1927 *****
1982 Restoration runs 235 mins.
2000 Restoration runs 332 mins.

Upon completing this film for the very first time, I had an experience I had never had before. I was breathless. For the first time, I can honestly say that a film took my breath away. The word "awesome" isn't awe-inspiring enough to describe how I felt. Every passing second of this film brought new surprises and pulled my interest and attention closer and closer. I never wanted it to end. I'm sorry, but I just can't put into words exactly how I feel about this film. It's remarkable, groundbreaking, and the fastest four or five and a half hours you're ever likely to spend watching a film. I watched it in one sitting, and it was over before I realized it.

Okay, let me pause for a moment, catch my breath, and explain a little bit about the film itself.

Originally, Abel Gance wanted to make a series of films about the French leader, but this is as far as he got. He did revisit the life of Napoleon many, many years later in an unsuccessful, forgettable film titled Austerlitz. This film mainly covers Napoleon's younger years, up to his first Italian campaign, just after his marriage to Josephine. What makes the film so groundbreaking is its many varied techniques, most of which are utilized today and taken for granted. For example, Gance used many different filming techniques, from hand-held cameras, to strapping the camera onto a horse, to hanging the camera on wires, to rapid-fire style editing, to overlapping images, and most famously, to the mind-blowing climax. Napoleon marks the first appearance of "widescreen". By setting three cameras side-by-side-by-side, Gance shot simultaneously, creating a 3.99:1 widescreen image. In original theatrical showings, the final 20 minutes of the film were projected on to three separate screens, expanding the image, and consuming the audience. As I said before, though, words can not do the film justice.

So, do yourself a favor and buy a copy of this film. It's an essential film for any film collection, especially for the film buff. The word "masterpiece" is just to puny a word. Without a doubt, the greatest silent film ever made.

A note on the two main versions of the film available on home video: for a long time, we could only see this film on VHS or laserdisc in a four hour version, which is how I first watched it. This version features a score by Carmine Coppola and was produced by Francis Ford Coppola, released in 1981. In 2000, a five and a half hour version was released internationally, with a score by Carl Davis. It finally received a blu-ray release in 2016 in the U.K., so Region B only. The five and a half hour version, although better in picture and sound quality and better in the sense that it's a more complete version, suffers when it comes to the music. I prefer Carmine Coppola's score to Carl Davis's. Coppola's score seems to pack more of a punch, better accenting the action on the screen in such a way that I feel Abel Gance would approve.
Original theatrical aspect ratio: 1.33:1 (Final Act in 3.99:1)
Originally not rated; since rated G, despite brief flashes of nudity.

Albert Dieudonne + Vladimir Roudenko + Edmond Van Daele + Alexandre Koubitzky + Antonin Artaud + Abel Gance + Gina Manes

Written and Directed by
Abel Gance


Motion Pictures