Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays, Film Reviews, Silent Cinema

Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’ – The Complete Masterpiece Debuts in America

On Sunday, October 20, 2001, on the final day of the 20th Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (the greatest, grandest silent film festival in the known universe), I boarded a vintage steam engine with a few hundred other silent movie-loving patrons, traveled from Sacile to Udine, filed into the Udine Opera House, took my nearly-front row seat (the Camerata Labacensis, Ljubljana, a 35-or-so-piece orchestra, was practically under my feet) and was, for the next 5 ½ hours (divided up by two intermissions and a dinner break), entranced by Kevin Brownlow’s 2000 restoration of Able Gance’s Napoleon. It was the most transporting, invigorating, exiting cinematic experience of my life to date. Mr. Brownlow did not lie when he stepped on to the stage and made his introduction: “If all you’ve seen is the cut American version, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

His introduction ironically but endearingly twists the words that heralded the sound film era and sounded the death knell of silent cinema. When the movies first learned to talk, the camera became a slave to the primitive sound technology. Abel Gance’s Napoleon premiered in 1927, the year of The Jazz Singer, and is as fluid and adventuresome and cinematically thrilling as The Jazz Singer and hackneyed and mawkish and, in its sound scenes, static and stiff. The future was sound but Napoleon, the most expensive film made in France to that time, remains the glorious lifeblood of cinema. Like Birth Of A Nation before it and Citizen Kane to come, Napoleon uses practically every technique developed at the time of its production, refining and in some cases redefining them in the process, and creating a visionary work of film.

On Saturday, March 24, 2012, Kevin Brownlow’s full restoration of Able Gance’s Napoleon makes its long-awaited American premiere in Oakland at the Paramount Theatre, presented by Brownlow and accompanied by a full orchestra under the baton of Carl Davis, who conducts his score. There are only four shows of this all-day event: March 24, 25, 31, and April 1, and there are no further American screenings planned. If you love the cinema and have any opportunity to see one of these shows, by all means make every effort to do so. Yes, it is an event. It is also a transporting cinematic experience like no other.

Gance takes us from Napoleon’s childhood (where his brilliance as a strategist and his hypnotic ability to rouse troops is first seen in the most exciting and dynamic snowball fight in cinema history) to his first grand victory in Italy, a comparatively small part of his epic military career. Along the way Gance paints the idealism and the corruption of the French Revolution and posits Napoleon as the great leader to set the dream back on course. At times it gets downright surreal, as Napoleon visits the People’s Parliament on his way to take command of the failing Italy campaign to take inspiration from the ghosts of the revolution. Figures we have seen sell out their ideals for power suddenly become advocates for the people and entreat Napoleon to become the leader the revolution needs.

Gance’s Napoleon is a brilliant strategist and a charismatic General whose oratory skills can transform a whipped collection of soldiers into a fiery, fierce unit, yet off the battlefield this gloomy man with the hawk-like face and dark, hooded eyes is like some dour social outcast. Albert Dieudonne is amazing in the part, creating an intense, proud man burning with passion and drive that explodes when he’s given command to take the field. Among the casting highlights (and this is a huge cast even when you ignore the thousands of extras) are Antonin Artaud as Marat, Edmond Van Daele as a sinister looking Robespiere, Annabella as the young innkeeper’s daughter who loves Napoleon from afar, Gina Manes (who has the most amazing eyes) as the wily but frivolous social-climbing flirt Josephine, and Gance himself as the handsome but devious Saint-Just.

The 5 ½ hour event was broken into four acts with three intermissions (one of them an hour long dinner break, surely as much for the musicians as for the audience), with each segment rising to a rousing climax. Between these peaks Gance slows the pace to establish a strong emotional tone while he builds the film to next peak. Every scene is rich in detail and invention, and his sophisticated and adventurous technique electrifies the drama. In one scene he flashes a montage of faces in a rush of single frames; in another he turns a remembrance of events past into a lightning fast recap of the film. It’s like a stack of photographs being shuffled but the effect suggests of a sudden burst of inspiration and clarity. I’d seen nothing like it in silent cinema before.

And finally there is the justly renowned triptych finale, where the screen expands into three projectors and image triples in size. Gance saves it for the final act of the film. As Napoleon rallies the broken army the screen slowly widens then the picture suddenly becomes bigger than CinemaScope. It’s not mere spectacle that drives Gance’s use of this device. He uses it symbolically, placing Napoleon’s face in the center of the screen as images of the landscape, the clouds, the men surround him. He uses it graphically, with images as a kind of framing gilt supporting the center. He uses it for scale, to show the enormity of the army against the landscape. And he uses it to show Napoleon’s command, his leadership, and his power. The sheer magnitude of thousands of men gathered in front of a majestic range of mountains, cheering and lining up for battle as the orchestra’s presence grows with a rousing sound that fills the theater, carries a dramatic charge that can’t be equaled.

If you think you saw this film back in the eighties, when Francis Ford Coppola sponsored a special release around the U.S. (subsequently released on VHS and laserdisc), don’t fool yourself. Coppola cut the film down and sped it up to keep it under four hours (and thus pay overtime for the live orchestra, a legitimate concern when it came to bankrolling a project he already believed would lose money). In addition to the footage edited out from the 1979 restoration (first screened at Telluride), Brownlow continued searching for more and better footage. He’s been restoring Napoleon since he first got taste of its grandeur as a film-mad lad watching a digest version prepared for 9.5mm home movie projectors.

He wrote a book on the film and his odyssey of discovery and reconstruction, “Napoleon: Abel Gance’s Classic Film,” in 1983 (out of print but still fairly easy to find; his updated 2008 edition is much more elusive), and it is illuminating. Both a memoir of film history and an often critical look at the sometimes competitive and self-defensive culture of cinematheques and film preservation in the 1950s and 1960s, it’s portrait is a far cry from the collaborative nature of the international culture of film preservation and restoration today, where multiple foundations, laboratories, and cinematheques share materials and research and pitch in on providing restoration services.

It took a certain audacity at that time for Brownlow to puncture the idealized image of Henri Langlois, a hero among preservationists and film lovers for his efforts to create the French Cinemateque and treat classic films the way others treat the great works of art. But his commitment (one might say obsessive quest) to reconstruct as near a definitive version of the film as possible (perhaps ideal is more accurate term, given that Gance himself never actually presented a definitive version of the film in his time), often spending his own money to copy degrading film footage, not only gives him the right, in some ways I think he saw it as his responsibility. It’s hard enough to restore the glories of past films from degraded images and fragments of footage culled from around the world with cooperation. The obstacles he faced from archives, rights holders, and other organizations (and he doesn’t even discuss Coppola’s refusal to allow his longer restoration to play in the U.S. for decades) is appalling.

It did not deter Brownlow. He kept searching for lost footage and variant versions and systematically replaced damaged and footage or scenes prepared for foreign prints with superior material, restored missing scenes, filled out incomplete sequences, and returned the film to Gance’s original cutting plan as much as was possible. For the 2000 restoration, his most complete and polished to date, he had subtitles recreated in the style of the original film and tinted the print according to the original instructions using the original 1920s dye process, which brings a deep richness to the colors: the red hued battles burn, the blue nights are enveloped in nocturnal beauty, the yellow radiates the warmth of firelight. And as the film builds to a vigorous, epic climax (with the Marseilles blasting from the orchestra like a charge), it glows with the unmistakable blue, white and red of the tricolor French flag across the triptych to announce victory. It’s a moment of genius that marries the intellectual and the emotional with a sheen of sheer graphic beauty.

It was the only standing ovation of the entire film festival, and it was well deserved. I had waited throughout Pordenone 2001 for my masterpiece and got something so much more: the most electrifying cinema experience of my life.

That is why I am traveling to Oakland for a weekend of Napoleon, where I have tickets for two successive screenings. I want to be electrified again.

The Oakland presentation is a monumental undertaking, a collaboration between the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, American Zoetrope, The Film Preserve, Photoplay Productions, and BFI. This singular event was made possible only because much of the cost has been underwritten, like a museum exhibition of a visiting show. No subsequent screenings are planned in the U.S., at least at this scale. According to the March 16 feature story in the New York Times by Manohla Dargis, a digital edition is in works. But that doesn’t mean you can count on a DVD or Blu-ray in the future; digital is simply the format of the future and any home video presentation would need to undertaken with the expectations of losing money on the project. And even if it does mean that sometime in the future digital screenings with a recorded soundtrack may be a possibility, it can’t match the grandeur and power and sheer involvement that this performance—real film through a projector, real musicians playing live, a theater with the scale of a real show palace of yesteryear—promises.

For the American Premiere, Carl Davis will conduct his score, played by the Oakland East Bay Symphony. It will be projected at the proper speed of 20 fps (the opening sequence, shot by a different cameraman from the rest of the film, was shown at 18 fps in Udine per Brownlow’s instruction and conceivably will follow suit in Oakland), and will include two intermissions and a dinner break, just as in London and Udine and the handful of other screenings.

Tickets, screening information and other event details can be found at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.

Napoleon: Abel Gance’s Classic Film by Kevin Brownlow available on Amazon

For more articles and information:

Official Press Release
Manohla Dargis at the New York Times: ‘Napoleon’ Is Lost, Long Live ‘Napoleon’!
Graham Fuller on the restoration at Blouin Art Info
Kevin Brownlow on ‘Napoleon’ (interviewed by Ann Harding)
Audio: Kevin Brownlow on the Leonard Lopate Show
Image: Adrian Curry’s Gallery of Napoleon posters
Abel Gance’s J’Accuse and La Roue