Abel Gance’s Magnificent Napoléon
By Janine Gericke.
On March 24, 25, 31 and April 1, 2012, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival proudly presented Abel Gance’s five and a half hour epic Napoléon at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre presented by film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow, along with the British Film Institute, American Zoetrope, the Film Preserve, and Photoplay Productions. Brownlow’s love of this film began in the 1950s, when he was just a boy and stumbled upon 2 reels of the film. From that moment on, his curiosity has driven a decades long quest to find footage and restore the film to its original glory. Re-edited versions of the film have surfaced once or twice a decade since 1965, but not since 1927 has this much of the film been screened with a full orchestra, completely restored toning and replica interstitials.
The Paramount has proven to be the only venue in the world to showcase this ambitious film, with its exquisite art deco interior and full orchestra pit for Carl Davis and the full Oakland East Bay Symphony to perform a sweeping score. For 2 weekends, audiences settled into the five and a half hour film, with three intermissions, including a two-hour dinner break, lasting nearly nine hours. That is dedication. It warms my heart to know that so many people came to the Paramount, excited to take part in this once in a lifetime event.
Originally filmed in 1927, Napoléon, spans the time from when Napoléon was a young boy in 1783, all the way to 1796, when a 26-year-old Napoléon commanded the French army into Italy. Gance originally planned this film as the first installment of a six-part series, leading up to Napoléon’s exile on Saint Helena. Gance definitely took chances and had a very clear vision for how he wanted to tell this story. The film opens with a huge snowball fight, with young Napoléon and his comrades battling their enemy. It is here where we begin to see the man, and leader, that he will soon become. During this impressive sequence, Gance utilizes hand-held camera work, fades, overlapping images, and rapid-fire editing. Many of his rapid-cutting techniques would later be picked up by French New Wave directors of the 1950s. Gance turns a snowball fight into an epic battle scene. We see images of young Napoléon looking around and admiring his work, which is overlapped with images of the schoolboys fighting. As the sequence moves on, the edits become faster and faster, to an almost dizzying effect. Throughout the film, Gance uses effects to heighten what is happening, including a scene with nine simultaneous images on the screen during a pillow fight in Napoléon’s living quarters. He was also very creative with how he got certain shots, by mounting cameras on horses, a pendulum, and even a sled and a bicycle. Gance also used color tinting and toning, to help enrich scenes, which Brownlow enhanced by using the original dye-bath techniques.
Though the entire film is quite impressive, the final 20 minutes left audiences awed. For the finale, Gance wanted to create a larger than life scene. This was done by crafting Polyvision—simultaneously projecting the film onto three adjacent screens—something unheard of before this film. In order to project this triptych finale, the Paramount had to be equipped with three projection booths and three projectors. When projected, this forms an aspect ratio of 4:1. It was breathtaking. The scene envelops you, completely surrounding you with the film. This was further intensified with the score by Carl Davis and the Oakland East Bay Symphony. I have never seen anything like this, and am almost certain that I won’t see anything like it again. Seeing this film and hearing this score gave me chills. It is so unexpected and stirringly emotional. I had no idea that the film would pull me in the way it did.
Gance passed away in 1981. I think that he would have been very pleased and very proud to see his magnificent film at the Paramount, with over 3,000 cheering fans for two straight weekends. It has been amazing to talk to people who attended the screenings and hear them describe how the film made them feel. It is a rare and incredible treat to have that kind of experience. These things just don’t happen very much anymore. It was the same feeling I have every year that I attend the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. It just makes me so happy to know that so many people love and appreciate silent film and that there will always be a need to restore these lost or seemingly forgotten films. Gance has certainly found a fan in me.
For more information on Oakland’s Paramount Theatre of the Arts, please visit the website: http://www.paramounttheatre.com/
Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Read Michael T. Toole’s interview with SFSFF President Rob Byrne here.