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Hollywood Flashback: Abel Gance’s Silent ‘Napoléon’ Was Revolutionary

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Napoleon Bonaparte has served as catnip to Hollywood almost as long as movies have existed. Next to don his funny hat is Joaquin Phoenix, who stars in Ridley Scott’s Napoleon, out Nov. 22. But the best Napoleon film remains the first.

Napoléon is a 1927 silent movie written, directed and produced by Paris-born cinematic pioneer Abel Gance. He envisioned a six-part epic about Bonaparte’s life but only completed part one. That was plenty, as the six-hour film traced the leader (played by Albert Dieudonné) from early life through the French Revolution and ended at his invasion of Italy in 1792. It was a technical breakthrough, introducing techniques like rapid-cutting, handheld cameras and superimposition.

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Gance also invented a system he called Polyvision, the Imax of its day, which employed three cameras and three projectors for a panoramic effect. After a few screenings in Europe, MGM bought the film, cut it to about two hours and gave it a limited U.S. release in 1929, when it received a ho-hum response from audiences more excited about the new talkies. (A 1935 release tried adding a soundtrack but “failed in accomplishment,” THR said in its review, pictured below. “The sound system just made a noisy film noisier.”)

Over the decades, however, the movie was recognized for its greatness. A five-hour restoration bowed at the Telluride Film Festival in 1979 with the frail, 89-year-old Gance in attendance — a triumphant if belated acknowledgment of his towering contribution to cinema.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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