director Abel Gance
viewed: 03/31/2012 at the Paramount Theater, Oakland, CA
The last time that Abel Gance’s Napoléon was shown theatrically in the United States was in the early 1980’s in New York City. The version that was shown at that time was a four hour edit, rebuilt, compiled, enhanced by the film’s greatest devotee, film historian Kevin Brownlow, and produced in part by Francis Ford Coppola. That version had a half-life on VHS and laser disc and was something I was always interested in, but never got around to seeing, burgeoning film enthusiast that I was.
So, when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival arranged a series of showings in Oakland’s Paramount Theater of a newer version, a 5 1/2 hour edit, with live orchestra, showing the film’s final sequence as originally intended, using three projectors and three screens for the ambitious panorama shots that close the epic, I was in for absolute and for certain.
Even among the major films of the Silent Era, Napoléon is unique. Originally logging in at over nine hours, planned as part one of a six film series about Napoleon’s life, and shot, as mentioned with sequences requiring three cameras and projectors, there is literally nothing like it. And due to the expense of projecting the film properly, the opportunities for seeing it on film in the cinema come infrequently (and has been hinted at as perhaps “never again”).
The opening segment (there were three intermissions, including one of an hour and a half for dinner), the first two hours of the film, was perhaps the most radical and my personal favorite. The film opens with a ten year old Napoleon Buonaparte, of Corsican birth, at Brienne College in France, played by the striking and stern Vladimir Roudenko (an amazing miniature of Albert Dieudonné who plays the adult Napoleon). He is leading a snowball fight like a military campaign and Gance pulls out almost all the stops (not yet the tri-screen finale) to tell the story. Featuring dramatic hand-held camera work, super-fast cuts, multiple exposures, you name it. It’s an amazing sequence in and of itself.
The first segment, running at two hours, also includes Napoleon’s return to Corsica and his persecution by the locals, for whom a variety of national associations are attempting to be made, namely by England. He winds up escaping on a small craft and endures a serious storm which Gance contrasts back and forth with the goings on in Paris as the French Revolution takes hold, with a wildly swinging camera lunging at a crowd of people and back in one of the wildest of all of the shots in the film.
The middle sequences, including Napoleon’s first major victory at Toulon becomes a bit less dramatic and innovative as the film work in the opening pieces. But the finale, with the panorama shots of the soldiers and the cavalry, riding from screen to screen in the foreground really attest to the vision and breadth of Gance’s concept. The film is epic in length, especially in its first conception as six films of unknown length, utilizing techniques and creating techniques, blazing across the screen(s). Napoleon, as subject, is prime epic material himself. It’s a perfect match.
The film, as Brownlow has dedicated his life to researching, restoring, bringing back to life, bringing to the world, is a great story in the world of film restoration, something that we all should be grateful for. But the film, initially on release in 1927 in Paris at 9 hours versus the 5 1/2 hours of our version is…clearly something different. How different? Will we ever know? Still much different from a 4 hour version in the 1980’s, too? What was there? What wasn’t?
The fascinating thing for me is how the peak of the Silent Era came about for less than a decade before it evaporated into the birth of sound film. Feature films only began in the early 1920’s. That by 1927, there was the ambition and vision for a film such as Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) or Gance’s Napoléon had come to such dramatic development in the medium, such radical, epic work. This small period, in which so many films were made (and so many lost to history), was as rich a time in cinema as ever there was or doubtless ever will be.