After 54 years, a classic is triumphantly restored
On April 7, 1927, Charles de Gaulle and his friend, André Malraux, saw the Paris premiere of a new movie. At its end, the two great-men-to-be were on their feet, cheering. Malraux remembered De Gaulle waving his long arms and crying, "Bravo, magnifique!" It is said that De Gaulle never forgot the images of glory he found that evening in Abel Gance's epic reconstruction of another young soldier's climb to greatness, Napoleon.
Unfortunately, another movie captivated audiences that year: The Jazz Singer. The first talkie totally obscured the late, great silents like Napoleon. The Gance film was also dauntingly long. Though De Gaulle saw a 2½-hour version, the movie Gance originally intended to release was something like six hours in length.
Though various cuts of the film circulated through the years, it was not until last week, in Manhattan's Radio City Music Hall, that the public got a chance to see a Napoleon that can be regarded as definitive. Close to 4½ hours in length, it is a reconstitution by Kevin Brownlow, a talented English film historian (The Parade's Gone By, Hollywood: the Pioneers), who spent a decade painstakingly collecting bits and pieces of film. It is appropriate, perhaps inevitable, that Brownlow's work should be presented by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now), a modern inheritor of the epic tradition. He has brought a showman's flair to the project, commissioning a score from his composer father, Carmine, who led the American Symphony at last weekend's premiere. It isas silent film scores always werefull of quotations from the masters and plenty of bombast. (After a few more special evenings in major cities, the film will go into general release.) Anyone interested in the history of the cinema will want to see Napoleon. Even those less devoted to film, or less concerned than Gance was with French national mythology, will find plenty to beguile and dazzle them here. They literally don't make 'em like this any more.
The most vivid element in Brownlow's reconstruction is a concluding 18-minute triptych in which three well-synchronized images are simultaneously projected on a suddenly expanded screen, as Napoleon is preparing to lead his army into Italy and the campaign that made him a world figure. By another name, this is Cinerama, though it is 30 years ahead of that gimmick's invention. It is also crudely stirring, and just about as big a finish as any movie has ever had.
This episode alone is not what makes Napoleon memorable. That quality derives from its shooting and editing. D.W.Griffith demonstrated the limitless scope of the screen's ability to tackle big scenes in Intolerance (1916). Eisenstein, in pictures like Battleship Potemkin (1925), showed how the juxtaposition of disparate images could create, through montage, meanings that were more felt than consciously understood. Gance's great contribution was to set the camera free of the tripod, making it a participant in, as well as an observer of, the action. His tracking shots were unprecedented.