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'Napoleon's' triumphant return

Abel Gance's 5 1/2-hour film from 1927 is cheered at Oakland's Paramount Theatre, with a 46-piece orchestra adding to the powerful experience.

March 26, 2012|By Kenneth Turan, Times Film Critic

Reporting from Oakland — —

"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.

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