Gance’s Revolutionizes Filmmaking Techniques

Filmmaker Abel Gance revolutionized the epic motion picture and expanded the horizons of world cinema by employing new techniques for his innovative treatment of the French national hero Napoleon Bonaparte.

Summary of Event

By the early 1920’s, Abel Gance had made twenty-three films, including J’Accuse! (1919) J’Accuse! (film)[Jaccuse!] and La Roue (1923), Roue, La (film) and had established himself as France’s most innovative avant-garde filmmaker, particularly in his rapid editing technique and camera movement in the melodrama La Roue. By 1923, he had started the screenplay for his monumental French epic Napoléon, a project that would take four years to complete. Gance completed the script in 1925, originally intending to make six massive films to capture the epic sweep of the life of Emperor Napoleon I. Each film was intended to run about ninety minutes, but in June, 1925, Gance’s major financier for the series withdrew his support. Eventually, Gance found new backers, but they were willing to fund only the first film of the series, which Gance then expanded to include as much of the original project as possible. [kw]Gance’s Napoléon Revolutionizes Filmmaking Techniques (1925-1927)[Gances Napoléon Revolutionizes Filmmaking Techniques (1925 1927)]
[kw]Napoléon Revolutionizes Filmmaking Techniques, Gance’s (1925-1927)
[kw]Filmmaking Techniques, Gance’s Napoléon Revolutionizes (1925-1927)
Napoléon (film)
Motion pictures;Napoléon
Filmmaking techniques
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Abel Gance[Gance]
[g]France;1925-1927: Gance’s Napoléon Revolutionizes Filmmaking Techniques[06300]
[c]Motion pictures;1925-1927: Gance’s Napoléon Revolutionizes Filmmaking Techniques[06300]
Gance, Abel
Debrie, André
Burel, Léonce-Henry
Canudo, Ricciotto
Faure, Élie
Epstein, Jean
Brownlow, Kevin

What Gance produced became a monument of the silent cinema and surely one of the most impressive and innovative biographical features ever made. The completed version, which premiered at the Paris Opera House on April 7, 1927, was epic in scope and length and traced Napoleon’s life from his childhood in Corsica through the turmoil of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, and concluded with Napoleon’s Italian campaign and his rise to power. The film was released about the time the new technology of talking pictures came into prominence and fell into obscurity during the sound period. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of film historian and archivist Kevin Brownlow, who collected whatever materials he could locate, the film was eventually restored during the 1970’s and 1980’s, partly under Gance’s supervision, to a version that ran to nearly six hours.

The achievement of the film is partly a matter of technical innovation but is mainly a consequence of Gance’s personal vision of what the cinema might become. Gance’s ideas in this regard were influenced by a number of artists and intellectuals with whom he was associated, particularly the journalist and editor Ricciotto Canudo. Other artists in this circle included the novelist Blaise Cendrars, Cendrars, Blaise who would eventually write more than twenty books; the avant-garde filmmaker Jean Epstein, who employed inventive visual techniques; and the art critic and historian Élie Faure, who influenced Gance’s belief in the power of the cinema as a collective and unifying art form that could create “visual symphonies.” Canudo and the others helped to shape Gance’s belief that the primary function of the cinema was to create dazzling spectacles, “cathedrals of light,” that would surprise, stun, and elevate the consciousness of the spectator as no other art form could do. In Napoléon, Gance attempted to put those notions to the test; his challenge was to find technicians who could help him to realize the vision.

A key talent who assisted Gance in expanding the horizons of the cinema was the inventor André Debrie, who, over his lifetime, personally patented nearly fifty cinema-related inventions, including the Parvo camera, the Matipo printer, an ultrahigh-speed camera developed during the mid-1920’s, and, perhaps most important for the achievement of Napoléon, the means of interlocking three synchronized cameras to create a panoramic triple-screen projection through the use of three projectors. The approach was both creative and innovative, permitting a cinema spectacle unlike any ever seen before, but it was also complicated and expensive, given that specially equipped theaters were needed to demonstrate the effect. The Gance-Debrie creation was in fact a precursor of what was later called Cinerama, but it represented the invention of a technology that proved to be ahead of its time. Sound was the novelty of choice at the time Gance’s film was released.

Most of Gance’s film, apart from location footage shot at Nice, Toulon, and Corsica, was made at the Billancourt Studio outside Paris. Gance recruited an army of technicians for the project, including seven cameramen, led by Léonce-Henry Burel and Jules Kruger, and six gifted assistant directors: Alexandre Volkoff, Victor Tourjansky, Henry Krauss, Henri Andréani, Marius Nalpas, and Anatole Litvak.

According to the French critic Léon Moussinac, Gance’s original ideas “enlarged the resources of cinematography” and the release of Napoléon marked a significant date “in the history of the technological development of the cinema.” Gance’s assistant director Alexandre Volkoff Volkoff, Alexandre later remembered Gance as being obsessed by the idea of “surpassing himself and all others.”

Gance was determined to liberate the camera in ways that had never been tried before with a demonstration of visual pyrotechnics that would astonish the viewer. A sequence concerning the young hero’s time at school experimented with camera movement for subjective effect. Gance, for example, instructed cameraman Jules Kruger Kruger, Jules to use a camera strapped to his chest, enabling the cameraman to run into the action of a snowball fight in which the young Napoleon marshals his forces to win the day. Kruger also mounted the camera on a sled that could be pushed into the fray. In a later sequence that begins with Napoleon’s escape from Corsica in a small boat, the camera was mounted on the boat to capture the turbulence at sea. In the chase to the sea, it was mounted on horseback. Intercut with Napoleon’s escape at sea are dramatized scenes of turmoil at the Convention Hall in Paris as the revolution takes a violent turn. Here, Gance mounted the camera on a pendulum that could be swung down and over the crowd.

The film became famous for its multiplication, manipulation, and orchestration of images. Gance had already experimented effectively with the use of rapid montage Montage, motion pictures for emotional effect in La Roue; in Napoléon, Gance carried this sort of experimentation to new levels of achievement. In places, the editing is so rapid that the effect is nearly subliminal. In addition to using this highly subjective montage technique, Gance experimented with layered, superimposed images, piling one image on top of another with up to sixteen overlays. Gance later remarked in Nelly Kaplan’s documentary film Abel Gance: Yesterday and Tomorrow (1964) that, as no single viewer could sort out all the images of a single, multilayered frame, no two people would “see” exactly the same action when viewing these overlays. Gance also experimented with a split-screen technique that divided the screen into four panels, then into six, then into nine, and superimposed full-frame images over the split screen. Used to show the young Napoleon engaged in a pillow fight, the technique created a perfect emblem of boyhood frenzy.

The film’s most impressive innovation, however, was its use of the triple-screen effect (in the drastically cut version of the film that was originally released in the United States, this effect was largely lost). The triple-screen projection is sometimes used to create a panoramic effect as Napoleon moves his army into Italy; at other times, three separate images are projected, the center screen carrying the main action and the outside screens framing it with ancillary action. In a final burst of patriotism, the three screens are tinted to present the image of the French tricolor flag over images of Napoleon at the height of his authority. The conclusion of Napoléon has not been surpassed in visual effect by any other film.


Few films in the history of cinema have had the impact of Napoléon. D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) Birth of a Nation, The (film) first served to make the cinema an art form to be taken seriously. Gance’s achievements came a few years after Griffith’s epic landmark and a few years before Sergei Eisenstein’s Eisenstein, Sergei groundbreaking work in the Soviet Union. Gance’s vision was perhaps even larger than Griffith’s (the two men did meet in the early 1920’s in New York); Gance’s intellectual sophistication surpassed Griffith’s, and his film techniques tended to advance rather than duplicate those of the American master. In the Soviet Union, Eisenstein had studied Gance’s earlier montage techniques, which influenced Eisenstein’s montage work in Strike (1925) and Potemkin (1925). When Napoléon was released in 1927, however, it served to demonstrate as no other film had done the full potential of a thoroughly cinematic spectacle. When it was rediscovered and revived fifty years later, Napoléon still had the power to astonish spectators in London, Paris, Washington, and New York. Cinema historians invariably would mention the film as an important technological landmark, but the original film was eclipsed by the novelty of sound and was unseen for decades.

It is surprising, however, that Napoléon, despite its achievements, was destined to lie dormant for more than half a century and become a nearly lost and forgotten masterpiece. This was partly a consequence of economics and popular taste. Gance’s film made demands on audiences because of its length, and it was also costly to mount properly in theaters, which had to be specially equipped to handle its triple-screen spectacle. The film also tended to be overlooked because of the craze for talking pictures.

Gance, however, was also a pioneer in developing sound film technology in France. In 1929, he patented his Perspective Sound technique, and he directed the first French talking feature, La Fin du monde (1931). In 1934, he completed a shortened, synchronized sound version of his masterpiece titled Napoléon Bonaparte. In later life, he would return repeatedly to the Napoleon project, reworking its content and its technology. In 1956, he developed an experimental program called “Magirama,” which used sequences from his earlier films. Gance’s Magirama spectacle in Paris paralleled the Cinemascope craze in the United States and was intended to demonstrate the potential of what Gance called “Polyvision.”

In his later years, Gance set about remaking Napoléon in collaboration with filmmaker Claude Lelouch. Lelouch, Claude The result of their work was released in 1972 under the title Bonaparte et la révolution
Bonaparte et la Révolution (film) and was grandly billed as “the masterpiece of masterpieces, the greatest film of the history of the cinema, four hours and thirty-five minutes in length, forty-five years in the making.” In fact, however, the Gance-Lelouch version is inferior in every way to the original masterpiece of 1927, which was being quietly restored by the British historian, archivist, and filmmaker Kevin Brownlow, who had devoted a lifetime to restoring Napoléon to an approximation of its original length.

In 1973, the Brownlow reconstruction, running to nearly five hours, was screened with the triple-screen triptych finale at the American Film Institute Theater in Washington, D.C., but the Brownlow reconstruction was blocked from wider distribution because of the Gance-Lelouch remake. Six years later, an expanded Brownlow version was screened at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado in August of 1979. Gance himself, more than ninety years old and in failing health, flew to Colorado to accept an award for his achievements on August 31. The film was also screened the next year at the London Film Festival of 1980 at the Empire Cinema, accompanied by music arranged by Carl Davis and played by a forty-three-piece orchestra. By that point, it had also been screened at the Pacific Film Archive and at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis.

In the United States, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola joined forces with film distributor Robert A. Harris to organize a Napoléon revival at Radio City Music Hall in New York. The film was well presented, accompanied by the sixty-piece American Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Carmine Coppola, who composed more than three and a half hours of original music for the premiere on January 23, 1981. Because of union regulations and financial considerations, the film was compromised, as the Radio City presentation was not to exceed four hours in running time. Among purists, this abridgment of the Coppola version raised questions about exactly whose Napoléon was being shown.

Despite Coppola’s shortening of the film, the Radio City premiere was a huge critical and financial success, playing to a packed house of six thousand people. The original screenings set for January 23 through January 25 quickly sold out, and additional performances were scheduled during the following weeks. The initial showing at Radio City was the first premiere of a silent film in New York City in more than fifty years, and it was treated as an unusual, spectacular, and newsworthy event, covered by network television news shows, by Time and Newsweek magazines, and by major newspapers in cities as distant as Toronto and Washington.

Napoléon was destined to become the media event of the year. The film then went on a national tour, playing other major American cities from coast to coast. The immediate impact of the film was that other talents imitated its inventions and technology. The ultimate impact was to come some fifty years after its original release, as Napoléon became recognized as the ultimate demonstration of the power and achievement of the silent cinema. Napoléon (film)
Motion pictures;Napoléon
Filmmaking techniques
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Abel Gance[Gance]

Further Reading

  • Abel, Richard. The French Cinema: The First Wave, 1915-1929. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984. Meticulously researched survey of French silent cinema covers Gance’s career through the period and includes a substantial treatment of Napoléon.
  • Brownlow, Kevin.“Napoleon”: Abel Gance’s Classic Film. 1983. Reprint. London: British Film Institute, 2005. Invaluable, definitive treatment of the film, written by the filmmaker and archivist responsible for its later reconstruction and revival, in collaboration with Gance himself. Expands on Brownlow’s earlier published research on the film.
  • _______. The Parade’s Gone By. . . . New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968. Beautifully produced book on the silent cinema, dedicated to Gance. Offers a substantial chapter on Napoléon based on interviews with Gance and other research culled from French sources; one of the best brief introductions to the film. Brownlow writes from the perspective of an informed enthusiast and collector who went on to become a filmmaker and cinema historian.
  • Gance, Abel. Napoleon. Translated by Moya Hassan, edited by Bambi Ballard. London: Faber, 1990. Presents Gance’s script, started in 1923, painstakingly edited to indicate scenes cut from extant prints of the film. Includes Gance’s comments to spectators written when the film was released in 1927, a list of cast and credits, and an introduction by Kevin Brownlow.
  • King, Norman. Abel Gance: A Politics of Spectacle. London: British Film Institute, 1984. Follows the response of left-wing critics who objected to Napoléon’s alleged “fascistic representation of Bonaparte as restorer of order in the midst of chaos.” Aims “to reinsert the political” into the discussion of Gance’s aesthetic and finds a polarity between “progressive form” and “reactionary content.” Includes filmography.
  • _______. “History and Actuality: Abel Gance’s Napoléon vu par Abel Gance.” In French Film: Texts and Contexts, edited by Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1990. Aptly calls Napoléon a “filmic chanson de geste” and asserts that it is a film “of and for its own time.” Admits that the film is innovative but argues that it is also authoritarian.
  • Kramer, Steven Philip, and James Michael Welsh. Abel Gance. Boston: Twayne, 1978. First book-length study of Gance’s life and career published in English attempts to place Gance within his cultural context. Includes a chapter on Napoléon as well as a reprint of an interview with Gance. Features chronology, selected bibliography, and filmography.
  • Lanzoni, Rémi Fournier. French Cinema: From Its Beginnings to the Present. New York: Continuum International, 2002. History of French filmmaking places Gance’s work within its larger social and cultural context. Includes photographs.

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