Last July, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival announced the March 2012 screenings of Kevin Brownlow’s 5½ hour restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon. I bought my ticket the next day. I’ve never spent so much money on a movie ticket—certainly never so far in advance—but I knew I couldn’t miss it. I was a senior in high school the last time Napoleon was shown at special screenings with a live orchestra. It was big news at the time, creating quite a buzz, but I didn’t go. Yesterday I went to the first screening, and it was magnificent. Fantabulous. Exhausting. Epic.
I have to confess. From the moment I bought the ticket in July until the opening scene yesterday afternoon, I had serious doubts. Would I be able to sit through a 5½ hour film? Even with two 20 minute intermissions and a dinner break, I was still worried it would be torturous. My other worry: the longest bathroom line I’ve ever experienced was my last time at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. It’s a gorgeous Art Deco movie palace, and they do have a lot of toilets, but it doesn’t seem like nearly enough when you’re waiting in a long line.
In spite of all my fretting, the movie delighted me throughout, and I was never bored or restless. An added treat was sitting three rows behind Kevin Brownlow himself. Another pleasure was sharing the experience with so many interesting people. Because I went alone, I chatted with the folks I encountered throughout the day—walking from the BART station, swapping cameras to take photos in front of the theatre, during the dinner break and the intermissions. There were two enthusiastic twentysomethings from the Fresno area, three charming gentlemen from Flagstaff, Arizona, three others from San Francisco, and the two lovely folks who sat next to me. These last two were perfect movie companions, and they gave me a ride home across the bay on a rainy night. I feel like we all share a special bond now.
Kevin Brownlow has devoted most of his life to restoring this film to its original length, with rich color tinting and the 20 minute finale in polyvision. Abel Gance planned a series of six films about Napoleon, so this epic starts with Napoleon at ten (1779), picks up again with the French Revolution (1789), and ends with Napoleon’s first campaign in Italy (1796). I enjoyed the entire film, but I especially loved the scenes with Napoleon as a boy (Vladimir Roudenko). The opening snowball fight had some flickering at the beginning, which worried me, but the restoration soon smoothed out. Roudenko has an amazing face, and he is such a good match to Albert Dieudonné, not just in appearance but in their interpretations of Napoleon. Dieudonné doesn’t appear to be unusually short, but he is small, especially across the chest. His face is like a granite cliff. After the many closeups, it’s etched on my brain, along with the tune to La Marseillaise, which wove through the brilliant score composed and conducted by Carl Davis.
The Oakland East Bay Symphony was in an orchestra pit below the screen, and we could just see the top of Davis’ head and his baton during the film. The two side screens were covered by curtains with a square center screen, until the curtains opened up for the polyvision finale. There was only one place where the intertitles describe a missing scene, when a poor Napoleon makes boots from cardboard. This was necessary for the following scene to make sense, when his boot falls apart after being splashed with water. In a few places, a border appeared on the left side of the image where the soundtrack area was blanked out, but it wasn’t distracting.
I was surprised by the film’s humor—not broad slapstick, but funny little humanizing moments, often from extras around the edges of the film. In one crowd scene, when the people on the streets have trapped Napoleon in his apartment, cheering his success, a young soldier holds up a woman to see. Then he sets her down, and they have a long kiss against the wall. One of the biggest laughs comes when an English naval officer spots the small craft carrying the entire Boneparte family from Corsica to France. He asks his captain for permission to sink the suspicious craft. The Captain says, “No, Nelson, it’s not worth the powder and shot.” During the battle of Toulon, Marcellin the drummer boy (Serge Freddy-Karl) terrorizes enemy soldiers by moving around the mud, hidden under his battered drum. Two clerks try to save victims from the guillotine by surreptitiously eating the condemning documents. A lovestruck Napoleon sees Josephine’s face in a world globe and kisses it; the actor coaching him in romance asks if he’s kissing Paris.
Maybe I shouldn’t have found it funny when Napoleon’s enemy Salicetti (Philippe Hériat) glares at him with intense hatred, especially in his huge plumed hat, but it’s one of the delights of the film. I was also delighted by the many animals—eagles, horses, dogs, a parrot, and even a big white rabbit. The first eagle is boy Napoleon’s pet, and eagles keeps reappearing at key moments throughout the film. It’s a nice touch when Josephine’s dog nips at her jailers when they’re putting her into a prison cell.
I’m not a huge fan of color tinting, but it’s used to good effect. Night scenes are blue, battle scenes a deep red, and many other parts are golden yellow. Napoleon and Josephine’s wedding night and the Victims Ball (complete with flower petals and partially nude dancing girls) are tinted lavender. During the last part of the polyvision finale, the three screens are blue, white and red, forming the French flag.
We clapped and cheered when the curtains parted for the finale. I know I grinned like an idiot for the entire polyvision sequence. When the action across the three screens was one continuous shot, they didn’t match up too well at the seams, and the color on the far left panel was often a slightly different shade than the other two, but it was all wonderful and very effective. It was also powerfully emotional with the score thundering to a climax. I was wiping away tears by the end. I was very tempted to get out my camera, but I resisted until the film was done, when Carl Davis and the orchestra were getting their well-deserved applause. Others in the audience were not so conscientious. I saw a few digital screens, and a fellow right behind me used a flash. It didn’t ruin anything for me, because the whole day was an amazing, unforgettable experience. Merci, Mr. Brownlow, Mr. Davis, and Monsieur Gance!
There are three more screenings of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, and I can’t recommend it enough. Some tickets are still available, so go if you can. It’s a bargain at any price.
“When you’re silent, you’re irresistible.” — Josephine to Napoleon