The Destiny-Filled Glare of Napoléon


One of the lasting impressions left by Abel Gance’s film Napoléon (1927), now showing in a new, digitally remastered print at the BFI and the Lumière, is that it consists solely of close-ups and crowd scenes. This impression is too simple, but it doesn’t go away when you correct it with the modest, more diffuse truth. There are shots that do not linger on iconic faces, on an agitated Danton, a hazy Joséphine de Beauharnais, an unnamed dying solider, or the ever-present destiny-filled glare of Napoléon himself. There are houses and fields and mountains and oceans that are not packed with scrambling people, that do not represent a battle or a riot or a march or a pile-up of milling bodies at the National Convention. But why do we scarcely remember these exceptions?

The answer has something to do with Gance’s view of history, which hovers between forceful individual action and sheer seething mess, and even more to do with his sense of the cinema. These two elements are precisely what a movie, or Gance’s movie at least, can show to perfection. There is no place, it seems, between loneliness and engulfment among the masses.


This is Michael Wood’s excellent appraisal of Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), a high-water mark of the silent cinema. I particularly like the line “There is no place, it seems, between loneliness and engulfment among the masses.” Reminds me of somebody . . .

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