Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Introduction / Napoleon (France, 1927)

I’m not a film critic; I’m not even a film studies student. I’m just an enthusiastic amateur who devotes much of his limited energy and intelligence to watching the best movies he can find. Nothing as self-indulgent as a parade of my favourite films, and nothing as self-important as an attempt to sketch a film canon, this blog will, I hope, simply be a succinct guide to some of the best, and most enjoyable, motion pictures the world has managed to produce. Just as similar selections, whether published by renowned critics or posted in lists on Amazon, have helped me to seek out and enjoy many of the most intense treats available to a filmgoer, I hope this blog will lead someone to at least one unforgettable film.

Films will not be featured in anything like an order of merit, or anything like an order at all, and every sentence should, by rights, be preceded by 'In my opinion…' or 'As far as I know…'

Napoleon (France, 1927)

Watching a great film on television is like looking at a great painting reproduced on a postage stamp – and Napoleon proves this more conclusively than any other movie. Abel Gance’s stirring hagiopic of France’s most storied leader is cinema on the grandest scale: daring, epic and inventive. Seeing this in 1927 it must have felt as if everything that could be done in a film was being done in this one. As Orson Welles would do in Citizen Kane, Gance employed all the techniques available to a filmmaker at the time and, when they proved insufficient, he invented new ones.

A five-hour silent film, the chief selling point of which is its director’s trailblazing command of filmmaking technique – as opposed, say, to its story, comedy or enduring star performances – is never going to be an easy sell to a 21st Century audience. That is a monumental shame, because I’d bet body parts there are thousands of filmgoers who will never consider watching this film who would be blown away by it if they did. While some silent classics – Zemlya, for example – probably don’t give out much of what the modern moviegoer is looking for, Napoleon remains exciting and accessible. It is not a relic, and watching it is never a chore. Though long, it is never ponderous and, though old, it never seems dated. Each scene has a point, and a purpose, and, as every moment is significant, our interest never wavers.

In addition to all that, Napoleon is also one of the best action movies ever made. Only Sergei Eisentein before, and only Sam Peckinpah since, ever brought chaos to the screen as assuredly as Gance does here, beginning with the glorious disarray of a snowball fight at the Brienne Academy boarding school, where a belligerent stripling named Bonaparte first displays a genius for warfare, and culminating in the initial surges of The Battle of Lodi.

I’ve always thought ‘breathtaking’ a silly word to use when you’re talking about a movie. Few films are good enough to stop me breathing (few films are good enough to stop me eating popcorn), but the first time I saw Napoleon was the only time in my life – that didn’t involve either speaking in public or unfastening a bra – when I had to remind myself to breathe. Napoleon is one of the great films, one of the few movies that can be discussed alongside any novel or play or piece of music and not make cinema seem a fledgling, second-tier art form by comparison. There are several versions of the film knocking about; if you’ve never seen any of them, stop reading this, go out and watch one.


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Scott Jordan Harris said...

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