#37. Napoleon (1927)

Napoleon is over five hours long and it’s silent, and it’s a period piece, and also it’s one of those war epics where we gets lots of scenes with old guys in uniform talking strategy in big rooms, which is boring as hell, it’s all boring, or most of it, I guess I liked the first hour, but fuck, halfway past the second hour I was just wanting it to end, wanting to start the next movie, because I was thinking, too, of Dr. Mabuse, which came out long before Napoleon and, at 4.5 hours, manages to be swift and engaging throughout, whereas Napoleon (which is helmed by a guy, Abel Gance, whose previous movie, The Wheel, was also very freakishly long but managed to be pleasant (twss)) just feels so self aware, so proud, that it’s hard to become lost in the actual story for more than the length of a setpiece, of which many — like the snowball fight — are definitely impressive, enjoyable, but really the key word there that is “enjoyable” because — giving credit where it’s due — the whole movie is impressive, even for a modern audience, but very little of it is actually any fun, which I think ought to be a primary concern for any filmmaker, it got me wondering too if like it’s even still possible to enjoy this movie as a story anymore because, yes, it’s very pretty, and yes it’s well-crafted, but, apart from Napoleon himself (Albert Dieudonne and, as a child, Vladimir Roudenko), none of the characters seem particularly fleshed out, nor was the drama all that engaging, although I’m definitely willing to concede that, sure, maybe my disdain for the movie just has to do with my not being trained enough to enjoy it (and I’ll also concede that such a realization would have really upset me up until probably a year ago) but — and I’ll cite Mabuse here again — one of the things I’ve learned in this Project is that an entertaining movie is an Entertaining Movie and, if it’s done right, you can still enjoy it 100 years later regardless of its duration (although I suppose it’s also the case that lots of stories can be phenomenally relevant to the audience of a certain time period, and not necessarily its own, as we see with Heart of Darkness) and maybe it’s the case here that, directorial indulgences aside, Napoleon does bear the mark of its era, a key to its audience’s heart that we (I) just can’t see anymore, because finally you just have to kinda be absorbed in a certain moment in order to understand it — which doesn’t mean that you don’t have a right to criticize something, just because you don’t know every aspect of its composition and historical context, but you should definitely be nervous and self-aware while doing it, a certain amount of anxiety is always good when it comes to creation, and I think in fact that it’s what’s fueling me through this whole Project lately, which is mostly pleasant but sometimes keeps me up at night, is this somewhat manic awareness of my impending death (which people say is an irrational thing to be worried about, unless you’re terminally ill, but if you live in the States, particularly in a big city like I do, the specter of random gun violence and the mortal hazard of texting drivers is ubiquitous and potent and eminently rational) and I’ve become obsessed with Work as a result, almost fetishizing it, which is also the kinda thing that gets trashed among my peers, people saying you need work-life balance and whatever, but I think it ends up not being such a bad thing for me personally because 1) I want to have accomplished things in my life, to be able to leave some stuff behind when I’m gone, and 2) I’m really starting to embrace that old Noel Coward line, “Work is more fun than fun,” and to be completely in the moment, submerged in my tasks, not dwelling on the past or being nostalgic about — which I regret to think is probably a huge factor in our decidedly meta love affair, among cinephiles, for Napoleon, which was created in an era where the director of a 5-hour picture could not only find funding and distribution for such a venture but also, God bless it, an audience, which is insane, but it’s a beautiful notion — the idea of an artist having so much freedom and authority — and, by extension, the film is a beautiful artifact of that time, but the film is also, I’m sorry to say, just way too fucking long. Like that sentence.

love and death
A fourth of Napoleon‘s runtime, and just as worthy of an audience, is Woody Allen’s Love & Death, wherein he and Diane Keaton embark on a plot to kill Napoleon.


  • I ended up smiling like a slightly insane person at the end. Thanks. Wouldn’t want to be a person that had one of your “justify in three sentences” answers to grade.


  • Napoleon was as I understand it made particularly for the French market and if there is something the French are intensely familiar with it is Napoleon. Therefore, unlike a purely fictional story, Gance probably felt there was very little need for introduction of anything, but so many details that had to be included. This may work for the French, but is a mess to watch for everybody else.
    Also, Gance had planned out a long series of movies, but funding fell away, probably because a 5 hour epic for the French only is not very marketable.
    So, yeah, even in those times you could not fuck your audience over.


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