Silent Film Festival: Abel Gance’s Epic Movie Napoleon

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Napoleon 1
My husband, Frank, discovered that Abel Gance’s epic silent film, Napoleon, was playing with a live orchestra in Oakland last weekend.  When I found out it was 5 1/2 hours long, I told him, “You’re on your own, bub.”

This is his account of a classic movie-going experience that may not be repeated.

I had the good fortune to get a ticket last weekend for the final showing of Napoleon, Abel Gance’s silent movie masterpiece. I recall hearing about the version released with a score by Francis Ford Coppola’s father in the early 1980’s, but I skipped it then, and always wondered what I’d missed.

Now, for the first time in 30 years, a new, more complete restoration was on offer as part of the 2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, It was being shown with a live performance by the Oakland East Bay Symphony, playing an original score conduced by the composer Carl Davis. Billed as a once-in-lifetime experience, I snapped up a ticket online and headed to Oakland on Sunday, April 1.

This French movie was made in the 1920s, and was first shown in 1927. The director, Abel Gance, got funding to make 6 films to chronicle the whole life of Napoleon. He blew the entire budget on just the first installment, which only carries us through Napoleon’s early life, but even with this limited material, the film is over 5 hours long.

At first, we see him as a teen at boarding school, commanding a snowball fight among his peers. We watch the French Revolution and Napoleon’s imprisonment and the effect this has on him. We see his military talent (and defiance of authority) at the Battle of Toulon in 1793, his romance and marriage to Joséphine, who turns out (at least according to the movie) to have been imprisoned with him (and was saved by a judicious bureaucrat who literally ate – yes, tore up and swallowed – her paperwork rather than letting her be guillotined). The film finally ends with Napoleon’s invasion of Italy in 1796.

There is a lot here for the cinema buff. Some of the camera work was revolutionary for its time (1927): Double exposures (all done in camera), multiple exposures, split-screen shots, and ultra-rapid cuts (depicting the chaos and tumult of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror) are all over the place. Some cinematography techniques I think of as a contemporary (like the unsteady camera that always seems to be moving, – think Blair Witch or the Jason Bourne movies) can find roots in Napoleon from 1927.

Gance also used moving cameras mounted on operator’s chests as they walked through crowds, cameras mounted on horseback as they race along, cameras on swings over the crowds of revolutionaries, even a camera in the waves as Napoleon escapes a chasing mob by sea – truly a motion picture that lives up to the name.

He also experimented with color – having the entire image tinted blue for night shots, or red during the rage of the battle scenes, or yellow or sometimes even pink for … well, I’m not exactly sure what all that color coding meant. Since some scenes cut back and forth between camera angles with different colors for the different views, so I suspect it’s the film itself that is tinted, not just a projectionist holding up a filter. I’m not sure it adds much in this day and age, and it must be a nightmare for the restoration, but it must have been something back in 1927.

The final Act IV is the most amazing part of the whole movie. Gance expands the screen with three projectors, showing images side by side as Napoleon rouses his army to invade Italy, and then as the battle unfolds. Sometimes showing landscape panoramas, with troop movements across the continuous landscape of the three screens, sometimes showing a triptych of 3 different images all geared to make a collective impression. At the end, the three screens become the French tricolore, using tinted film for the left in blue and the right in red, with Napoleon in black & white in the middle. Wow! Even now, jaded as we are with IMAX and widescreen and all, this was really an impressive sight.

This is a real challenge, especially with 3 synchronized projectors running at only 20 frames per second (not the usual 24 fps used today), so Napoleon will not be coming to a multiplex near you anytime soon.

So, for film buffs, there is much to love.

For movie goers, though, it’s a challenge. The movie may be only 5 ½  hours long, but the program lasted over 8 hours, with two intermissions between acts and a dinner break as well.  And, although restored with all the titles in English, it is an effort to stay seated and concentrate for such a long event no matter what. The silent style, with uneven exposures, grand gestures, and exaggerated expressions on faces making up for the lack of words, is certainly an acquired taste these days.

The subject, just on Napoleon’s youth, seems way too much. Gance makes a great effort to convince you his quotes and facts are “Historical” (the word appears on all title slides when quoting from some record of events), but Gance’s hero-worship for this guy is a bit nauseating. The schoolboy snowball fight is amusing, since we are supposed to see the general-to-be in the boy, but as the film moves on (and on and on), it seems Napoleon could do nothing wrong. He called everyone around him idiots, and from this presentation, they really were! All you need is to let a heroic man of megalomaniacal vision take over and France will be glorious. The French nationalism ad nauseam is a bit hard to take. There is even a long scene where is seems Napoleon was instrumental to Parisian crowds adopting the La Marseillaise as a Revolutionary theme song. Really?

We’ve learned a lot about movies since this first was projected, but just a decade later, they were making movies like Gone With the Wind, with sound and in color, that we relate to essentially as we do today. In contrast, Napoleon seems like a piece from another world, both as cinema and as politics. It is a landmark achievement, yes, and since staging this production, with a live orchestra and a trio of synchronized 20 fps projectors is so difficult, by all means, catch this if they ever stage a screening near you.

But, it is a once-in-a lifetime thing – once is surely enough to sit through the whole thing, and it’s not at all what you expect from a movie today. So, I’m glad I did it, but am also glad I didn’t try to bring the family (our video game loving son would have been bored bored bored).

Napoleon was shown at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. This was the first event I’d been to there, and what a place! An art deco masterpiece, halls decorated with nude or near nude images of figures in vaguely Greek or Egyptian styles, latticework in the ceilings to dazzle and amaze. It’s worth a trip to the Theatre just to see the place.


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