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Film / Napoléon

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Napoléon is a 1927 silent historical film written and directed by Abel Gance and starring Albert Dieudonné in the title role.

The film covers the years 1783-1796, following Napoléon Bonaparte on his rise from a young student at a military academy to a senior general in the armies of France, as the country is shaken to its foundations by The French Revolution.

It's one of the earliest examples of Epic Movie in French cinema, running around 5 1/2 hours depending on which version one watches. The film includes many innovative camera techniques, most notably the use of "Polyvision", an early attempt at widescreen cinema done by stitching three conventional camera shots together (widescreen in general did not come into use until Hollywood studios adopted the format in the 1950s).

Planned sequels which would have followed the rest of Napoleon's tumultuous life were never made, although Abel Gance still reused some of the ideas for these in his 1960 film Austerlitz.


Provides examples of:

  • Accidental Misnaming: When Napoleon gives his name to Pichegru, the latter mishears it as "Paille-au-nez" (straw-in-the-nose). See Funetik Aksent.
  • Animal Motifs:
    • Napoleon had a pet eagle as a child, and is represented by eagles throughout the film.
    • Robespierre is introduced sitting beneath a statue depicting a vulture. No points for subtlety there.
  • Aspect Ratio Switch: This film is the Ur-Example. Most of it is in 4:3, but the climax expands it to 4:1. This remains the widest aspect ratio in cinematic history.
  • Chekhov's Classroom: The geography lesson about the climates of islands that introduces Saint Helena was presumably intended this way. As the sequels to this film never got made, it remains an Orphaned Setup.
  • Childish Pillow Fight: After two bullies at Brienne College set Napoleon's eagle free, he demands to know who's responsible. When nobody will tell him, he declares all of them guilty, and a pillow fight breaks out.
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  • Cue the Sun: The final night of the Siege of Toulon is fought during a rain- and hailstorm. After the battle is won, the weather clears up and the sun rises.
  • Dawn of an Era/End of an Age: The film is set during the French Revolution, so naturally this applies.
  • Dead Person Conversation: The night before leaving Paris for the Italian Campaign, Napoleon visits the National Convention. There, he sees the spirits of dead revolutionaries including Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, and Jean-Paul Marat. They urge him to lead the Revolution and spread it beyond the borders of France. He agrees to do so.
  • Double Entendre: While they're playing chess at the Victims' Ball, Napoleon tells Hoche—who also has the hots for Joséphine—that he's about to take his Queen. And then looks straight at Joséphine to drive the point home.
  • Dramatic Irony: Nelson requests permission to sink Le Hasard. His superior dismisses the ship as not worth the ammunition it would take. Unbeknownst to both of them, Le Hasard was carrying a future Emperor, three future Kings, and a future Queen.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Horatio Nelson spots Le Hasard, the ship carrying the Bonapartes from Corsica.
  • Eat the Evidence: Well, the accusations. The files on Napoleon and Joséphine are eaten by a couple of clerks who don't want to see them executed.
  • Enemy Mine: The Corsicans may not agree which country is their Fatherland, but there is one thing they do agree about:
    Corsican 1: Our Fatherland is Spain with Buttafuoco! Death to Napoleon Bonaparte!
    Corsican 2: No, our Fatherland is Italy, with the Duke of Savoy! Death to Napoleon Bonaparte!
    Corsican 3: No, our Fatherland is England with Paoli! Death to Napoleon Bonaparte!
    Napoleon: (reveals himself by standing atop a table) No... our Fatherland is France... with me!
  • The Epic: The first of six planned films about the life of Napoleon, and the only one that got made. Even then, it meets the criteria.
  • Epic Movie: Five and a half hours long, two intermissions, spans several years of history, features three different battles, has a cast of thousands, requires three screens side-by-side and three projectors to watch in its full glory, and cost so much that the sequels were never made.
  • "Facing the Bullets" One-Liner: "Don't forget to show my head to the people. It is well worth the trouble." — Danton
  • Forgiven, but Not Forgotten: Napoleon tells an angry mob to release Saliceti and di Borgo—who have repeatedly conspired to have him killed, mind you—saying that forgiving them is easy, but forgetting is impossible.
  • Foreshadowing: Of the literal variety. Some of Robespierre’s pieces of stationery cast a shadow eerily reminiscent of a guillotine’s on a book by Cromwell that he’s reading after Danton's execution. Robespierre promptly flings the stationery across the room when Saint-Just points it out to him.
  • Fortune Teller: Joséphine de Beauharnais visits a clairvoyant who foretells that she will be Queen one day.
  • Frame-Up: Pozzo di Borgo agrees to fabricate evidence for Saliceti when the latter wishes to accuse Napoleon of espionage.
  • Full-Circle Revolution: The infamous Reign of Terror leads to the Thermidorian Reaction, also known as simply Thermidor.
  • Funetik Aksent: The intertitle explains that Napoleon's Corsican accent had him pronounce his name "Nap-eye-ony". See Accidental Misnaming.
  • Hat of Authority: Napoleon's iconic bicorne.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: When the name "de Beauharnais" is called for execution, Joséphine's ex-husband volunteers so she can say farewell to their children.
  • Historical Domain Character: Most of the named characters.
  • I Am the Noun: After saving the National Convention and being promoted to General-in-Chief of the Army of the Interior as a result, Napoleon states that as of then, he is the Revolution.
  • Idle Rich: Joséphine de Beauharnais' introduction sees her described as such.
  • Improvised Sail: Napoleon uses the Tricolore as a makeshift sail when fleeing Corsica.
  • In Case You Forgot Who Wrote It: The full title—Napoléon vu par Abel Gance—translates as "Napoleon as seen by Abel Gance".
  • Intermission: Two.
    • One after the Bonapartes depart Corsica for France, leading into act II.
    • One after Napoleon and Joséphine's wedding, leading into act IV.
  • Interservice Rivalry: At the Siege of Toulon, Napoleon is disparaged for being in the artillery.
    General Carteaux: Remember this, young man; firstly, artillery is useless; and secondly...
    (A cannonball falls through the ceiling and the table they're sitting at, startling all the officers inside except Napoleon)
    Napoleon: And secondly, it is most unpleasant.
  • Italians Talk with Hands: In the "tower of Babel", somebody laments:
    "Italians speak with their hands."
  • King Incognito: When a crowd gathers to celebrate Napoleon for saving the National Convention, he sneaks off into the crowd and asks what's going on. He gets taken for an ignorant peasant and is told that General Bonaparte saved France. See Paper-Thin Disguise.
  • Meet Cute: Napoleon and Joséphine first run into each other when she's on the way to the famous clairvoyant Mlle. Lenormant and he's trying to fix his cardboard boots after they got wet.
  • Mononymous Biopic Title: The title is usually rendered as just Napoléon.
  • Nipple and Dimed: At the Victims' Ball, the bare breasts of several dancing women are seen.
  • "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer:
    All events and quotations taken directly from history are followed by the reference – "Historical"
  • Off with His Head!: The favoured method of execution by the revolutionaries, preferably via guillotine. A few of them suffer this fate themselves.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Napoleon swaps hats with someone who bears a passing resemblance to him. Apparently, his Nice Hat is his most distinguishing feature, because nobody recognizes him and the other man is immediately mistaken for him.
  • Post-Victory Collapse: When Dugommier goes to promote Napoleon after the victory at Toulon, he finds him fast asleep.
  • Rags to Riches: At his lowest point, Napoleon was forced to fashion boots out of cardboard. By the end, he's a war hero revered in all of France.
  • Red Filter of Doom: Most notably during the final stages of the siege of Toulon, when the black-and-white film stock is tinted red.
  • Reign of Terror: Set during the Trope Namer.
  • Rousing Speech: Napoleon gives one to his troops before the Battle of Montenotte.
  • Scenery Porn: Napoleon's ride through the Corsican countryside, and most of the Triptych sequence.
  • Shaming the Mob: When an angry mob shows up at the Bonapartes' doorstep, Napoleon simply walks out the door and stares them down. The mob quickly leaves.
  • Shown Their Work:
    All the scenes in Corsica where photographed in the exact locations where the incidents occurred. — Author's note
  • Sinister Shades: Robespierre dons a pair from time to time.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Napoleon and Hoche, both military strategists, play a game at the Victims' Ball. Napoleon wins.
  • Snowball Fight: The first scene of the film, where Napoleon demonstrates his skill as a commander in a snowball fight at Brienne College.
  • Split Screen: Used several times during the film, such as the pillow fight scene when the screen splits in nine, but most notably in the famous Triptych sequence.
  • Terrible Trio: The leaders of the revolution are introduced as "the three gods" (Danton, Marat, and Robespierre), and they are all portrayed as bad guys.
  • Time Skip: The film jumps ahead nine years (from 1783 to 1792) from Napoleon's time at Brienne College to the French Revolution.
  • Tower of Babel: The council of war held by the forces defending Toulon is described by the intertitles as "a veritable tower of Babel" (five languages are spoken: English, German, Spanish, Italian, and French).
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: Saint-Just makes an impassioned speech to this effect in his defence when the National Convention calls for his and Robespierre's deaths. It receives thunderous applause, but they both end up sentenced to death anyway.
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: Charlotte Corday puts a knife down the front of her dress when she goes to assassinate Marat.
  • "Wanted!" Poster: Paoli has notes (without any picture of Napoleon, sadly) put up on Corsica promising a reward of 500 pounds to whomever brings in Napoleon dead or alive.
  • Weather of War: Downplayed. When the drummers at Toulon have fallen, morale is kept up by hail beating the drums.
  • Young Future Famous People: Napoleon as a schoolboy at Brienne College.