OAKLAND — Last Sunday afternoon, about 1,000 people lined up outside the Paramount Theatre to see what was more or less a once-in-a-lifetime event. Abel Gance’s 1927 epic, “Napoleon,” had been nearly completely restored. As part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, it would be shown with live accompaniment from the Oakland East Bay Symphony, led by Carl Davis. He had composed a score for the film’s previous restoration, in the early 1980s, which was a major moviegoing event.
The Paramount often hosts big events. It’s a grand theater, with a majestic Art Deco lobby and vast main auditorium whose walls are carved with angels. It’s the sort of place you book when you really have something to show off, something like “Napoleon.” In its current incarnation, courtesy of a new restoration by the historian and film editor Kevin Brownlow, the movie runs for five hours and 28 minutes. Its length, orchestral score, and technical requirements (most crucially, an enormous screen and three projectors) make mounting a screening expensive. The festival has said the four screenings at the Paramount (the final one begins Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ) will cost about $720,000. Last Sunday’s show appeared to be nearly full. The least-expensive tickets were $40. The most-expensive topped out at $120. I paid about $80. At every price point, the response seemed unanimous: “Oh. My. God.”
Of all the astonishments in “Napoleon,” the greatest is the last. It’s just a signature: “Abel Gance.” By the time it appears, the modest screen has tripled in width. Instead of watching a silent film projected onto one panel, you watch the last 30 minutes or so as a triptych. To tell you that a director’s name appears at the end of his movie shouldn’t take your breath away. All movies are authored. This one, though, is signed. And at that panoramic size, the signature gives off drama and looks like art. It says: I’m Abel Gance. Yes, yes, I’m making a movie about history. But I’m making a movie that is history. I mean every tracking shot, speeding montage, superimposition, tinted image, wide-screen shot, and smoldering stare. I mean every digression, every close-up. Did you laugh? I meant that! Did you cheer? I meant that, too! Not only did I mean it, I’m proud, elated, thrilled. I’m Abel Gance!”
But Gance intended many things for “Napoleon,” which premiered in 1927 at Paris’s Théâtre National de l’Opéra. He dreamt of making six Napoleon movies. But this one had many selves – at least as many as 20. There were versions that ran for three-hours, 6½-hours, and nine. He kept whittling and chopping and hacking. In 1935, he concocted a sound incarnation, then, decades later, another, four-hour silent correction complete with new footage and narration. The only thing missing, it appears, was a disco version, and it’s safe to assume that that’s only because Giorgio Moroder was busy retrofitting another incomplete silent masterpiece – Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” – for the age of MTV. Brownlow has been working for decades to complete Gance’s vision.
It’s possible to intend to watch “Napoleon” as a relic, as a thing from the past that’s been dusted off and displayed; to arrive at the Paramount and think, even at $120 for a ticket, that you’ll be seeing “The Artist.” Gance’s opening scene mocks that intent. It’s a snowball fight in which the young Napoleon Bonaparte commands his middle-school classmates to follow him into a schoolyard battle against better-armed, superior fighters. The camera swings and swoops. When Napoleon, miffed that his enemies have begun to fight dirty, trudges across the snow and leaps into their trench, the camera appears to leap, too.
It comes on as a cute sequence, one that a director like Wes Anderson might have taken and borrowed a note or two in order to reinforce the charm of “Rushmore.” But what’s undeniable after only a few minutes is that a vision is emerging. Obviously, this sequence prefigures the great general to come. A flurry of superimpositions and one explanatory title card put the child Napoleon at the center of a seemingly innocent battle (if such a thing is possible), while presenting the possibility that his truculence and self-righteousness can be understood as pathologically high-minded bellicosity. He wanted war in order to command it. It’s movie-making on a scale that’s at once grand, furious, and under control. That’s the rest of the film, too, which focuses on Napoleon’s life – his Corsican heritage and surging French nationalism, his arrest, near execution, and worshipful romance with Joséphine de Beauharnais (Gina Manès). It culminates and concludes with the invasion of Italy, in 1796, when he was 26 years old.
“Napoleon” in 2012 might have come off as silent-movie camp. But camp is the offspring of humorlessness, bad taste, and ineptitude. Gance knew what he was doing enough to know that he could also be funny. He chose to turn doomed extremist stars of the French Revolution into vamps and eccentrics, including Robespierre, whom Edmond Van Daële plays, in shades, as a decaying flaneur, and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just. Gance put himself in the role of Saint-Just, which, for a handful of scenes, let him stand in corners and close up doing a constipated version of dastardliness. He encouraged a lot of the men to go for egotistical puffery and play to the back of the house. Even Napoleon’s monomaniacal determination is good for a laugh. When a peon restaurant owner from his childhood tries to say hello (not for the first time), the great man shuts him down: “Bread and olives and silence!”
A line like that – there are lots of them – is still funny. And you feel them relax the audience. They say that as seriously as Gance took this project he’d also try to have a sense of humor about it, as well. One of the triumphs of Davis’s score is the way it finds a hundred ways to play “La Marseillaise.” When the song turns to “impure blood” that “waters our furrows,” the screen runs red. By the time the screen triples and one film projector is joined in synchronicity by two more – Polyvision! – and all supervised by the specialists at Boston Light & Sound, you’re reminded in a visceral way about the power of going to a movie theater. Not as entertainment propaganda but for the love of unmatched spectacle.
That climactic sequence mostly features a lot of marching. The combat, which goes unseen for the most part, is beside the point. It’s the exhibition, silly. Like D.W. Griffith, Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas, but mostly James Cameron, Gance understood the thrill of the cinematic event and had the hubris to bring it off. In Oakland, when each screen turned a color of the French flag, people clapped, people cheered, people cried. I turned around to get a glimpse at the sea of faces during Polyvision. A pharmaceutical equivalent of that moment wouldn’t be street legal.
The Paramount screening featured three intermissions: two 15-minute breaks and 90 minutes for dinner. One sitting would have done it for me. I mentioned this to a friend who had come downtown to eat with me during the the second break, and she pointed out that I wasn’t in the orchestra. During the show, the musicians’ platform rises up from below the floor; and had Gance or Brownlow’s restoration included any lulls, they’d be best filled by having a gander at Davis’s conducting.
Last Sunday, he was dressed less conservatively than I’ve seen him before, and because of a another viewer’s head in the way (the stage could be raised only so far without obstructing the screen), I heard far more of Davis and the Oakland East Bay than I saw. But when the film was over and the crowd had finished standing and cheering (it lasted a while), I walked to the front of the theater just in time to catch the stage being lowered into the pit. The orchestra didn’t appear to be remotely tired, just kind of happy. Playing “Napoleon” might be as exhilarating as watching it.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.