THOUGH NOT QUITE AS EPIC in proportion, the tortuous history of the production, exhibition, and preservation of Napoleon vu par Abel Gance (1927), the most ambitious project of the French silent cinema, mirrors the saga of its protagonist. Few films in the history of cinema have been as haunted by the ghost of a prior existence in some purportedly complete, pristine original form. Gance initially conceived the project as six separate films--spanning Napoleon's life from boyhood to exile on the isle of Saint Helena--but only completed the first. Of taxing length and daunting screening demands, the film suffered multiple abridgments and for decades was considered just another casualty of the abuses and shortcomings of the film industry and of the institutions designed to preserve its heritage. But with the restoration project begun in 1969 by the filmmaker and historian Kevin Brownlow, the history of Napoleon (as the film would henceforth be known) took a fortuitous turn.
Gance is the sole European director to warrant a chapter in The Parade's Gone By ..., Brownlow's celebrated 1968 study of Hollywood silent cinema, and the author even dedicates the book to Gance as the man who "made a fuller use of the medium than anyone before or since." Quibble one might, but not about the worthiness of Brownlow's forty-year struggle to restore a film that, judging from (often conflicting) accounts of its various early appearances, may well never have been seen in its entirety with its renowned triptych scenes intact. According to the historian of French cinema Richard Abel, even at its premiere at the Paris Opera in 1927, Napoleon was condensed to less than half its length, and when it was screened in its six-hour entirety months later, it was without the triptych sequence--the film's most salient feature, as well as a major reason it has been projected only in abridged or butchered versions over the years.
Although the project was initially embraced by adventurous producers, Gance lost their support, not only because he exhausted on one film the funds intended for all six, but also because the producers objected to his artistic license with history--as the film's original title suggests--and his indulgence in experimental techniques without regard for commercial appeal. Purchased by MGM, Napoleon was shown in several European cities, after which it was cut to roughly seventy-five minutes, without the triptych section, and then left in vaults, all but forgotten. After years of research at various film archives, including the National Film Archive in Britain, and further years of fund-raising and restoration work, Brownlow presented a long but still incomplete version--watched by the eighty-nine-year-old Gance from a hotel window--outdoors at the 1979 Telluride Film Festival. This was followed by the first screening with a live orchestra, conducted by composer Carl Davis, at London's Empire Theater in 1980, and then a second at New York's Radio City Music Hall in 1981, under the auspices of Francis Ford Coppola and accompanied by a score composed and conducted live by Coppola's father, Carmine. Those in attendance on that occasion, including this writer, were duly impressed by the event and by the sheer chutzpah of Gance's fusion of grandiosity and exper-imentalism, despite the fact that Coppola had cut between twenty and fifty minutes (depending on projection speed) from the existing footage to accommodate a four-hour running time.
In March of this year, the third full-scale restoration of Napoleon, first shown in London in 2000 (only to be shelved over legal issues), will have its American premiere as a special presentation of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival at Oakland's Paramount Theatre--itself a restored Art Deco marvel--accompanied by the Davis score conducted live by the composer. This event is of singular importance: First, because the version being screened is the most complete to date to include the film's triple-screen sequence; second, because no future screenings or road shows are planned; and third, because, rumors to the contrary, neither a DVD nor a Blu-ray of this version is in the works (costs being prohibitive). …