Thursday, January 3, 2013


Napoléon (1955)

  Sacha Guitry History / War / Dramastars 3


Napoleon photo
This film recounts the life of one of the most important figures in the history of France, Napoléon Bonaparte.  Beginning with his arrival at a military academy, the film moves swiftly through Bonaparte’s rise to power as a great general and ultimately Emperor of France.  We follow his great battle campaigns, and his personal life, particularly his courtship of Josephine and his many subsequent secret liaisons.  The film ends with his exile to the island of St Helena and his premature death.
© 2012

Napoleon poster
The scope of this film and its scale are breathtaking – but the end result is only partially successful.  Even in his formidable epic of the 1920s, Abel Gance was unable to cram the whole of Bonaparte’s life into just one film.  Sacha Guitry aims to achieve just that, in a truly lavish project, but the objective is just too ambitious.  Instead of creating a genuinely great piece of cinema, he offers a film that is little more than a colourful historical text book.

The film is crammed so full of action and moves at such a pace that we really do not get to know or understand the central character, which is a great pity.  Who was Napoléon Bonaparte?  Just why was he such a great historical figure?  What were his motivations?  These are questions which the film tries to broach, but far too superficially.  Perhaps the most surprising thing we learn about the great general is the extent of his infidelity towards his empress Josephine.

It would be going too far to say that the film is all gloss and no substance, but there is a great deal of superficiality and simplification.  The battle of Trafalgar is referred to only in passing " despite this being one of the landmark battles of the Napoleonic wars, and the struggle against Russia, which resulted in Napoleon’s abdication, is compressed to a few minutes.  On the other hand, we have a full five minutes of courtiers rollicking around on a lawn and seemingly interminable "musical interludes" which add little to the film other than take up precious film time. This is less a film about Napoléon and more an exercise in unbridled cinematographic over-indulgence.

© James Travers 2000 

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