From Richard Schickel’s 1981 TIME review of a reissue of Napoleon: “On April 7, 1927, Charles de Gaulle and his friend, André Malraux, saw the Paris premiere of a new movie. At its end, the two great-men-to-be were on their feet, cheering. Malraux remembered De Gaulle waving his long arms and crying, ‘Bravo, magnifique!’ It is said that De Gaulle never forgot the images of glory he found that evening in Abel Gance’s epic reconstruction of another young soldier’s climb to greatness, Napoleon.”
No art form can duplicate the size and scope of historical film epics. They conjure the size, the spectacle, the very movieness of movies. To do film justice to the most powerful military figure in French history, Gance conceived the grandest of all silent-movie dreams: six features chronicling Napoleon’s extraordinary life. He ran out of money and sponsors after just one film, but it’s a beaut, whose restored versions run between 4 and 5 1/2 hrs. Beginning with a snow fight involving the child, embracing his love for Josephine (Gina Manès) and his irresistible rise through the tumult of the French Revolution and reaching its climax with the victorious Italian campaign, Gance’s biopic is as heroic and driven as its subject. Creating “a new alphabet for the cinema,” the director employed wildly swinging cameras to mime the milling chaos of revolutionary life and death, and for the final battle scenes, he sprayed the action across three screens — Cinerama and CinemaScope 25 years early. Over the years, Napoleon was recut, mutilated and all but lost; film historian Kevin Brownlow devoted decades to reviving it at its original epic length and scope. That the movie is not available on DVD in the U.S. is a crime against cinema genius.
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