Forget the Artist, the Restoration of Napoleon is the Silent Film Event of the Year

Your one and only chance to see a meticulous restoration of the silent French epic is quickly approaching

Albert Dieudonné in the title role of Abel Gance’s epic Napoleon.
Albert Dieudonné in the title role of Abel Gance’s epic Napoleon. Photo courtesy of Photoplay Productions

Some tickets are still available for what is lining up to be a major event for film buffs: four screenings of Napoleon at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California, on March 24, 25, and 31, and April 1. This 5-1/2 hour restoration of Gance’s silent epic will be also mark the U.S. premiere of a full-length orchestral score composed by Carl Davis, who will conduct the Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra.

This is the most complete version of Napoleon since it opened at the Paris Opéra in 1927, and the first U.S. screenings of the film with an orchestra in over 30 years. Due to the technical and financial demands, there are no further screenings scheduled in this country, and no plans for a digital release of any kind.

This version of Napoleon is the culmination of work of over 45 years of work by filmmaker, author and historian Kevin Brownlow to save and restore what had become a neglected masterpiece. Brownlow, the only film historian to receive an Oscar, first encountered the film as a student, viewing a cut-down, two-reel version on a 9.5mm home movie format. Even in poor shape, “It was the cinema as I thought it ought to be and yet hardly ever was,” he told me by telephone from his offices in London.

Brownlow befriended Gance in the 1950s, a relationship that lasted until the director’s death in 1981. As a result, he had access not only to the director’s archives, but to his recollections of how he made Napoleon.

Gance employed several technical innovations for Napoleon, including hand-held cameras and rapid cutting. A sequence of a snowball fight, a montage built from several angles and filmed over a series of days, used shots as short as single frames. A pillow fight had as many as nine multiple exposures. These are remarkable achievements, especially considering the equipment Gance was using. But to Brownlow, they raise another of the director’s innovations.

“In Napoleon, Gance wanted to make an actor of the audience,” Brownlow said. “He wanted to break viewers’ inhibitions and force them to become participants in the story, so that they are being punched in the nose during the snowball fight, or dancing around and running away and coming back into the action. It’s an astounding use of technique.”

The most famous of Napoleon‘s special effects is Polyvision, a three-camera widescreen process Gance used to close the film. Like Cinerama, Polyvision required three projectors running in synchronization. They expanded the screen image dramatically. Gance used the process sometimes to show broad landscapes, but also to break the screen into complementary or discordant images.

Few viewers in 1927 had a chance to see Polyvision, which despite considerable publicity was available for a limited time in only eight cities. It was an expensive and complicated process that required exhibitors to re-outfit theaters and hire additional projectionists. Brownlow himself didn’t see a Polyvision version of Napoleon until he attended a festival of multiscreen films in the 1960s. Before then, “The last reel was just shots of soldiers marching from left to right and right to left,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out what was going on.”

When Brownlow viewed a restoration of the Napoleon triptychs by Marie Epstein, the sister of noted experimental filmmaker Jean Epstein, he saw that titles were missing and sequences were out of order. Although “it was a very illegal thing to have done,” he gathered enough money to make his own copy, which he began to reconstruct in the proper order.

The historian was backed by the FIAF (The International Federation of Film Archives), which appealed to archives around the world to send materials to London. “These prints came pouring in,” Brownlow said, “every one of them with different elements. It was unbelievably exciting.”

A version of Napoleon sponsored by Francis Ford Coppola, and with a score by his father, composer Carmine Coppola, toured the United States in 1981. I was lucky enough to see the film at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. The Polyvision finale drew gasps and applause from the sold-out audience.

Several years later a researcher unearthed an original, 17-reel, tinted print of the film in Corsica. “Some of it was definitive,” Brownlow said. “In other words, you could see that this was the version that Gance had settled on before it was chopped about.”

Brownlow admitted that his restoration is still not complete. The original version apparently ran nine hours, “But if it was nine hours, what on earth did they fill it with?” he asked. “I cannot work it out. Anyway, there’s continuing work going on with this picture. One day we’ll get the exact length of the original.”

The Oakland dates will be the most complete and lavish screenings of Napoleon ever shown in this country, with an orchestra of 46 playing “the finest score I’ve ever heard for a picture,” Brownlow enthused. “Carl Davis made the decision to use composers who were alive at the time of Napoleon, and that gives the film an incredible sense of authenticity.”

In our digital age, it’s easy to lose sight of how revolutionary Napoleon was. And the many different versions of the film—as late as the 1970, Gance was reshooting material for a new cut he called Bonaparte and the Revolution—have made it difficult to pin down Napoleon‘s place in film history. In my lifetime, Brownlow and other historians have managed to tease out much of the majesty and scope of the movie.

I cannot emphasize how much I respect Kevin Brownlow and his work. He received a Governors Award from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010 for making, writing about and restoring movies. He is the author of landmark books like The Parade’s Gone By… and The War, the West, and the Wilderness, works that helped draw attention to the artistry of a generation of silent filmmakers. Alone or with partners, Brownlow also directed groundbreaking documentaries on Charlie Chaplin (The Unknown Chaplin), Harold Lloyd (The Third Genius), and Buster Keaton (A Hard Act to Follow). His Photoplay restorations of films like Raymond Bernard’s The Chess Player are among the most complete and beautiful works of their kind. He is also a generous friend to anyone seeking to learn more about the history of movies.

Despite his accomplishments, Brownlow still has difficulty raising funding for his projects. He has been trying to produce a documentary on Douglas Fairbanks, one of the industry’s most important early stars, “but no broadcaster wants it.”

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