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Napoleon, Triumphant

Features
by Leonard Maltin
March 26, 2012 4:03 AM
20 Comments
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It’s difficult to capture the majesty of the tryptich finale in a snapshot, but here’s one try…

“Thrilling” is the only word to describe the experience of watching Abel Gance’s 5½ hour epic Napoleon, at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California this weekend, accompanied by Carl Davis and the Oakland East Bay Symphony. There are two more performances next weekend, and if you don’t make an effort to be there you’ll miss one of the great moviegoing events of your life. For more information, click HERE.

Not having seen the 1927 film since its now-famous showing at Radio City Music Hall more than thirty years ago, I only recalled isolated scenes that, it turned out, were just as great as I remembered. I forgot how amazing the movie is as a whole. Its return, in an ambitious two-weekend event, was engineered by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and marks the U.S. debut of Kevin Brownlow’s “ultimate” restoration. This Napoleon is not only longer than the print many of us saw in the 1980s, but much improved. Kevin told me that his greatest satisfaction was being able to replace blow-up footage from 9.5mm prints and other inferior sources with 35mm material, shot by shot.

…and here is another, made even more striking by the use of a color tint, as it first appeared in 1927.

For composer-conductor Davis, having the 48-piece Oakland-based orchestra play his marathon score so beautifully was a source of great pride. At a Sunday morning celebration following the film’s Saturday debut—an all-day affair, beginning at 1:30 p.m. and ending just before 10pm, with three intermissions and a two-hour dinner break—Davis told me that he decided to have the musicians stand and take a bow just before the fourth act, as is customary at American opera performances. The members of the symphony obliged, but didn’t anticipate the roar of approval and standing ovation they received. As a result, they played the final act of Napoleon, including its emotional three-screen Polyvision finale, with particular enthusiasm.

Brownlow’s greatest frustration is that he has never been able to find the sequence of the French slaughter of hostages at Toulon, in which the filmmaker used his camera to envision the point-of-view of the bullets streaking through the air! Gance donated this footage to the Cinemathèque Française years ago, but it seems to have vanished.

In the meantime, we will have to content ourselves with his mighty pageant of Napoleon’s early years and triumphs, on and off the battlefield.

Gance opens his film the way modern directors do, with a vigorous action scene instead of a slow stream of exposition. Yet this schoolboy snowball fight  perfectly sets up the character of Napoleon Bonaparte (played as a youth by the remarkable Vladimir Roudenko), a fierce and lonely boy destined for greatness. In the course of this sequence we also see some of Gance’s visual innovations, years ahead of their time, including hand-held camerawork and rapid-fire montages reminiscent of Soviet cinema. It is a tour de force that whets our appetite for more, and there is certainly much more to come.

When, in the final two reels, the curtains part and reveal three connected screens for Gance’s audacious finale—decades before Cinerama made its debut—one cannot help but gasp. Not only does he use the ultra-wide frame to reveal panoramic shots of Napoleon addressing his troops from a promontory point, but he plays with all the possibilities of the tryptich, showing mirror-images on the left and right with a separate image in the middle, be it Bonaparte riding toward us on his horse, or another kinetic montage reviewing the high spots of his life up to that point. When the images acquire the colors of the French flag—red, blue, and white—the effect is astonishing (and, of course, the music builds to an emotional crescendo right along with the film).

The only thing better than seeing Napoleon onscreen, with a live orchestra and a simpatico audience, was seeing it in the art deco jewel that is the Oakland Paramount. I’ve been to many great movie palaces in my day, but this lovingly restored masterwork is in a class by itself. I’ve posted some of my amateur snapshots to give you an idea of this sumptuous auditorium, but you can see even more by visiting their website HERE.

I saw many friends and colleagues at the Saturday screening, from Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan, who was beaming with joy, to filmmaker and film buff Alexander Payne. Patrick Stanbury, Kevin Brownlow’s stalwart partner in Photoplay Productions, glowed like a proud parent, as did Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein, who did a tremendous job of promotion for the event. The critical 35mm presentation, which required the construction of three separate projection booths, was supervised by Chapin Cutler, Chris Reyna and their expert team from Boston Light and Sound.

The folks from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, led by Rob Byrne, Stacey Wisnia, and Anita Monga, stuck their necks out to make this dream a reality, and they’ve already earned the thanks of (literally) thousands of filmbuffs. I can only add my name to that list and cheer their noble efforts. A movie as special as Napoleon deserves this kind of treatment, and nothing less.

The grand lobby of the Paramount—the last word in opulence.
Celebrated poster artist Paul Davis holds the program book that features his rendering of 'Napoleon'.
Oscar winner Alexander Payne chats with Oscar winner Kevin Brownlow at the Paramount.
Here’s the view from the second balcony, taken during an intermission.
Composer-conductor Carl Davis takes a bow, with the image of Abel Gance (as he appears in his own film, as the character Saint-Just) at the conclusion of 'Napoleon'.
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20 Comments

  • Justin Fawsitt | April 5, 2012 1:52 AMReply

    This was an unforgettable experience. The stunning artistic and technical scope of the film; the grandeur and occasional whimsy of the score; the stirring performance by the East Bay Symphony; the gilded splendor of the Paramount Theater and the enthusiasm of the sold-out audience, everything blended together beautifully. Congratulations to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival!

  • Rory O'Connor | April 3, 2012 5:01 PMReply

    With all the kudos here -- every bit of it richly deserved -- I want to commend the technical crew as well. I was a volunteer during the run and had a chance to both speak to the projectionists and sound engineer as well as see the final performance on April 1. The challenge of not only setting up such a complex screening (right down to hand-filing aperture gates), but to manage the running of the final reel from three projection booths and maintain the integrity of Gance's vision, is daunting and required exceptional skill. They handled it flawlessly.

  • Jason | March 28, 2012 10:49 PMReply

    Nice! Everything should be 35mm!

  • Rob Noel | March 28, 2012 7:14 PMReply

    There aren't enough superlatives to describe the effect of seeing this epic film. Through good fortune Leonard was 2 rows directly behind me with his family and Rob Byrne the SD Silent Film Festival director was a row behind me with his wife and friends. Upon completion of the film Leonard gave Rob a lot of gratitude with a handshake for getting Napoleon back on the big screen.

    For the record Leonard wasn't sitting in the aisle snapping any pictures. A young woman snapped several sitting next to my row ~ row M. She sat on the floor doing her best to be unobtrusive. However, it was annoying to hear the flutter of the shutter for perhaps the handful of pictures that she took and she was taking these during the Triptych finale.

    I got to shake Mr. Brownlow's hand and get his autograph on my region 4 did. He wrote his own feelings on the cover "(It's Awful!)". I recognized Kenneth Turan, David Shepherd of Blackhawk Films, and there were other familiar film afficianados around too.

    When the Triptych curtains peeled back there was an audible gasp. Even though this film is a legend and we all know what's coming it still was enough to take your breath away. When the final strands of the film and the orchestra reached its crescendo a short time later I had tears in my eyes and I was unable to speak or holler out in joyous approval when Carl and the OEB Orchestra was receiving our love of this night.

    I am returning on April 1st for the final showing.

  • chris frost | March 28, 2012 4:52 PMReply

    Mr.Maltin,thank you so much for the information on how to see the film "Napoleon".Your review of this film alone made me want to see it.I saw it on Sunday the 25th and I must say it was well worth the trip from Prince Edward Island,Canada.If you're not sure where that is,it's on the east coast of Canada.Kevin Brownlow really outdone himself in piecing together and presenting this silent masterpiece on screen.The tryptich ending was something to low and behold.Carl Davis' score was outstanding.These two gentleman have a lot to be proud of.Abel Gance was a filmmaker technically ahead of his time and I can only imagine how many other filmmakers this man has influenced.When I was at the Paramount I bought a copy of Abel Gance's 1919 version of "J'Accuse".Look forward to watching it.I would have also bought a copy of "La Roue"but they were all sold out.I noticed you didn't have reviews in your Movie Guide of either one of these films(Though you did mention the 1919 version of "J'Accuse" in your review of the 1938 version.)I would certainly look forward to reading your reviews of those two films.Thanks again,Mr.Maltin.Love your Movie Guides,I hope you keep doing them.I've been buying a copy of them every year since 1989.

  • robcat2075 | March 27, 2012 11:07 PMReply

    The rare classic film that lives up to its legend, at least as presented at this event.

    I was there on the 24th and was overwhelmed. The technical flaws in it and the oversize proportions of it would get any modern movie laughed out of the theater and yet somehow none of that mattered, the sum effect was impossibly powerful.

    I'm still sorting out why it worked when so much of it should not have, it may boil down to a just a few simple elements well-executed, but I was thrilled it did work.

  • Larry Feinberg | March 27, 2012 8:03 PMReply

    A great piece, Leonard, on an event not to be missed. I must say, I'm a bit aghast that you were sitting in the screening snapping pictures of the film, which seems a bit dodgy, truth be told.

  • Wayne Jones | March 27, 2012 5:58 PMReply

    Bill Desowitz on Indiewire wrote: "restoration guru Robert Harris ("Lawrence of Arabia") is 'performing due diligence toward a digital restoration of 'Napoleon', and we hope to have something complete within the year.'" Harris is/was Coppola's partner in producing the last Americanized 24fps restoration in 1981 with the 4-hour Carmine Coppola score. So it's likely that the upcoming digital version will revert to the Coppola edition to nail down the Coppola imprint for all history. So the current spectacular restoration in 35mm may be the last we'll see of the full 5 1/2 hour version. I'd say more, but Francis might send both DiNiro and Pacino over to whack me! http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/movies/the-many-lives-of-abel-gances-napoleon.html?_r=1&hpw=&pagewanted=all

  • Robin May | March 27, 2012 1:00 PMReply

    As a member of the orchestra I speak for all of my colleagues when I thank you for kind words and insightful review. Mr. Davis has been a pleasure to work with this past week and his effort to make the score fit so beautifully with the film has left us all breathless in more ways than one. Playing for over five hours and still enjoying it at the end was not something I anticipated. This has been a wonderful experience and I look forward to next weekend. RM

  • Paul F. Etcheverry | March 27, 2012 12:28 PMReply

    Excellent job, Leonard - and I have my ticket for April 1!

  • Dee | March 26, 2012 11:59 PMReply

    My mom and I went on the 24th and we are so glad we did. It was a wonderful experience. What an epic event! Truly a masterpiece!

  • Jon Mirsalis | March 26, 2012 9:46 PMReply

    Thanks Leonard for the great review. I'm seeing it on the 31st and I can't wait! I saw the previous version in 1982 and at about 3.5 hr it was impressive, but the score was somewhat less so. I wanted more of the film and the Davis score, so at last I'll get to see it as it should be seen!

  • Kay | March 26, 2012 7:56 PMReply

    Dear Leonard,
    I'm so glad you were there "for us"...and I'm so happy for Mr. Brownlow, who must have felt about as triumphant as Napoleon did! Thanks for sharing your excitment with us! See you in a few weeks at the TCM Film Festival. I think movie fans are incredibly lucky, don't you, that so many folks are working so hard to make our dreams come true.
    (By the way, I hope you'll write something about the demolishing of the Pickford studios and the sadly probably futile attempts to save it!) Kay
    www.moviestarmakeover.com/blog/

  • Michel Pouliot | March 26, 2012 6:04 PMReply

    I live in Montreal and won't make it to California. It's a shame that this ultimate Brownlow restauration is (apparently) not scheduled for DVD or Blu-ray. I, for one, had the privilege to see the 1981 Coppola release in a local Quebec City theatre, and I made a VHS recording of its PBS presentation around 1990. I think I will take great care of this cassette... and buy the Carl Davis score on CD !

  • John Bengtson | March 26, 2012 5:13 PMReply

    Thank you so much for the wonderful post! Those tryptich photos have really whetted my appetite. I'm going the 31st.

  • Patrick Picking | March 26, 2012 4:20 PMReply

    I'll be flying out from Detroit to Oakland on Thursday afternoon, spending Friday touring the city, and I'll be at the theatre on Saturday the 31st. Looking forward to it. Thanks for the great review, as always!

  • Maggie Thompson | March 26, 2012 4:03 PMReply

    Thanks to fellow film buff Alan Light, my late husband, Don, and I saw the Coppola-Brownlow version at the Chicago Theater decades ago - and it was truly incredible. I've admired Carl Davis' work with Brownlow in the past and wish I could see this evolution of the classic project. In the meantime, let me echo you: Anyone who CAN get to see this SHOULD see it. The film is a masterpiece, the loving restorations and exhibition are a tribute to professionals and the enthusiasms they ignite, and sharing it with an appreciative audience makes such an experience a once-in-a-lifetime treasure.

  • Jeff Heise | March 26, 2012 5:16 PM

    Maggie-I had the pleasure of seeing the film both in its first weekend at Radio City and in Columbus, Ohio later that spring. I consider this film to be one of the 5 greatest films ever made and I regret not being able to see the film in SF this past weekend, but who knows? I might be able to make it this coming weekend. I miss seeing you and Don's absence has been deeply felt by film mavens. I hope all is well with you and hope to hear back from you.

  • Rob | March 26, 2012 1:45 PMReply

    I'll be there the 31st! Can't wait!

  • Jana Weldon | March 29, 2012 10:21 PM

    Was there on March 25, 2012. ENTHRALLING!!!!!! I didn't buy the program, I didn't buy the poster, I may buy Davis's DVD, but the experiences of each real, the genuine cinematic experiences was what it was about. I was roused, intrigue,d and did I mention, enthralled. The snowball fight, the 3 Gods with Robespierre in sunglasses, the "swelling" of the assembly as the storms took sway, the victim's ball, the opening of the curtain to the GRANDE triptych..... Merci Beau coupe ABEL GANCE!

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