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Napoleon To Conquer U.S. Again

Napoleon To Conquer U.S. Again

There are silent films, there are epics, and then there is Napoleon. After thirty years, the unique French production is primed to make a comeback on this side of the Atlantic, in the longest version ever screened since its premiere at the Paris Opéra in 1927. The announcement was made on opening night of this weekend’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Albert Dieudonné as Napoleon (all photos courtesy of Photoplay Productions)

The news: Kevin Brownlow will present his five-and-a-half hour restoration, produced with Patrick Stanbury, his partner in Photoplay Productions, and the British Film Institute (BFI), at the enormous Paramount Theatre in Oakland on March 24, 25, 31, and April 1 of next year. Carl Davis will conduct his original score with the Oakland East Bay Symphony. Tickets will go on sale on Monday at silentfilm.org, and you can watch a specially-prepared trailer HERE.

Abel Gance’s masterwork might have remained just a footnote in the pages of film history if not for—

—Brownlow, who spent years of his life tracking down footage—sometimes in fragments—and diligently piecing the neglected film back together. My wife and I were present when it was screened at the Telluride Film Festival in 1979, with the 89-year-old director in attendance. (Still a Frenchman through and through, he made passes at every woman he met.)

D.W. Griffith literally tips his hat to Abel Gance in admiration of his work! (photo courtesy of Photoplay Productions)

Because Napoleon’s finale is a triptych, requiring three screens side by side—like Cinerama, which came decades later, but not necessarily showing one continuous image—volunteers constructed a special screen outdoors. The film began unspooling at 9pm, but sitting in the chilly Rocky Mountain air was a challenge, and few people made it through to the finale around 2 in the morning. (When my wife and I left, nearly frozen, around midnight, we were chided by Kevin and William K. Everson.) To compensate for this, the following night the Festival presented the last half-hour—about ten minutes on a single screen, and twenty in the amazing expanse of Polyvision—to an enthusiastic throng as soon as darkness fell. The response was thunderous. Monsieur Gance acknowledged the applause from a second-story hotel window overlooking the main street of town, and no one who was there will ever forget it.

A young Kevin Brownlow with his filmmaking hero, Abel Gance (photo courtesy of Photoplay Productions)

My wife and I revisited Napoleon when Francis Coppola presented it to a sold-out audience at Radio City Music Hall in New York, featuring a live orchestral score composed and conducted by the filmmaker’s father, Carmine Coppola. No silent film ever drew a bigger crowd, and the presenters were obliged to add repeat showings weekend after weekend. The elder Coppola subsequently traveled to other cities with the film.

As it happens, Kevin Brownlow and the BFI continued to work on the restoration, completing their first revision as early as 1983. The current print was completed more than a decade ago but has never been shown in the U.S. (There was some conflict between the Coppola version, set in stone by Robert A. Harris, and the Brownlow print, which was always a work-in-progress, requiring composer Davis to repeatedly expand his score. I can’t help but think that sharing the stage to receive their Academy Awards last November—and again onstage at the Oscar ceremony—may have had something to do with Kevin and Francis finding common ground to revive a film they both admire so passionately.)

Here’s a sample of a tryptich from Napoleon, spread over three full-sized movie screens. Some images are panoramic, like this one, while others (as you can see in the trailer) play against each other in a form of visual counterpoint. (photo courtesy of Photoplay Productions)

To say that Napoleon has been a lifelong obsession for Brownlow would not be an overstatement. He caught his first glimpses of the film some fifty years ago when he purchased two short reels of 9.5mm footage at a street market. “I was stunned by the cinematic flair,” he remembers. “I was exhilarated by the rapid cutting and the swirling camera movement. What daring! I had never seen anything comparable, and I set out to find more of it.”

The new, longer print offers more than a half-hour of additional footage unearthed since the 1979 screening at Telluride. According to the press release, “This unique 35mm print, made at the laboratory of the BFI’s National Archive, uses traditional dye-bath techniques to recreate the color tints and tones that enhanced the film on its original release, giving a vividness to the image as never before experienced in this country.”

Strapping a camera onto a horse provided just one of many startling images in Napoleon. (photo courtesy of Photoplay Productions)

Each screening of the film at the restored art-deco Paramount will begin in the afternoon and consist of four parts with three intermissions. It is being presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in association with American Zoetrope, the Film Preserve, Photoplay Productions, and the BFI. Technical services will be provided by Boston Light & Sound.
Because of the expense, and complexity, involved with this presentation of Napoleon, there are no plans to show it anywhere else in the country. I don’t know about you, but I know where I’ll be next spring!

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