When Kevin Brownlow's first restoration of Abel Gance's epic silent film, Napoleon (1927), played at the 6,000 seat Radio City Music Hall in 1981 it sold out. As a matter of fact, it sold out again and again and again as additional screenings were hastily added for what was then described as the "movie event of the year." Add up the numbers and that's a lot of tickets sold for a silent film, a foreign film, or actually just about any film.
Now, Brownlow's second major restoration of Napoleon is set to play in Oakland, California in what is being described as the "cinema event of a lifetime." Hyperbole? Not really. Bigger and better than ever before? Decidedly yes.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is presenting Gance's masterpiece -- unseen in the United States for nearly 30 years -- for four performances only on March 24, 25, 31 and April 1. This exclusive engagement marks not only the U.S. premiere of what is being billed as a complete restoration by Brownlow -- a recent Academy Award honoree -- but also the U.S. premiere of an original score by acclaimed composer Carl Davis, who is coming over from England to conduct the Oakland East Bay Symphony.
According to Brownlow and those involved in putting together this monumental undertaking, there are no plans for the film to show anywhere else in the United States -- due in part to the extraordinary costs and technical challenges of mounting this "live cinema experience." And, should you be wondering, there are no plans for many of the same reasons for the film to be shown on television or to be released on DVD or Blu-ray. In other words, this really is a "cinema event of a lifetime."
If you love silent film, or if you love the movies in general, and if you are not yet convinced that you need to see this rarely screened masterpiece, here are 10 reasons why you shouldn't miss Napoleon.
10) BACKGROUND: For Brownlow, it's personal. The English film historian, who will be on hand for the event, first came across a fragment of Gance's 1927 masterpiece as a film-obsessed teenager more than 50 years ago. He was wowed. Since then, he has spent much of his life piecing together this lost masterpiece which had been dismissed, neglected, cut up, reworked, and scattered by the winds of time.
9) KEVIN BROWNLOW: In 2010, this author, documentary filmmaker, and preservationist became the first film historian to win an Academy Award. In an industry which is always looking forward and very seldom backward, that is something special. Brownlow's reputation in the film world is legendary. He has authored a handful of classic texts including The Parade's Gone By (1968), a book which helped shape a generation of film scholars and film buffs. It is still in print after more than 40 years. He has also made more than a dozen extraordinary documentaries including the 13-part television series, Hollywood (1979), which aired to great acclaim on both the BBC and PBS. It set the standard for every serious film documentary which followed. Brownlow has, as well, been involved in the restoration of a number of other landmark films, among them The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), King Vidor's The Crowd (1928), and nearly two dozen others including the first film to win an Oscar, Wings (1928). In the March issue of Vanity Fair, Martin Scorsese wrote "If you love silent movies, Kevin Brownlow should be your hero."
8) SETTING: It's said that a theater can enhance a film experience. That's true for the Oakland Paramount, a 1931 Art Deco movie palace designed by the celebrated Timothy L. Pflueger. Still gorgeous after all these years, the 3,000 seat Oakland Paramount has gone through its own restoration and is today entered into the National Register of Historic Places. Thanks in part to this historic venue -- a temple to the motion picture experience, movie-goers who attend Napoleon should expect to find themselves spellbound in darkness, as were those (like writer Andre Malraux and his friend Charles de Gaulle) who attended the film's premiere at the Paris Opera in 1927.
7) MUSIC: The eminent British composer and conductor Carl Davis will lead the Oakland East Bay Symphony (whose home is the Oakland Paramount) in Davis' own score for Napoleon. Written over 30 years ago, it is a marathon and masterful work of film scoring, which has twice been expanded to keep up with newly found footage.
6) CARL DAVIS: Since 1961, this American born artist has made his home in the UK, where he serves as a conductor with the London Philharmonic Orchestra while regularly conducting the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Davis has written music for more than 100 television programs and feature films, but is best known for creating music to accompany silent films, including key Brownlow restorations. Davis has also assisted in the orchestration of the symphonic works of Paul McCartney, been given a Honorary CBE from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and won a BAFTA Award for Best Film Music. Davis is the real deal.
5) BIGGER AND BETTER: This current and likely final restoration, completed in 2000 but not previously seen outside Europe, reclaims more than 30 minutes of additional footage discovered since the earlier restorations while visually upgrading much of the film. This literally unique 35mm print, made at the laboratory of the BFI's National Archive, uses traditional dye-bath techniques to recreate the color tints and tones that enhanced the film on its original release, giving a vividness to the image as never before experienced in this country.
4) GREATEST FILM EVER MADE: Over the years, many films have been said to be the greatest film ever made. For reasons of film history, for reasons having to do with its own history, and for reasons of artistic achievement, this may be the one film most deserving of the claim. Here is what Vincent Canby had to say in 1981 in the pages of the New York Times. "As one watches Napoleon, one suddenly realizes that there once was a film that justified all of the adjectives that have subsequently been debased by critics as well as advertising copywriters. Napoleon sweeps; it takes the breath away; it moves (itself as well as the spectator); it dazzles."
3) POLYVISION: There are few movies so innovative, so daring and so hugely ambitious as Napoleon. In a way, it is a cinematographer's textbook, and what's more, Gance repeatedly broke new ground in this seminal film. To involve the viewer with the drama on the screen, Gance employed rapid cutting and swirling camera movements and put the camera where it had not gone before -- like freely hanging from a balloon or handheld on horseback. And suddenly, you are there in history. One of Gance's great innovations was Polyvision. For the finale, the screen expands to three times its normal width -- a kind of triptych -- while showing panoramic views and montages of images. There really hasn't been anything else like it, not even Cinerama, which was developed 30 years later. To present Polyvision at the Oakland Paramount, three projection booths equipped with three perfectly-synchronized projectors will be specially installed, along with a purpose-built three-panel screen which will fill the width of the auditorium. Prepare to be amazed.
2) VALUE: As movie tickets go, these are expensive tickets. They range between $45.00 and $120.00 dollars per person. However, for a five and a half hour movie (the length of three contemporary films) accompanied by a live symphony orchestra (a concert ticket too), the ticket prices to Napoleon are ultimately, rather inexpensive. Instead of asking, can you afford it? Ask yourself, can you afford to miss it?
1) EXPERIENCE: Thus presentation of Napoleon is likely the closest we will ever come to experiencing Gance's masterpiece as the director intended it. According to Facebook pages and on-line message boards, film goers are flying in from all over the United States and Europe. In 10 or 20 or 30 years, when this screening of Napoleon is only a memory, film lovers will ask -- were you there? "Did you see the Napoleon at the Paramount in 2012?"
Kevin Brownlow's restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon is being presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in association with American Zoetrope, The Film Preserve, Photoplay Productions, and BFI (British Film Institute). Each screening of the 5 1/2-hour epic will begin at 1:30 in the afternoon and will be shown in four parts with three intermissions, including a dinner break. Local restaurants are creating special Napoleon-themed menus for the event, which is expected to end by 8:30 pm. Further information and ticket availability at http://www.silentfilm.org/
Thomas Gladysz is an arts journalist and silent film buff. He is also the founding director of the Louise Brooks Society, an online archive and international fan club devoted to the silent film star. Gladysz has organized exhibits, contributed to books, appeared on television, and introduced the actress's films around the world.