By Gordon Meyer
A colleague of mine is in San Francisco this weekend for a special feature of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and I wish I were there with him. It’s the North American Premiere of French filmmaker Abel Gance’s restored 1927 masterpiece “Napoleon.” I first learned about “Napoleon” perusing the Cinema articles in my family’s Encyclopedia Britannica way back in the day. It was lauded as a brilliant film that had been lost over the years, a ghost of cinema past.
But the film wasn’t quite as lost as many had thought. Since its original 1927 release, the film has been cut and recut several times, with running times ranging from Gance’s “definitive” nine hour, twenty two minute version to MGM’s 1929 American version that ran an hour and fifty one minutes, with an even more truncated version running under an hour that came out for home projection in 1935. Film historian Kevin Brownlow literally spent decades tracking down prints and missing footage while Gance was still alive and in 1981, with backing from Francis Coppola, presented a four hour version that played at Radio City Music Hall in New York and the Shrine here in Los Angeles accompanied by a live sixty piece orchestra with a score composed and conducted by Carmine Coppola. This is the version I saw (appropriately enough on Bastille Day) with Coppola himself sitting a few feet in front of me in a balcony aisle.
So why is this 85 year old film so important to contemporary filmmakers? It’s because, as the recent success of “The Artist” reminded everyone, that silent films are, in many ways, offer a very pure cinematic experience. They tell their stories almost exclusively through pictures (and a handful of title and dialog cards).
Gance was a pioneer. He put his cameras on horseback, swung them from balconies and generally moved them in all sorts of innovative ways. While a lot of contemporary filmmakers use complex camera moves as a form of cinematic pyrotechnics that seems more about calling attention to itself than engaging audiences in the story, to me, Gance’s innovative camera work added a totally appropriate kinetic energy to the film.
But it’s the last 20 minutes of the film where he pulled out all the visual stops. Suddenly, the curtains part even more as two additional screens are revealed using Gance’s three-screen Polyvision technique to tell the remainder of the story. Sometimes, Gance used the three screens to show one extremely wide image (roughly a 4:1 aspect ratio), foreshadowing Cinerama by almost 30 years. And sometimes he presented a trio of complementary images, again foreshadowing the kind of split screen techniques that began to be used in the 1960s.
For the lucky audience members who managed to snag tickets, Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” offers one of the most powerful and moving examples of pure cinema I have ever seen. Its influence will continue to be felt for generations to come. Reportedly a digital restoration is in the works. Although I still have a laserdisc copy of the 1981 restoration, I can’t wait to see this more complete version, whether on a big screen with a live orchestra as I did over 30 years ago, or on a Blu-ray disc at home. It’s a remarkable film from which contemporary filmmakers can still learn valuable lessons in the art of visual storytelling.