Napoleon at the Paramount: An Incredible Day at the Movies

Abel Gance’s Napoleon so overwhelmed me that I hardly know where to start. Despite a few slow sequences, the experience was as innovating, exciting, and entertaining as anything I’ve experienced as part of an audience. I doubt I have ever seen such a perfect melding of cinema and showmanship; the movie requires this special presentation, and the presentation would overwhelm any other movie.

Napoleon is huge in every sense of the word, from its 5 ½-hour runtime to its vistas crammed with thousands of extras to its epic subject matter–Napoleon Bonaparte’s life from childhood through his emergence as France’s ruler and his conquest of Italy. With that conquest, the picture literally goes huge, expanding the screen to three times its original width. Yet the picture finds time for intimacy. A young boy cries over the disappearance of a pet. A teenage girl struggles with a crush on a man far outside her reach. A peasant struggles to hide his illiteracy.

Plenty of epics have intimate moments. But no other film I’ve seen uses the camera and the editor’s scissors quite like Napoleon. Gance put the camera on a pendulum and swung it over heated political arguments. He cut so swiftly that many shots are almost subliminal. He used double exposure (which had to be done in the camera back then) to show us the same incident from different angles, or to place a face over an action scene.

And then, more than five hours into the movie, the masking beside the screen opens up like a curtain, and 25 years before Cinerama, the screen goes wide. The result is breath-taking.

Like Cinerama, Gance’s Polyvision used three synchronized projectors to create an immersive, widescreen cinematic experience. Except that here the screen is angled rather than curved, and there’s no real attempt to hide the join lines. The illusion is problematic, and the projectionists appeared to be constantly adjusting frames to make the panels line up. When a horse rides across the screen in the background, it disappears briefly between the right and center panels. But when it rides across near the camera, the illusion is all but perfect.

Gance didn’t limit Polyvision to panoramic shots. He also used it to put three separate images onto the same giant screen. You might, for instance, have a close-up of Napoleon in the center, and his fighting army on the sides.


Yet none of these innovations feel like mere showing off. The technique was always in the service of the story.

And the presentation, underwritten by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, was always in the service of the film. To properly present Napoleon, they had to build a special three-part screen, as well as masking that would conceal two of those parts and then open up on cue. They also had to build three special projection booths.

Let’s not forget the music. I’ve been a fan of composer/conductor Carl Davis since PBS started broadcasting British transfers of silent films. Yesterday, I got to hear him conduct an orchestra live for the first time. His score, which leaned heavily (and appropriately) on Beethoven, added zeal, depth, and beauty to the film. When a character on screen was playing a musical instrument, we heard that instrument. A bass drum provided explosions, and nothing was missing.

My wife, herself a classical musician, knows some of the performers. They told her that Davis was wonderful to work with. I already knew he was talented; it’s nice to find out he’s a nice guy, too.

Another new experience for me: I’ve seen many silent films with tints–more than I can tell you. But this was the first time I actually saw a tinted print. In the past, the tints were always recreated on color film–or, more often, on video. But Kevin Brownlow printed the restored Napoleon on black-and-white film, then added the tints by running the print through a dye bath, more accurately recreating the original prints.

The effect was outstanding. The tints were far more vibrant than anything you could create on color film. At the very end, Gance (and Brownlow) combined tints with Polyvision, tinting the left strip of film blue and the right one red, while leaving the middle one untinted. The result was a giant Tricolor flag with moving images of Napoleon’s Italian victory. Even the Francophobes  in the audience applauded.

Which brings me to what I didn’t like about Napoleon: For all of its technical and artistic brilliance, it’s jingoistic, blindly patriotic, and unquestionably pro-war. Yes, I’ve read that Gance was a pacifist, and that he planned to be more critical in the five intended-but-never-produced sequels. But I have to judge the film he made, and it borders on fascism. It treats military prowess as the greatest virtue, and assumes that France has a natural right to attack neighboring countries. It treats the title character, a man who unleashed war and destruction across Europe while crowning himself emperor in the name of an anti-monarch revolution, as a near god. The last time I saw a film with so many extras looking adoringly at the protagonist, it was about Jesus.

In his defense, I should mention that Gance shows us a handful of horrors-of-war images. But these are minor compared to his jingoistic call for imperialism in the name of revolution.

Napoleon’s thematic problems don’t take away from its amazing artistry–an artistry that could never be reproduced on any home-based entertainment system. It plays two more times next weekend. If you miss it, you will almost certainly never again get another chance.

Note, 3/25/2012: I have altered this post, adding the above photo and the sentence that precedes it.