French director Abel Gance conceived an ambitious plan to film the life of the famous French leader in the early 1920s and, during a trip to America, even sought out D.W. Griffith to get his blessing for the project. Six feature films were to have presented a comprehensive biography of Napoleon but after a two-year struggle, Gance only succeeded in completing the first film before he ran out of money and time.
A tireless inventor, Gance devised new ways of presenting his story. To show his hero's rapidly calculating mind, Gance splashed on screen shots containing up to sixteen superimpositions. A pillow fight becomes a flurry of feathers and action as the screen divides itself into four, then nine, separate images. This was not achieved in the lab; for each effect the film had to be exposed and re-exposed in the camera by means of complex calculations.
To contrast a storm at sea with the furor inside Paris' Revolutionary Convention, Gance had the camera mounted on a swing, then sent it back and forth within inches of his actors' heads. Cameras were strapped to sleds, to horses' backs, sent underwater - anything to get the dynamic shots necessary to express the story.
Gance's most incredible invention can be seen at the story's climax. Filming Napoleon's invasion of Italy, Gance found his canvas too small. He strapped three cameras together to provide a panorama that could be projected on three separate screens. The result he called "Polyvision;" a quarter-century later the same idea was re-invented as Cinerama.
After the near-drowning of his lead actor, a magnesium explosion that left Gance terribly burned, and a detached retina caused by eyestrain during editing, Gance premiered his masterpiece at the Paris Opera on April 27, 1927. This three-hour, forty-minute version, ending with the three-panel panorama of the French Army marching into Italy, was heralded as the greatest triumph in French film history. An even longer version running close to seven hours played in select theaters across France.
Unfortunately, the triumph quickly passed when the U.S. version flopped after being stripped of its multi-screen ending and butchered to less than ninety minutes. It also didn't help that by the time Napoleon opened in early 1929, American moviegoers were too enraptured by the talkies to pay attention to a silent historical epic.
Gance tried several times to adapt the film to sound but failed to revive the film or his reputation. With Cinerama films sweeping the world in the early 1950s and no credit going to him for its invention, Gance gave in to despair and threw the negatives of his panoramas into a fire.
There it might have ended except for the efforts of a fifteen-year-old British boy, Kevin Brownlow. Discovering a two-reel abridgement of the film in his local library, Brownlow was stunned by its skill and artistry and set out to find more of this lost classic. It took him twenty-six years to reconstitute enough of the film to hold its re-premiere. On August 31, 1979, at the Telluride Film Festival, Brownlow projected a version close to five hours long, made of pieces of prints from all over the world and ending with a reconstituted multi-screen ending. The audience was stunned by the film's sweep and bravura and gave a standing ovation to the film and its creator, the 89-year-old Abel Gance, who had flown over for the showing.
In the audience was director Francis Ford Coppola. He became a devotee and brought the film to Radio City Music Hall in 1981 with a live orchestral score written and conducted by his father, Carmine Coppola. The ending, as the screen opened to reveal the panoramic panels, sent the audience into applause and cheering. Gance was by then too ill to attend but Brownlow telephoned him in Paris and let the elderly director hear the ovation for him and his film; over fifty years late but undoubtedly confirming Napoleon as one of the most powerful and important films ever made. This coming spring, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will present Brownlow's complete 5 1/2 hour restoration for the first time in America, along with the U.S. premiere of the orchestral score by Carl Davis, at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, March 24, 25, 31 and April 1.
Director/Screenplay: Abel Gance
Cinematography: Jules Kruger, Joseph-Louis Mundwiller, Torpkoff
Editing: Marguerite Beauge, Abel Gance
Art Direction: Alexandre Benois, Jacouty, Meinhardt, Serge Pimenoff, Pierre Schild
Music: Carl Davis, Carmine Coppola, Arthur Honegger
Cast: Albert Dieudonne (Napoleon Bonaparte), Yvette Dieudonne (Elisa Bonaparte), Suzanne Bianchetti (Marie-Antoinette), Marguerite Gance (Charlotte Corday), Edmond Van Daele (Robespierre), Conrad Veidt (Marquis de Sade), Alexandre Koubitzky (Danton), Paul Amiot (Fouquet Tinville), Annabella (Violine, Desiree Clary), Antonin Artaud (Marat), Pierre Batcheff (General Hoche).
by Brian Cady