Director Abel Gance was worried that the film's finale wouldn't have the proper impact by being confined to a small screen. He thought of expanding the frame by using three cameras next to each other. For the first time, cinema utilized a rectangular image (with an approximate 4.00:1 aspect ratio). This is probably the most famous of the film's several innovative techniques. Though American filmmakers began experimenting with 70mm widescreen in 1929, widescreen didn't take off until CinemaScope was invented in 1953.
The snowballs in the snowball fight scene were actually balls of cotton. During shooting one of the child extras threw a real one with a rock in it. It hit Vladimir Roudenko square in the face and broke his nose.
A copyright dispute over which music soundtrack should be performed with "Napoleon" exists between Zoetrope Studios/Francis Ford Coppola and the BFI/Kevin Brownlow/Carl Davis. When Brownlow assembled the original restored version in 1981, two scores were eventually produced, one (apparently for the American market) by Carmine Coppola (Francis' father) and another (apparently for the UK market) by Carl Davis, veteran of many new scores for old silent movies. Prior to two live performances of the Davis score in December 2004 to accompany a new five-hour-plus restoration of "Napoleon", Coppola attempted to prevent the performances going ahead without his late father's score on the grounds that his family owns the copyright over the film, even though Carmine Coppola's score was written for the short four-hour restoration. In the end the performances went ahead with Davis' score being used, although the dispute remains unresolved. Brownlow commented on this issue (comparing Coppola's behavior to that of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels) before Davis himself conducted the two London performances (Davis was recovering from a foot operation and was brought on stage in a wheelchair).
In addition to its pioneering use of widescreen, this film also has a lot of handheld camerawork. The filmmakers experimented extensively with small, handheld, motorized cameras to heighten the dramatic effect of many scenes.
Abel Gance remembered one scene that was removed by the censors--that of the execution of civilians by soldiers. The camera is used like a bullet, zooming towards one human target, then another, then another. The sequence is lost, although a still photograph does survive.
In the scene with the ghosts of Parliament, there are at least 40 exposures used to create the effect. For one shot during the pillow fight, there are about 60. The multiple exposures were done on an optical printer and required painstaking craftsmanship.
Sections of the film are entitled "Vendémiaire" and "Thermidor". These were two of the new names given to the months of the year in the French republican calendar. Thermidor covered the equivalent of mid-July to mid-August, and Vendémiaire covered mid- September to mid-October.
When director Abel Gance did not receive the necessary financial support to expand this film to complete his original conception of a cinematic trilogy, he discarded cans of film that would have been used, depriving future film historians of invaluable insights into the director's vision.
Pasquale Paoli (or Pascal Paoli) was a Corsican who fought for Corsican independence from Genoa and France (after Genoa had sold Corsica to France in 1764). Bonaparte's family supported Paoli's original campaign until Paoli was defeated. He fled to England, returning in 1790 when he was elected President. He supported the revolution initially but reverted to the royalist party when he disagreed with the issue of the king's execution. Napoleon served in the Corsican National Guard at this time, splitting with Paoli and denouncing him as a traitor when he learned of Paoli's royalist leanings. Paoli eventually fled back to England in 1795. He remains a symbol of Corsican independence.
Although director Abel Gance was expected to attend the premiere of the restored version with a 60-piece orchestral accompaniment, at age 91 he was not up to the journey, and New York City Mayor Ed Koch and actor/director Gene Kelly stood in for him. The original film was shortened by 15 minutes and even ran quicker than that, as Radio City Music Hall showed it at 24fps, much faster than the 19 or 20 fps it was shot in. A new original score was commissioned by Francis Ford Coppola and Zoetrope from Carmine Coppola.
Joseph-Agricola Viala was a 13-year-old from southern France who had distinguished himself fighting for the revolution. He was killed attempting to prevent Royalist supporters from crossing the Durance River.