Abel Gance, Napoléon, 1927/2000, still from a silent black-and-white and hand-tinted film in 35 mm, 332 minutes. Napoléon (Albert Dieudonné).

THOUGH NOT QUITE AS EPIC in proportion, the tortuous history of the production, exhibition, and preservation of Napoléon vu par Abel Gance (1927), the most ambitious project of the French silent cinema, mirrors the saga of its protagonist. Few films in the history of cinema have been as haunted by the ghost of a prior existence in some purportedly complete, pristine original form. Gance initially conceived the project as six separate films—spanning Napoleon’s life from boyhood to exile on the isle of Saint Helena—but only completed the first. Of taxing length and daunting screening demands, the film suffered multiple abridgments and for decades was considered just another casualty of the abuses and shortcomings of the film industry and of the institutions designed to preserve its heritage. But with the restoration project begun in 1969 by the filmmaker and historian

to keep reading

Artforum print subscribers have full access to this article. If you are a subscriber, sign in below.

Not registered for Register here.

SUBSCRIBE NOW for only $50 a year—65% off the newsstand price—and get the print magazine plus full online access to this issue and our archive.*

Order the PRINT EDITION of the March 2012 issue for $17 or the ONLINE EDITION for $5.99.

* This rate applies to U.S. domestic subscriptions.