Watching Napoleon with Kevin Brownlow

Last week, on assignment for France 24, I attended the U.S. premiere of film historian Kevin Brownlow’s most recent restoration of Abel Gance’s monumental 1927 silent epic Napoleon. Under the auspices of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, over the course of four nights, roughly 12 000 people experienced cinematic history.

Gance’s film hadn’t graced a North American screen since a Francis Ford Coppola-produced roadshow played several cities, including Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre, over thirty years ago.

It did play Toronto earlier, when a mangled, incomprehensible cut by MGM premiered at the Loew’s Yonge St. Theatre in October, 1928. “What Gance sent them was six hours,” said Brownlow, during our interview at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, CA. “And what they showed was seventy-five minutes.”

An ad for Napoleon in the Toronto Daily Star, October 1928. Rather unremarkable, claimed the critic, who was more puzzled by Napoleon’s appearance compared to the famous portraits of his days of exile: “This actor is much too thin, too tall and too eagle-like in the face.”

But thanks to Brownlow’s efforts, this restoration runs nearly 5 ½ hours – 8 ½ with intermissions. “Pure cinema,” as he called it, with composer Carl Davis conducting a 46 piece orchestra.

Presented with an honourary Academy Award in 2010 for his various books, documentaries and film restorations, Brownlow is the reason why this film, about the early days of Napoleon Bonaparte, is even remembered today. When he discovered it in 1954, it was mostly forgotten: re-releases and home distribution offerings had stripped the film of its technical wizardry and contemporary reviews did not incite the kind of praise worthy of Brownlow’s claim of it being “better than Citizen Kane.”

At the film’s dress rehearsal on March 23, I was informed that Brownlow was in the auditorium overseeing the test of the film’s famous three-screen Polyvision finale. As test patterns and Vincent Price trailers (yes, really) were used to calibrate the projectors, we discussed films we’d seen at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival last October.

As he sat down in one of the Paramount’s cushy art-deco chairs, keeping his trusty Cinerama baseball cap on, I told him I’d return five minutes before the scheduled interview.

A sense of wide-eyed wonderment

The rehearsal started late, so when I returned, Brownlow asked to hold off until the end of the upcoming Marseillaise sequence. “This is the scene that first marveled me in 1954,” he said quietly, as though not to disturb the orchestra. Inviting me to sit down beside him – surely the cinematic equivalent to sparring a round with Norman Mailer –  he assuredly added: “It will be worth it.”

It was. As warm amber tinting emanated from a stained glass window, I was instantly drawn in as the orchestra elevated the patriotic pomp that is “La Marseillaise” into a roaring crescendo. The camera swirls, full of bright, silvery visages held me transfixed. It was at this moment where I realized that every word Brownlow had written about the film in books like ‘The Parade’s Gone By’ (1948) or ‘Napoleon’ (1983) was bereft of even the slightest exaggeration about its visual impact. And we still had 13 reels to go.

Out of the corner of my eye, the film’s flicker reflecting off his eye-glasses, I couldn’t help but be swayed by his sense of wide-eyed wonderment, undiminished since adolescence.

As the sequence ended and the tinting reverted to its original black & white, we slowly – reluctantly – exited the auditorium. It’s difficult to detach yourself from cinema that grapples your core in such a way, or as Brownlow’ puts it, “makes a participant of the audience.”

Walking up the staircase to the mezzanine where my camera crew was set up, I asked him if, having seen it so many times, the film’s effect had dwindled over the years. “Absolutely not,” he said, in his most polite are-you-kidding-me kind of way. “It’s even more entrancing now because it didn’t look anything like that when I first saw it.” Indeed, decades of research and work, with the help of several archives like the BFI and the Cinematheque Francaise, had gone into restoring the film to what director Abel Gance himself had originally intended.

With my own eyes

The next day, when I experienced the film in its entirety, I realized what a silly question that was. Even if Gance had abandoned production after the opening snowball sequence, showing the young Bonaparte’s burgeoning tactical genius, it would still be considered the greatest one-reeler ever made.

But the film’s moment de triomphe is the lauded three-screen Polyvision finale. Despite the beautiful rush of images we’d seen over the last seven hours, the tryptich presentation of Napoleon’s Italian campaign is what we’d all been waiting for. A gasp, in unison, was heard when the curtains revealed the two other screens. The remainder of the reel was a beautiful sequence of marching soldiers, a horse-mounted Bonaparte traversing the three screens (meriting riotous ovation from the crowd), and its blue, white and red, French flag-tinted finale.

The audience’s applause for Carl Davis was ferocious, but grew even louder when Abel Gance’s signature appeared on-screen.

Twenty or so minutes later, while standing on the subway platform, I wasn’t the only one humming ‘La Marseillaise.’

See my report on Napoleon’s trumphant return to the U.S. on France 24’s Culture Show [It’s at the top of the show, about 0:45 in].

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