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Abel Gance's Napoleon
Napoleon (1927)

Shown at the Paramount Theatre, Oakland
March 24th, 2012
by John Sinnott

I live in Gainesville, Florida and, while I'm not a recluse, I am a homebody for the most part.  The reason that I mention this is that the idea of me traveling to Oakland, California, all the way across the country, for the sole reason to see a single movie is pretty far fetched.  Yet that's exactly what I did last weekend.  Though the cost easily pushes the total tab into four figures it was well worth it because I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity see Kevin Brownlow's 5 1/2 hour restoration of Abel Gance's 1927 masterpiece Napoleon.   My expectations were high, and they were met and exceeded by this wonderful film.  It will be showing two more times this coming weekend March 31 & April 1st 2012.  Due to a copyright struggle, special permission had to be obtained to even show this film in the US, and it is very doubtful that it will ever be available on any home video format.   If there's any way you can attend a performance, do so. 
The Restoration:
This movie has been a passion of silent film historian Kevin Brownlow for a large part of his life.  As he related in a presentation at last year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival, he stumbled upon a reel of the film as a young man and became enthralled with the style, dramatic storytelling, and innovative techniques in the fragment that he obtained.  He soon discovered that the original version ran an astounding six hours and concluded with an extended triptych sequence:  three projectors showing three connected images on adjacent screens.  This final battle scene was only ever shown in eight cities in Europe during the original run of the movie.  That version no longer existed however.  Being so long, the film was cut and edited over and over again until hardly anything remained on Gance's original vision. 

Kevin Brownlow began searching for alternate versions of this epic, and it was a search that stretched across over fifty years.  He even tracked down Abel Gance and interviewed him extensively for the 1968 book, The Parade's Gone By... one of the first comprehensive works on silent films and essential reading for anyone interested in the era.  (A very good read too!)  He devotes the penultimate chapter to Gance and especially Napoleon.
In 1981 a four hour restoration was completed and Carmine Coppola (Francis Ford Coppola's father) composed a score for that version, and a second score was created by silent film musician Carl Davis.  By 2004 more footage had been discovered and the film had grown to 5 ½ hours in length (some of that is due to correcting the projection speed).  The problem that has been keeping the longer version from being seen is that the Coppolas obtained a copyright for the 1981 version with Carmine's score.  Since the 2004 cut is based on the 1981 restoration, there is a rights dispute over which music can and should be played.  It is that dispute that has kept the longer film from playing in more that a couple of times since 2004 and why it will probably never make its way to home video.
The Film:
The terms 'epic' and 'masterpiece' are used a lot nowadays and every big budget spectacle, whether it's any good or not, will have one or both words plastered on the advertisements.  This is a film that can truly be called epic in scope.  Originally planned as three films, only this first movie was ever made. 
It starts with a young Napoleon Bonaparte away at boarding school in France.  The children have split up into teams for a large snowball fight, and Napoleon's team, being outnumbered 4-to-1 is loosing.  Two of the other boys, disliking the arrogant Napoleon, put a rock in a snowball and purposefully hit the boy, drawing blood.  This sends him into a rage and he runs across the field, punches the offending boy, and drags him into the middle of the no-mans-land between the two snow forts.  This causes a general melee between the sides, with Napoleon in the middle.  Though snow is flying all around him he keeps his head and shouts orders to the kids on his side.  Soon their organized attack has the larger force on the run and the outnumbered squad controls the field.  This combination of bravado, quick thinking, and calm resolution in the face of danger is something that he'll exhibit again and again.

Time passes and Napoleon has joined the French army as an officer, and is living in near poverty.  After the French Revolution he makes a rare visit back home to the island of Corsica and finds out that the ruler there, Paoli, has agreed to sell the island to the English.  This outrages the young officer who feels that Corsica should belong to France.  The Bonapartes are outspoken of their opposition to becoming English, and soon Paoli puts a price on Napoleon's head.  He has to flee his home in order to protect his family, and starts off on a great adventure that has him stealing the French flag right out of Paoli's office, being chased by armed horsemen, and finally escaping in a small boat, using the stolen flag as a sail.
In one of the many inspired scenes in the film, a storm, or actually two storms, hit.  One storm hits Napoleon while at sea in the dingy, and he has to fight for his life to ride it out.  At the same moment the other storm hits Paris, but it's a metaphorical one.  Danton, the president of the Committee of Public Safety (the ruling body after the revolution), goes before the assembly and denounces the Girondists and demands their expulsion.  Cutting between the storm at sea and the political storm that starts the reign of terror effectively shows how turbulent France was at this time.
Eventually Napoleon attains the rank of Captain and is assigned to the force that is going to attack the British and European forces that have taken over Toulon.  The first commander thinks that the artillery captain's ideas are mad, but the person who replaces him starts to listen to the short man.  After successfully defending a position that everyone thought was lost, Napoleon gets his chance to try his plan and launches a daring night time raid, in the rain no less.  He manages to take the city and becomes a hero... and brings himself to the attention of the Committee of Public Safety, which can be a most dangerous thing.

Politics is a tricky business, and Napoleon is not one to play well with others if they are fools.  After refusing to take command of the Paris garrison, Napoleon does not want to guard the people instigating The Terror, he's arrested on the same day that his future wife is, Josephine de Beauharnais.  Scheduled for execution, the death of Robespierre and the other leaders of the Reign of Terror, was the only thing that saved him.
After The Terror ended, Napoleon was freed but didn't have a post.  He eventually was assigned to the map making bureau where, once again, his genius at making plans was noticed.  When Royalists attacked the Assembly in an attempt to reinstate the monarchy, it was Napoleon, the hero of Toulon, that the members turned to in order to mount a defense.  With a greatly outnumbered force and no artillery, he managed to defend the bastion of freedom and save the legacy of the revolution!
Finally, after that victory, he was awarded a commanding role.  He was given control of the Italian campaign and sent south.  But first he had something to do.  He was in love with a woman he had met at a party, an attractive widow who had lost her husband to the guillotine, Josephine de Beauharnais.  Before he left he married her, then headed off to take command.
The movie ends with an abbreviated telling of his Italian campaign.  Arriving to find the men without food or proper clothing he has little to work with.  What's equally bad, the current general officers are openly hostile to him.  Napoleon faces them down though the seer dominance of his personality and then address his men.  He gives them a rousing speech that excites them and has them march off into history.
The Screening:
Wow, what a movie.  Playing with three intermissions over a total of slightly more than eight hours, this was quite an event.  There was easily enough here for a trio of films, and to a large extent that's what it felt like.
Albert Dieudonne is spectacular in the title role.  He has a quiet imperial arrogance about him that just fits the role perfectly.  There are several scenes where Napoleon is confronted by a group of people and he has to stare them down.  These wouldn't have worked with a lesser actor, but Dieudonne does it perfectly.  It's as if he knows, as a God given fact, that he's better than everyone else.  He's extremely confident but not cocky.  He doesn't have anything to prove.  He knows that he's great.  The actor really gives a bravura performance.
Kevin Brownlow has described Abel Gance as "the greatest French film maker of all" and it's easy to see why (even if you haven't see J'Accuse or La Roue.)  This is a magnificent movie, and it isn't a case of quantity over quality.  It is quantity and quality.  Yes, it is incredibly long, but the film is filled with innovative and wonderful shots and sequences.  For example, Gance puts a motorized camera on pendulum and swings it over a crowd in the Assembly to give a chaotic feel and then cuts that with the storm that Napoleon is fighting at sea.  It's wonderful and effective.  In other parts he cuts the frame into sections showing different actions in each one, and of course there is the amazingly effective triptych ending that has to be seen to be believed.  He also overlays images, one on top of another, throughout the film.  Other directors had done this before, but never on the scale that Gance used the technique.  In the snowball fight at the beginning he has the young Napoleon in the middle shouting orders while scenes of the 'battle' rage all around him.  There are literally dozens of images on top of the boy's face over the course of the scene.  It's very impressive.  

Abel Gance and Kevin Brownlow (1967)

This film isn't just a case of just tricks however; the movie has many powerful images that will stay with you long after the film has ended.  Gance had a wonderful visual sense and that makes it enjoyable to sit through such a long film.  In one sequence, the young boy Napoleon's only friend, a pet eagle has been set free by some bullies.  He fights them and gets punished for it:  he has to sleep outside in the winter.  With the boy lying on the cannon, fighting back the tears, his eagle flies down and lands near him.  It's a beautiful scene.  Then there's the battle of Toulon, both horrible and magnificent at the same time.  Near the end Napoleon calls for a corps of drummers to start playing, but they've all been killed.  A soldier collects all the drums and sets them down, one next to another, and then it starts to hail, and the hail beats out a tempo to which the rest of the soldiers can march. 
Of course the movie's not perfect.  If you're not up on your French history, some of the moments will be lost to you.  There are a few scenes where Napoleon asks a brave or particularly skillful soldier his name and he'll give it and then run off.  He was obviously someone that the average Frenchman of 1927 would know, but I didn't.  The same goes for some aspects of the plot.  When Danton condemns the Girondists, what was going on went over my head.  It was easy to figure things out given later events, but brushing up on what happened during the revolution before seeing this wouldn't hurt.
As with the historical films of today, this isn't as accurate as it could be, though Gance did put "(Historical)" after quotes that he took (he wrote the screen play too) from historical sources.  That was a very nice touch, but it was obvious that some characters were fictional, and some events were made from whole cloth.  That's not a problem really.  A film maker has to tell a story and sometimes a little fiction helps to move the narrative along.  What's more unfortunate is that Gance sometimes gives Napoleon motivations that most historians would say he never had.  The most glaring example of this is near the end of the movie when he's traveling to Italy.  He stops by the empty Assembly building and sees the ghosts of the people who started the revolution.  He tells the specters that he will go to the European countries to spread the revolution so that all men can be free.  I'm pretty sure that's not what was driving Napoleon.
The Presentation:

The Silent Film Festival did a great job of picking a venue and getting the right accompaniment for this presentation.  The screening was held in at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, a magnificent Art Deco theater palace that originally opened in 1931.  It was restored to its original splendor in 1973, and was shocked when I read that it had been that long ago.  I had assumed the work had been done in the last decade.  It looks amazing, as you can hopefully tell from the pictures I shot.

The movie was accompanied by the Oakland East Bay Symphony, a 48-piece orchestra, conducted by Carl Davis using his score, and they did an amazing job.  I can't imagine playing an instrument for 5 1/2 hours, even with 3 breaks, but they did it and still sounded as tight and in synch at the end as they did at the beginning.  The live musicians really added a special feeling to the event.  Sure, they could have recorded the music, but having professional musicians playing in the orchestra pit does make a difference and I'm glad that they went to the extra hassles to arrange it.

It has been almost 8 years since the movie has been shown.  On top of that, there is only one print of this version of the film in the world, and it's in Oakland as I write this.  If you can possibly manage it, make a point of attending one of the two screenings that are scheduled for next weekend.  It's a DVDTalk Collector Series event.


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