orders the attack forward amidst rain and high wind. A reversal causes Antoine Christophe Saliceti (Philippe Hériat) to name Napoleon's strategy a great crime. Consequently, Dugommier orders Napoleon to cease attacking, but Napoleon discusses the matter with Dugommier and the attack is carried forward successfully despite Saliceti's warnings. English cannon positions are taken in bloody hand-to-hand combat, lit by lightning flashes and whipped by rain. Because of the French advance, English Admiral Samuel Hood (W. Percy Day) orders the burning of the moored French fleet before French troops can recapture the ships. The next morning, Dugommier, seeking to promote Napoleon to the rank of brigadier general, finds him asleep, exhausted. An eagle beats its wings as it perches on a tree next to Napoleon.

Part Three

After being shamed in Toulon, Saliceti wants to put Napoleon on trial. Robespierre says he should be offered the command of Paris, but if he refuses he will be tried. Robespierre, supported by Georges Couthon (Louis Vonelly) and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just (Abel Gance), condemns Danton to death. Saint-Just puts Joséphine into prison at Les Carmes where she is comforted by General Lazare Hoche (Pierre Batcheff). Fleuri, now a jailer, calls for "De Beauharnais" to be executed, and Joséphine's ex-husband, Alexandre de Beauharnais (Georges Cahuzac) rises to accept his fate. Elsewhere, Napoleon is also imprisoned for refusing to serve under Robespierre. He works out the possibility of building a canal to Suez as Saliceti taunts him for not trying to form a legal defense.

In an archive room filled with the files of condemned prisoners, clerks Bonnet (Boris Fastovich-Kovanko) and La Bussière (Jean d'Yd) work secretly with Fleuri to destroy (by eating) some of the dossiers including those for Napoleon and Joséphine. Meanwhile, at the National Assembly, Violine with her little brother Marcellin, watches from the gallery. Voices are raised against Robespierre and Saint-Just. Jean-Lambert Tallien (Jean Gaudrey) threatens Robespierre with a knife. Violine decides not to shoot Saint-Just with a pistol she brought. Back at the archives, the prison clerks are given new dossiers on those to be executed by guillotine: Robespierre, Saint-Just and Couthon.

Joséphine and Napoleon are released from their separate prisons. Napoleon declines the request by General Aubry to command infantry in the War in the Vendée under General Hoche, saying he would not fight Frenchman against Frenchman when 200,000 foreigners were threatening the country. He is given a minor map-making command as punishment for refusing the greater post. He draws up plans for an invasion of Italy. In Nice, General Schérer (Alexandre Mathillon) sees the plans and laughs at the foolhardy proposal. The plans are sent back, and Napoleon pastes them up to cover a broken window in the poor apartment he shares with Captain Marmont (Pierre de Canolle), Sergeant Junot (Jean Henry) and the actor Talma (Roger Blum). Napoleon and Junot see the contrast of cold, starving people outside of wealthy houses.

Joséphine convinces Barras to suggest to the National Assembly that Napoleon is the best man to quell a royalist uprising. On 3 October 1795 Napoleon accepts, and supplies 800 guns for defense. Directed by Napoleon, Major Joachim Murat (Genica Missirio) seizes a number of cannon to fight the royalists. Di Borgo shoots at Napoleon but misses; di Borgo is then wounded by Fleuri's accidental musket discharge. Saliceti is prevented from escaping in disguise. Napoleon sets Saliceti and di Borgo free. Joseph Fouché (Guy Favière) tells Joséphine that the noise of the fighting is Napoleon "entering history again". Napoleon is made General in Chief of the Army of the Interior to great celebration.

A Victim's Ball is held at Les Carmes, formerly the prison where Joséphine was held. To amuse the attendees, Fleuri re-enacts the tragedy of the executioner's roll-call. The beauty of Joséphine is admired by Thérésa Tallien (Andrée Standard) and Madame Juliette Récamier (Suzy Vernon), and Napoleon is also fascinated. He plays chess with Hoche, beating him as Joséphine watches and entices Napoleon with her charms. The dancers at the ball become uninhibited; the young women begin to dance partially nude.

French actress Gina Manès played Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon's wife.

In his army office, Napoleon tells 14-year-old Eugène de Beauharnais (Georges Hénin) that he can keep his executed father's sword. The next day, Joséphine arrives with Eugène to thank Napoleon for this kindness to her only son. The general staff officers wait for hours while Napoleon clumsily tries to convey his feelings for Joséphine. Later, Napoleon practises his amorous style under the guidance of his old friend Talma, the actor. Napoleon visits Joséphine daily. Violine is greatly hurt to see Napoleon's attentions directed away from herself. In trade for agreeing to marry Napoleon, Joséphine demands of Barras that he place Napoleon in charge of the French Army of Italy. Playing with Joséphine's children, Napoleon narrowly misses seeing Barras in her home. Joséphine hires Violine as a servant.

Napoleon plans to invade Italy. He wishes to marry Joséphine as quickly as possible before he leaves. Hurried preparations go forward. However, on the wedding day, 9 March 1796, Napoleon is two hours late. He is found in his room planning the Italian campaign, and the wedding ceremony is rushed. That night, Violine and Joséphine both prepare for the wedding bed. Violine prays to a shrine of Napoleon. Joséphine and Napoleon embrace at the bed. In the next room, Violine kisses a shadowy figure of Napoleon that she has created from a doll.

Just before leaving Paris, Napoleon enters the empty National Assembly hall at night, and sees the spirits of those who had set the Revolution in motion. The ghostly figures of Danton and Saint-Just speak to Napoleon, and demand answers from him regarding his plan for France. All the spirits sing "La Marseillaise".

Only 48 hours after his wedding, Napoleon leaves Paris in a coach for Nice. He writes dispatches, and letters to Joséphine. Back in Paris, Joséphine and Violine pray at the little shrine to Napoleon.

Napoleon speeds to Albenga on horseback to find the army officers resentful and the soldiers starving. He orders a review of the troops. The troops respond quickly to the commanding presence of Napoleon and bring themselves to perfect attention. Fleuri, now a soldier, tries and fails to get a hint of recognition from Napoleon. The Army of Italy is newly filled with fighting spirit. Napoleon encourages them for the coming campaign into Italy, the "honour, glory and riches" which will be theirs upon victory. The underfed and poorly armed force advances into Montenotte and takes the town. Further advances carry Napoleon to Montezemolo. As he gazes upon the Alps, visions appear to him of future armies, future battles, and the face of Joséphine. The French troops move forward triumphantly as the vision of an eagle fills their path, a vision of the red, white and blue French flag waving before them.

Primary cast


The film features Gance's interpretation of the birth of the song "La Marseillaise", the national anthem of France. In the film, the French singer Maryse Damia portrays the spirit of the song. "La Marseillaise" is played by the orchestra repeatedly during a scene at the Club of the Cordeliers, and again at other points in the plot. During the 1927 Paris Opera premiere, the song was sung live by Alexandre Koubitzky to accompany the Cordeliers scene. Koubitzky played Danton in the film but he was also a well-known singer. Gance had earlier asked Koubitzky and Damia to sing during the filming of the Cordeliers scene to inspire the cast and extras.[6] Kevin Brownlow wrote in 1983 that he thought it was "daring" of Gance "to make a song the highpoint of a silent film!"[7]

The majority of the film is accompanied by incidental music. For this material, the original score was composed by Arthur Honegger in 1927 in France. A separate score was written by Werner Heymann in Germany, also in 1927. In pace with Brownlow's efforts to restore the movie to something close to its 1927 incarnation, two scores were prepared in 1979–1980; one by Carl Davis in the UK and one by Carmine Coppola in the US.[8]

Beginning in late 1979, Carmine Coppola composed a score incorporating themes taken from various sources such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Hector Berlioz, Bedřich Smetana, Felix Mendelssohn and George Frideric Handel. He composed three original themes: an heroic one for Napoleon, a love theme for scenes with Josephine, and a Buonaparte family theme.[2] He also used French revolutionary songs that were supplied by Davis in early 1980 during a London meeting between Coppola, Davis and Brownlow.[8] Two such songs were "Ah! ça ira" and "La Carmagnole". Coppola returns to "La Marseillaise" as the finale. Coppola's score was heard first in New York at Radio City Music Hall performed for very nearly four hours, accompanying a film projected at 24 frames per second as suggested by producer Robert A. Harris.[8] Coppola included some sections of music carried solely by an organist to relieve the 60-piece orchestra.[2]

Working quickly from September 1980, Davis arranged a score based on selections of classical music; especially the Eroica Symphony by Beethoven who had initially admired Napoleon as a liberator, and had dedicated the symphony to Napoleon.[9] Taking this as an opportunity to research the music Napoleon would have heard, Davis also used folk music from Corsica, French revolutionary songs, a tune from Napoleon's favorite opera (Nina by Giovanni Paisiello) and pieces by other classical composers who were active in France in the 18th century.[9] Davis uses "La Marseillaise" as a recurring theme and returns to it during Napoleon's vision of ghostly patriots at the National Assembly. In scoring the film, Davis was assisted by David Gill and Liz Sutherland; the three had just completed the Thames Television documentary series Hollywood (1980), on the silent film era. To accompany a screening of 4 hours 50 minutes shown at 20 frames per second during the 24th London Film Festival, Davis conducted the Wren Orchestra.[9] Following this, work continued on restoration of the film with the goal of finding more footage to make a more complete version. In 2000, Davis lengthened his score and a new version of the movie was shown in London, projected at 20 frames per second for 5 hours 32 minutes. The 2000 score was performed in London in 2004 and 2013, and also in Oakland, California, in 2012, with Davis conducting local orchestras.

Triptych sequence

Abel Gance wrote, produced, directed and acted in the film.

Polyvision is the name that French film critic Émile Vuillermoz gave to a specialised widescreen film format devised exclusively for the filming and projection of Gance's Napoléon.[10] It involves the simultaneous projection of three reels of silent film arrayed in a horizontal row, making for a total aspect ratio of 4:1 (3× 1.33:1).[11] Director Abel Gance was worried that the film's finale would not have the proper impact by being confined to a small screen. Gance thought of expanding the frame by using three cameras next to each other. This is probably the most famous of the film's several innovative techniques.[12] Though American filmmakers began experimenting with 70mm widescreen (such as Fox Grandeur) in 1929, widescreen did not take off until CinemaScope was introduced in 1953.

Polyvision was only used for the final reel of Napoleon, to create a climactic finale. Filming the whole story in Polyvision was logistically difficult as Gance wished for a number of innovative shots, each requiring greater flexibility than was allowed by three interlocked cameras. When the film was greatly trimmed by the distributors early on during exhibition, the new version only retained the center strip in order to allow projection in standard single-projector cinemas. Gance was unable to eliminate the problem of the two seams dividing the three panels of film as shown on screen, so he avoided the problem by putting three completely different shots together in some of the Polyvision scenes. When Gance viewed Cinerama for the first time in 1955, he noticed that the widescreen image was still not seamless, that the problem was not entirely fixed.[13]

Released versions and screenings

Date Title Length Editor Score Venues Triptych Format
April 1927 Napoléon 5400 m (4:10) Beaugé, MargueriteMarguerite Beaugé Honegger, ArthurArthur Honegger Paris Opera toned 35 mm
May 1927 Napoléon (version définitive) 12,800 m (9:22) Gance, AbelAbel Gance Honegger, ArthurArthur Honegger Apollo Theatre, Paris none 35 mm
October 1927 Napoléon (UFA) under 3:00 Universum Film AG Heymann, WernerWerner Heymann Germany and Central Europe toned 35 mm
November 1927 Napoléon total 4:10, shown in two seatings, some scenes repeated Gance, AbelAbel Gance Honegger, ArthurArthur Honegger Marivaux Theatre, Paris toned, shown twice 35 mm
Winter 1927–28 Napoléon various French provinces 35 mm
ca. 1928 Napoleon (version définitive as sent to the U.S. in 29 reels) 29,000 feet (8,800 m) (6:43) Gance, AbelAbel Gance none none 35 mm
March–April 1928 Napoléon (Gaumont) Shown in two parts totaling about 3:00 Gaumont Film Company Honegger, ArthurArthur Honegger Gaumont-Palace none 35 mm
June 1928 Napoleon (UK 1928) 11,400 m (7:20) Gance, AbelAbel Gance Honegger, ArthurArthur Honegger UK toned 35 mm
January 1929 Napoleon (USA 1929) 8,000 feet (2,400 m) (1:51) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer USA none 35 mm
ca. 1928 Napoléon (Pathé-Rural) 17 reels Rural France none 17.5 mm
1928 Napoléon (Pathé-Baby) 9 reels French homes none 9.5 mm
1929 Napoléon (Pathescope) 6 reels UK homes none 9.5 mm
1935 Napoléon Bonaparte vu et entendu par Abel Gance 13,000 feet (4,000 m), later 10,000 feet (3,000 m) Gance, AbelAbel Gance Verdun, HenriHenri Verdun none 35 mm
1935 Napoléon Bonaparte (Film-Office version) 5,000 feet (1,500 m) Gance, AbelAbel Gance Verdun, HenriHenri Verdun none 16 mm
9.5 mm
8 mm
1935 Napoléon Bonaparte (Studio 28 version) black and white 35 mm
1953 Napoléon total 19 reels with triptyques Langlois, HenriHenri Langlois Epstein, MarieMarie Epstein Festival of Venise toned 35 mm
1954 Napoléon total 19 reels Langlois, HenriHenri Langlois Epstein, MarieMarie Epstein Festival of São Paulo toned 35 mm
1965 Napoléon more completed Langlois, HenriHenri Langlois Cinematheque Francaise none 35 mm
1971 Bonaparte et la Révolution 4:35 at 24 fps (3:00 for TV Version) Gance, AbelAbel Gance none 35 mm
1979 Napoléon (Brownlow) 4:55 at 20 fps Brownlow, KevinKevin Brownlow None: ad lib accompaniment on electronic piano[14] Telluride Film Festival, Colorado black and white 35 mm
1980 Napoléon (Brownlow 1980) 4:50 at 20 fps Brownlow, KevinKevin Brownlow Davis, CarlCarl Davis Edinburgh Film Festival

National Film Theatre, London

black and white 35 mm
1980 Napoleon (Coppola) 4:00 at 24 fps Coppola, Francis FordFrancis Ford Coppola Coppola, CarmineCarmine Coppola USA black and white 35 mm
70 mm
1983 Napoléon (Brownlow 1983) 5:13 at 20 fps Brownlow, KevinKevin Brownlow Davis, CarlCarl Davis Cinematheque Francaise black and white 35 mm
1983 Napoléon (Brownlow 1983 TV cut) 4:50 at 20 fps Brownlow, KevinKevin Brownlow Davis, CarlCarl Davis Channel 4 (UK television) none 35 mm
1983 Napoléon (Brownlow 1983) 5:13 at 20 fps Brownlow, KevinKevin Brownlow Davis, CarlCarl Davis Cinematheque Francaise black and white 35 mm
1985 Napoleon (Brownlow 1983) 5:13 at 20 fps Brownlow, KevinKevin Brownlow Coppola, CarmineCarmine Coppola Zénith, Paris none 35 mm
1992 Napoléon (Bambi Ballard 1992) 5:30 at 20 fps Ballard, BambiBambi Ballard Constant, MariusMarius Constant Cinémathèque française (Paris Arche de la Défense) letterboxed inside 4:3 35 mm
2000 Napoléon (Brownlow 2000) 5:30 at 20 fps Brownlow, KevinKevin Brownlow Davis, CarlCarl Davis Royal Festival Hall toned 35 mm
2001 8th and 9th of May Napoléon (Bambi Ballard 1992) 5:30 at 20 fps Ballard, BambiBambi Ballard Constant, MariusMarius Constant Forum Grimaldi. Monaco B&W 35 mm
2004 Napoléon (Brownlow 2004) 5:32 at 20 fps Brownlow, KevinKevin Brownlow Davis, CarlCarl Davis Royal Festival Hall toned 35 mm
2004 Napoléon (Bambi Ballard 1992) 5:30 at 20 fps Ballard, BambiBambi Ballard Constant, MariusMarius Constant Opéra Bastille. Paris B&W 35 mm
2012 Napoléon (Brownlow 2004) 5:32 at 20 fps Brownlow, KevinKevin Brownlow Davis, CarlCarl Davis Paramount Theatre (Oakland, California) toned 35 mm
2013 Napoléon (Brownlow 2004) 5:32 at 20 fps Brownlow, KevinKevin Brownlow Davis, CarlCarl Davis Royal Festival Hall, London toned 35 mm
2014 Napoléon (Brownlow 2004) 5:32 at 20 fps Brownlow, KevinKevin Brownlow Davis, CarlCarl Davis Ziggo Dome, Amsterdam toned 35 mm
2016 Napoléon (Brownlow 2004) 5:32 Brownlow, KevinKevin Brownlow Davis, CarlCarl Davis Royal Festival Hall - London, BFI Southbank, Bristol Watershed toned DCP, DVD, BluRay


Abel Gance (left) and composer Arthur Honegger in 1926

The film historian Kevin Brownlow conducted the reconstruction of the film in the years leading up to 1980, including the Polyvision scenes. As a boy, Brownlow had purchased two 9.5 mm reels of the film from a street market. He was captivated by the cinematic boldness of short clips, and his research led to a lifelong fascination with the film and a quest to reconstruct it. On 31 August 1979, Napoléon was shown to a crowd of hundreds at the Telluride Film Festival, in Telluride, Colorado.[15] The film was presented in full Polyvision at the specially constructed Abel Gance Open Air Cinema, which is still in use today. Gance was in the audience until the chilly air drove him indoors after which he watched from the window of his room at the New Sheridan Hotel. Kevin Brownlow was also in attendance and presented Gance with his Silver Medallion.[16][17][18]

A group of friends gathers outside of the Chicago Theatre in 1981 to see Francis Ford Coppola's version of Napoléon

Brownlow's 1980 reconstruction was re-edited and released in the United States by American Zoetrope (through Universal Pictures) with a score by Carmine Coppola performed live at the screenings. The restoration premiered in the United States at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on 23–25 January 1981; each performance showed to a standing room only house. Gance could not attend because of poor health. At the end of the 24 January screening, a telephone was brought onstage and the audience was told that Gance was listening on the other end and wished to know what they had thought of his film. The audience erupted in an ovation of applause and cheers that lasted several minutes. The acclaim surrounding the film's revival brought Gance much-belated recognition as a master director before his death only 11 months later, in November 1981.[19]

Another restoration was made by Brownlow in 1983. When it was screened at the Barbican Centre in London, French actress Annabella, who plays the fictional character Violine in the film (personifying France in her plight, beset by enemies from within and without), was in attendance. She was introduced to the audience prior to screenings and during one of the intervals sat alongside Kevin Brownlow, signing copies of the latter's book about the history and restoration of the film.

Poster made for the 1980 Coppola theatrical run

Brownlow re-edited the film again in 2000, including previously missing footage rediscovered by the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. Altogether, 35 minutes of reclaimed film had been added, making the total film length of the 2000 restoration five and a half hours.

The film is properly screened in full restoration very rarely due to the expense of the orchestra and the difficult requirement of three synchronised projectors and three screens for the Polyvision section. One such screening was at the Royal Festival Hall in London in December 2004, including a live orchestral score of classical music extracts arranged and conducted by Carl Davis. The screening itself was the subject of hotly contested legal threats from Francis Ford Coppola via Universal Studios to the British Film Institute over whether the latter had the right to screen the film without the Coppola score. An understanding was reached and the film was screened for both days.[20] Coppola's single-screen version of the film was last projected for the public at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in two showings in celebration of Bastille Day on 13–14 July 2007, using a 70 mm print struck by Universal Studios in the early 1980s.[21]

At the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in July 2011, Brownlow announced that there would be four screenings of his 2000 version, shown at the original 20 frames per second, with the final triptych and a live orchestra, to be held at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California, from 24 March to 1 April 2012. These, the first US screenings of his 5.5-hour-long restoration were described as requiring three intermissions, one of which was a dinner break. Score arranger Carl Davis led the 46-piece Oakland East Bay Symphony for the performances.[22][23][24][25][1]

At a screening of Napoleon on 30 November 2013, at the Royal Festival Hall in London, full to capacity, the film and orchestra received a standing ovation, without pause, from the front of the stalls to the rear of the balcony. Davis conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in an outstanding performance that spanned a little over eight hours, including a 100-minute dinner break.[26][27]

On 13 November 2016, Napolėon was the subject of the Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. The BBC website announced: Historian Kevin Brownlow tells Francine Stock about his 50 year quest to restore Abel Gance's silent masterpiece Napoleon to its five and half hour glory, and why the search for missing scenes still continues even though the film is about to be released on DVD for the very first time.[28]


Napoleon is widely considered to be one of the greatest and most innovative films of the silent era. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 92% of critics have given the film a positive review, based upon 12 reviews, with an average score of 8.7/10, making the film a "Certified Fresh" on the website's rating system.[29]

The 2012 screening has been acclaimed, with Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle calling the film, "A rich feast of images and emotions." He also praised the triptych finale, calling it, "An overwhelming and surprisingly emotional experience."[30]

Director Stanley Kubrick was not a fan of the film, saying in an interview "I found it really terrible. Technically [Gance] was ahead of his time and he introduced new film techniques - in fact Eisenstein credited him with stimulating his initial interest in montage - but as far as story and performance goes it's a very crude picture.[31]

Home media

For many years the Brownlow restoration with Carl Davis' score was unavailable for home viewing.[32] However, in 2016 the BFI and Photoplay Productions announced that it would be released on DVD, Blu-ray and for streaming via the BFI Player on 21 November 2016.[33]

Francis Ford Coppola's 1980 edit (3 hours and 43 minutes), accompanied by Carmine Coppola's score and projected at 24 fps, has been released on VHS and Laserdisc in the US, and in Australia on a Region 4 DVD.[32] These have also been pirated on DVDs emanating from Europe and elsewhere. To suit home viewers watching on a single standard-width television screen, the triptych portion is letterboxed, such that image height is reduced to one-third for that portion of the film.[34]

See also


  1. 1 2 McKernan, Luke "urbanora" (26 March 2012). "Napoléon vu par Kevin Brownlow". The Bioscope: Reporting on the world of early and silent cinema. Retrieved 28 March 2012.
  2. 1 2 3 "Francis Ford Coppola presents Napoleon: Abel Gance's 1927 masterpiece" (PDF). New York City: The Images Film Archive. 31 January – 1 February 1981. Retrieved 28 March 2012.
  3. Brownlow 1968, p. 518
  4. Brownlow 1983, p. 264
  5. Brownlow 1983, pp. 261–263
  6. Brownlow 1983, p. 152
  7. Brownlow 1983, p. 16
  8. 1 2 3 Brownlow 1983, p. 236
  9. 1 2 3 Brownlow 1983, p. 237
  10. Brownlow 1968, p. 559
  11. Mast, Gerald; Kawin, Bruce F. (2006). A Short History of the Movies. Pearson/Longman. p. 248. ISBN 0-321-26232-8.
  12. Brownlow 1983, pp. 132–138
  13. Brownlow 1983, p. 23
  14. Brownlow 1983, p. 233
  15. Schrieger, Charles (3 September 1979). "Telluride: High Heaven for Cineastes". Los Angeles Times. p. D6.
  16. Pollock, Dale (20 November 1983). "Rescuing a monument". Los Angeles Times. p. M14.
  17. Benson, Sheia (15 November 1981). "Abel Gance's Spirit Is Liberated At Last". Los Angeles Times. p. L2.
  18. San Francisco Silent Film Festival (17 December 2011). "Abel Gance's Napoléon Presented in 'Polyvision'". News. Retrieved 3 March 2012.
  19. Brownlow 2004, pp. 217–236
  20. Jones, Rick (4 December 2004). "Napoleon – battle for the sound of silents". The Times. London: News International. Retrieved 22 January 2007. Who owns Napoleon?
  21. Thomas, Kevin (11 July 2007). "'Napoleon,' the man and mostly the myth". Los Angeles Times. p. E4. Retrieved 3 March 2012.
  22. "San Francisco Silent Film Festival to Present Abel Gance's Napoleon". Movie News: Top News Stories. Turner Classic Movies. 14 July 2011. Retrieved 17 July 2011.
  23. "Silent Film Festival to present 'Napoleon'". San Francisco Silent Film Festival. 15 July 2011. Retrieved 17 July 2011.
  24. "Calendar of Events". Oakland: Paramount Theatre of the Arts. Retrieved 17 July 2011.
  25. Gladysz, Thomas (14 July 2011). "Napoleon's cinematic exile to end in 2012". Retrieved 17 July 2011.
  26. "Philharmonia Orchestra – Napoléon: film screening with live orchestra". Southbank Centre. Retrieved 12 February 2013.
  27. "A guide to London for Napoléon tourists". Silent London. 19 January 2013. Retrieved 12 February 2013.
  28. BBC Radio 4 network. The Film Programme episode of 13 November 2016 dedicated to Brownlow's story with the film and news of its release on DVD:, retrieved 13 November 2016
  29. Rotten Tomatoes
  30. LaSalle, Mick (26 March 2012). "Napoleon Review: Rich feast of images, emotions". San Francisco Chronicle.
  31. Gelmis, Joseph (1970). The Film Director as Superstar. Garden City, New York: Doubleday. p. 298.
  32. 1 2 "Frequently Asked Questions". Napoleon: Abel Gance's masterpiece. San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Retrieved 28 March 2012.
  33. "Kevin Brownlow's Napoléon to Make Long-Awaited Début on Home Video". Brenton Film. Retrieved 1 October 2016.
  34. "Napoleon (1927) (1929)". Retrieved 17 July 2011.
  • Brownlow, Kevin (1968). The Parade's Gone By... University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-03068-0. 
  • Brownlow, Kevin (1983). Napoleon: Abel Gance's classic film (1 ed.). New York: Knopf. ISBN 0-394-53394-1. 
  • Brownlow, Kevin (2004). Napoleon: Abel Gance's classic film (2 ed.). London: Photoplay. ISBN 1-84457-077-0. 
This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 12/2/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.