Since my own living room has only one projector and one screen and my memories of a public projection are distant, for the purpose of this review I'll be referring to the bootleg Brownlow/Davis version. At 5h10mn, it is a composite of the 1983 Brownlow and Coppola edits. Since the Brownlow images come from a TV recording the picture quality is sometimes far from good, yet the music is excellent and, more importantly, the incredible momentum and luxury of details of the work is certainly there.
Frightful, living briars
Momentum is the first key to Napoléon. From the children's snowball fight to the reviving of a French rag-and-tatters army, from the taking of Toulon to the crushing of the Vendémiaire royalist coup, the whole film is a tribute to offensive military tactics, and the belief that in warfare, a fighting spirit is the first step towards victory. Gance conveys this wonderfully with a combination of high-speed editing and fast camera movements. Interestingly, the battle scenes are not so much about the carefully ordered cohorts of well-aligned soldiers that so many films about the period indulge into, than about the mêlée, the scuffle - what French poet Hugo would later describe as "... the dark midpoint of the battle's fires, / A throbbing clutch of frightful, living briars;" (trad. Timothy. Adès).
Change could be the second key. The film presents a stunning view of the French Revolutionary era, certainly not watered-down when it comes to the Terreur years and afterwards. It's all there: the paranoïa, the ideologues-turned-executioners, the mob, the social changes in the upper class (the Victim's Ball scene is absolutely fantastic). Bonaparte's rise is that of a man who seizes the incredible opportunities offered by these versatile times, when military success appears as a solution to ending political violence. All opportunities, including marrying the socialite Joséphine. All opportunities in one flamboyant desire, just as the face of Joséphine blends with a terrestrial globe, in a scene echoed later in Chaplin's Great Dictator.
Seizing all opportunities
For the last key of Napoléon is certainly ambition. This is the story of an outcast, someone who under the monarchy would simply never had achieved much. Not even a continental-French. Rejected by his fellow cadets, by Corsican politicians, by the French military establishment... numerous scenes in the film stress that theme of the outsider beating odds. However, this isn't a feel-good after the fact kind of tale, not that of the "genius who was right before everybody else". In Gance's view, Bonaparte's personal destiny and ambition match the French people's destiny and ambition at the time. Their fears, hopes, and appetites. Obviously, the film praises this symbiosis (in the scenes with the troopers, with Violine etc.); yet in the light of what was happening in Europe in the years the film was presented, when - again - supposedly rational political systems gave birth to leaders with a carnal, mystical link to the masses, this masterpiece, much like Lang's Metropolis, offers a rather troubling vision.
Napoléon at imdb