“Thrilling” is the only word to describe the experience of watching Abel Gance’s 5½ hour epic Napoleon, at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California this weekend, accompanied by Carl Davis and the Oakland East Bay Symphony. There are two more performances next weekend, and if you don’t make an effort to be there you’ll miss one of the great moviegoing events of your life. For more information, click HERE.
Not having seen the 1927 film since its now-famous showing at Radio City Music Hall more than thirty years ago, I only recalled isolated scenes that, it turned out, were just as great as I remembered. I forgot how amazing the movie is as a whole. Its return, in an ambitious two-weekend event, was engineered by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and marks the U.S. debut of Kevin Brownlow’s “ultimate” restoration. This Napoleon is not only longer than the print many of us saw in the 1980s, but much improved. Kevin told me that his greatest satisfaction was being able to replace blow-up footage from 9.5mm prints and other inferior sources with 35mm material, shot by shot.
For composer-conductor Davis, having the 48-piece Oakland-based orchestra play his marathon score so beautifully was a source of great pride. At a Sunday morning celebration following the film’s Saturday debut—an all-day affair, beginning at 1:30 p.m. and ending just before 10pm, with three intermissions and a two-hour dinner break—Davis told me that he decided to have the musicians stand and take a bow just before the fourth act, as is customary at American opera performances. The members of the symphony obliged, but didn’t anticipate the roar of approval and standing ovation they received. As a result, they played the final act of Napoleon, including its emotional three-screen Polyvision finale, with particular enthusiasm.
Brownlow’s greatest frustration is that he has never been able to find the sequence of the French slaughter of hostages at Toulon, in which the filmmaker used his camera to envision the point-of-view of the bullets streaking through the air! Gance donated this footage to the Cinemathèque Française years ago, but it seems to have vanished.
In the meantime, we will have to content ourselves with his mighty pageant of Napoleon’s early years and triumphs, on and off the battlefield.
Gance opens his film the way modern directors do, with a vigorous action scene instead of a slow stream of exposition. Yet this schoolboy snowball fight perfectly sets up the character of Napoleon Bonaparte (played as a youth by the remarkable Vladimir Roudenko), a fierce and lonely boy destined for greatness. In the course of this sequence we also see some of Gance’s visual innovations, years ahead of their time, including hand-held camerawork and rapid-fire montages reminiscent of Soviet cinema. It is a tour de force that whets our appetite for more, and there is certainly much more to come.
When, in the final two reels, the curtains part and reveal three connected screens for Gance’s audacious finale—decades before Cinerama made its debut—one cannot help but gasp. Not only does he use the ultra-wide frame to reveal panoramic shots of Napoleon addressing his troops from a promontory point, but he plays with all the possibilities of the tryptich, showing mirror-images on the left and right with a separate image in the middle, be it Bonaparte riding toward us on his horse, or another kinetic montage reviewing the high spots of his life up to that point. When the images acquire the colors of the French flag—red, blue, and white—the effect is astonishing (and, of course, the music builds to an emotional crescendo right along with the film).
The only thing better than seeing Napoleon onscreen, with a live orchestra and a simpatico audience, was seeing it in the art deco jewel that is the Oakland Paramount. I’ve been to many great movie palaces in my day, but this lovingly restored masterwork is in a class by itself. I’ve posted some of my amateur snapshots to give you an idea of this sumptuous auditorium, but you can see even more by visiting their website HERE.
I saw many friends and colleagues at the Saturday screening, from Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan, who was beaming with joy, to filmmaker and film buff Alexander Payne. Patrick Stanbury, Kevin Brownlow’s stalwart partner in Photoplay Productions, glowed like a proud parent, as did Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein, who did a tremendous job of promotion for the event. The critical 35mm presentation, which required the construction of three separate projection booths, was supervised by Chapin Cutler, Chris Reyna and their expert team from Boston Light and Sound.
The folks from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, led by Rob Byrne, Stacey Wisnia, and Anita Monga, stuck their necks out to make this dream a reality, and they’ve already earned the thanks of (literally) thousands of filmbuffs. I can only add my name to that list and cheer their noble efforts. A movie as special as Napoleon deserves this kind of treatment, and nothing less.