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Immersed in Movies: The Return of Abel Gance's 'Napoleon'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood March 23, 2012 at 2:07PM

Never mind about 3-D and IMAX and higher frame rates and immersive design and "The Artist" and "Hugo": Abel Gance's monumental silent, "Napoleon" (1927), is back and fully restored and better than ever. It boasts more than half-an-hour of additional footage discovered by tireless Oscar-winning British author/director/preservationist Kevin Brownlow.

Never mind about 3-D and IMAX and higher frame rates and immersive design and "The Artist" and "Hugo": Abel Gance's monumental silent, "Napoleon" (1927), is back and fully restored and better than ever. It boasts more than half-an-hour of additional footage discovered by tireless Oscar-winning British author/director/preservationist Kevin Brownlow ("The Parade's Gone By..."), who produced the project with his partner at Photoplay, Patrick Stanbury. There's improved picture along with better tinting and toning (using the original dipping method rather than photographic reproduction of color), and more accurate-looking, ornate title cards. The five-and-a half-hour epic makes its U.S. debut this weekend at Oakland's elegant Art Deco Paramount Theater, with Carl Davis conducting the Oakland East Bay Symphony. It screens March 24, 25, 31, and April 1.

Presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (in association with Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope, The Film Preserve, Photoplay Prods., and the BFI) at a staggering cost of $700,000, this will likely be the last time we can enjoy "Napoleon" on film. Indeed, 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." This means the possibility of more theatrical screenings and a Blu-ray release.

But "Napoleon" has it all: excitement, grandeur, scope, intimacy, mythic storytelling, humor, and widescreen splendor (the triptych "Polyvision" climax anticipates Cinerama). And, yes, it's as immersive as you can get for an ambitious silent that utilizes more cinematic tricks than dear old Meliés ever thought of. Yet Gance's greatest innovation of all was freeing the camera from the tripod and bringing it closer to the action (the cross-cutting of the storm at sea and the political storm among the politicians with the camera swooping on a pendulum puts Griffith to shame). There's a great deal of experimental hand-held work and overlapping images that are just so dynamic. The rapid cutting montage of the early snowball fight is unforgettable. It's like watching a whirling dervish and its conceit is fearless. Gance even considered 3-D but realized that it wasn't necessary.

Napoleon II

No wonder Brownlow, 73, has been having an ongoing love affair with "Napoleon" for more than half a century. He still believes it's the greatest movie ever made, and, with each version, becomes more persuasive.

"It's certainly the finest film I've ever seen," Brownlow said by phone from London. "I think people are slightly taken aback when Napoleon is presented with the blazing light behind his head, but I think they don't realize there were going to be six films, so he's building Napoleon up in order to bring [him] down when he becomes the autocratic dictator."

One of the marvelous new sequences that viewers will be seeing for the first time stateside is a mob attacking Napoleon's home in Corsica (filmed at the actual house). "The funny thing is the picture is so convincing that when I saw the house and went inside in Corsica, I was outraged to discover they altered it," Brownlow explained. "And, of course, they hadn't altered it: the interior [was filmed] at a studio. But it was so perfectly integrated and so beautifully lit, I was convinced it was shot on location."

Brownlow's initial reconstruction (nearly five hours) originally debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in 1979. Then Coppola subsequently produced a four-hour road show version (but sped up) conducted by his father, Carmine, which played at Radio City Music Hall and the Shrine Auditorium in LA (where I saw it).

In 1980, back in London, Davis was commissioned to compose a five-hour score -- the longest in film history-- and he conducted the Wren Orchestra of London. Davis shrewdly incorporated Beethoven's "Third Symphony" (Beethoven admired Napoleon and Gance admired the symphony) as well as some Mozart and Haydn. Davis also used music of Napoleon's period -- songs of the French Revolution and folk music of Corsica. But when Davis discovered that Napoleon adored an aria from Paisiello's opera, "Nina," he couldn't resist adding that as well. In a sense, the composer has made his rousing score as subjective as Gance's filmmaking style, which is fitting. And Davis has been adding to it as the reconstruction has grown longer. The great news is that Davis' score can be heard for the first time domestically with the Oakland presentation.

"The film itself is so outstanding and the exercise so exciting that I rather welcomed it," Davis, 75, also said by phone from London. "Each little reshaping of it was really fun, especially nowadays where you're doing scoring and copying digitally, so that means a revision is not technically a big deal because it's a question of re-programming. But it's a film of enormous ambition. When you suddenly have a Beethoven fugue and there's rapid cutting on the screen, it's absolutely fabulous."

Meanwhile, it comes as no surprise that DVD sales for silent films in the UK have risen 40% thanks to "The Artist." It's potentially a good sign for interest in "Napoleon" and in silent films in general. It's all about enthusiasm, which Brownlow keeps reminding us about Gance, who claimed that it oozes out of every frame of his films. Gance, in fact, insisted that every filmmaker infuse his or her work with enthusiasm. Naturally Brownlow is still on the lookout for more footage, so his love affair with "Napoleon" continues. Let's hope it never ends. Tickets are available at

This article is related to: Immersed In Movies, Video, Video, Classics

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.