‘Napoleon’s’ triumphant return


“Napoleon” came. “Napoleon” was seen. “Napoleon” conquered.

At 9:40 p.m. Saturday, the near-capacity crowd at the 3,000-seat Paramount Theatre rose from the places it had settled into eight hours earlier and cheered a mighty cheer, the kind of full-throated, sustained roar not usually heard in a movie theater.

The audience had just lived through one of the world’s great cinematic experiences: an all-day screening (complete with snack and dinner breaks) of Abel Gance’s mesmerizing 51/2-hour silent film from 1927, accompanied by Carl Davis conducting the 46-piece Oakland East Bay Symphony, performing his own superb score. Their applause and shouts paid tribute to both the sustaining power of this kind of moviegoing experience and to Gance’s creative genius.

For many reasons, the film is rarely exhibited — the most celebrated American showing was of a four-hour version at Radio City Music Hall in 1981. Beyond the commercial challenge of finding an audience for such a lengthy picture, there are the technical demands of screening it. In the final 20 minutes, the screen expands to a curved 85 feet, three times its normal width, and presents either a trio of related images or one enormous, eye-widening panorama. Gance, a cinematic innovator, masterminded this bravura conclusion. He called it Polyvision, and it delivered.

“My God, wasn’t that incredible?” said Los Angeles-based author and film historian Cari Beauchamp, who came to Oakland for the screening. “Absolutely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Just glorious, glorious, glorious.”

Despite its monumental run time, “Napoleon” covers only a fraction of its subject’s life. It starts with him in 1783 as an intrepid schoolboy leader (played by Vladimir Roudenko) of a snowball fight and ends in 1796, by which time he’s become a commanding — in every sense of the word — general (portrayed by Albert Dieudonné) leading France’s Army of Italy to victory.

Those years may have been few, but they included the intense passion and conflict of the French Revolution. Gance’s meticulous re-creation of that period, including a thrilling sequence of “La Marseillaise” being introduced to a revolutionary throng, is so vivid you feel as if you’re watching a newsreel of the period.

Working with cinematographers Jules Kruger and Joseph Louis Mundviller and a team of technical specialists, Gance used all manner of innovations in “Napoleon,” including hand-held cameras, split screen and overlapping images, and rapid, almost avant-garde cutting. A special feature of this most recent print of “Napoleon” is its use of original dye-bath techniques to enhance the richness of the footage’s color tinting and toning.

Cinema fans came from around the world to experience all this in the Paramount Theatre, a stunning Art Deco time machine that looks exactly as it did when it opened in 1931. Director Alexander Payne arrived from Los Angeles, determined to see “Napoleon” twice on the opening weekend. Others came from as far away as Amsterdam and the Czech Republic.

The screening was a triumph for film historian Kevin Brownlow, who as a lad of 15 saw a brief 20-minute version of “Napoleon,” more or less an enticing highlights reel, projected on tiny 9.5-millimeter film. “All this in 1954 absolutely staggered me,” Brownlow said of that long-ago experience. “This was cinema as I thought it ought to be and had no idea it once was.” He embarked on a quest to assemble a complete “Napoleon” — an endeavor that spanned five decades.

The showing, which was repeated Sunday, was also a triumph for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which went out on an expensive limb to bring “Napoleon” to the screen again. For these two showings and two to follow next weekend the total cost was about $720,000. (Tickets for Saturday’s and Sunday’s screenings are available.)

“It was a very gutsy thing to do,” said Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum. “No one has wanted to take this on.”

The festival’s chairwoman of the board, Judy Wyler Shelton, admitted, “We were all biting our nails a little bit; there were a lot of board discussions about ‘Can we do this, can we take this kind of risk?’”

Finally, however, said festival executive director Stacey Wisnia, “We decided to go for it. This was a risk we were willing to take to take our organization to the next level.”

Still, the logistics of the presentation were formidable. The festival had to abandon its regular Castro Theatre home because only the Paramount had a proscenium big enough to house the 85-foot screen needed when the image expands for the Polyvision segments. Booths had to be built in the auditorium by specialists from Boston Light & Sound to house the trio of perfectly synchronized projectors needed for the Polyvision portion.

“People ask me, ‘Why isn’t this in New York?’” Goldstein said, referring to the 1981 Radio City Music Hall screening. “But Radio City would cost 10 times more.”

Though it was not publicized at the time, severe measures were employed to hold the Radio City event to four hours out of fear of expensive overtime: A touching subplot about a young woman who worshiped Napoleon was eliminated and the print was shown at a faster 24 frames per second rather than the correct 20 frames. The Oakland version played at the right speed, restored that subplot and added new footage the ever-vigilant Brownlow unearthed in the years since.

Still, given that organizers needed to fill 12,000 seats over four days, the venture seemed risky. At first glance, the Bay Area seemed an unlikely venue for the first showing outside of Europe of what Brownlow and his Photoplay Productions partner Patrick Stanbury believe is “as close to Abel Gance’s original vision as is currently possible.”

Yet Northern California plays host to is all kinds of nontraditional movies. In addition to San Francisco’s venerable film festival, thriving Jewish and noir celebrations sell out regularly, and there is even a Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival (named after silent star Broncho Billy Anderson) in nearby Fremont.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival itself will mark its 17th year in July. Its four-day schedule is so packed, fans are encouraged to bring food to their seats so they don’t miss a minute.

“There’s something about the Bay Area, we are a film place like New Orleans is a music place,” said Anita Monga, the festival’s artistic director and a veteran of the local repertory programming scene. “The audience is adventurous, intelligent, inquisitive, willing to take a chance on unusual and challenging things.”

If a 51/2-hour silent film that’s taken more than 50 years to restore doesn’t fit that bill, nothing does.