"Napoleon," the 1927 silent film epic about the historic and mesmerizing sultan of power, opened in Washington Tuesday night before an audience of the political and powerful gathered at the Kennedy Center.
"Well . . . there was a certain madness about Napoleon that was very appealing," said White House communications director David Gergen, pondering similarities between Napoleon's methods and his boss' persuasion tactics. "Reagan looks much more human. Napoleon used looks and silence. He was a master of another medium."
Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) said that earlier in the day he skimmed a biography of Napoleon so he could be familiar with the movie, which he "thoroughly enjoyed." But how did it compare to "The Little Foxes," the play that starred his estranged wife, Elizabeth Taylor? "There are some modest differences in the performances, of course," he said, "but there were certainly strong personalities in both."
French director Abel Gance's 4 1/2-hour movie follows the monarch from his school days, during which he triumphantly humiliates his chums in a classic snowball fight, through his wooing of Josephine, and on to his military victories as a general in the French Army. The movie ends before Napoleon is crowned emperor of France.
"Gance ran out of money before he could tell the other half of his life," said Francis Ford Coppola Tuesday. Coppola is one of the distributors of this restored movie, and his father, Carmine, composed the score and conducts the 60-piece orchestra that accompanies the film.
"It's been a bonanza for us," said Coppola of the film's success in 16 U.S. cities. "It's something we originally did as an experiment because I wanted to see it, and it has ended up keeping my company alive. It's a show, a big show. It has art, vitality and humor and uses every notion in the cinematic arsenal."
Coppola was less enthusiastic about the Washington audience. "It's a more subdued sort of audience than New York," he said as guests gravitated toward him like baby birds clinging to the nest. "This is a very formal group of people," he said as he surveyed the VIPs in the Opera House lounge.
It was past midnight when a select sampling of political, diplomatic and establishment Washington convened in the lounge after the show. Guests chewed over the movie as they sipped wine and cognac out of plastic glasses. Some kissed each other hello familiarly, others discussed politics formally.
Among the VIPs were Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.), Evangeline Bruce, Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), Gerald Rafshoon, former senator Frank Church, George and Liz Stevens, Carl Bernstein and Margaret Jay, and the new French ambassador and co-host of the party, Bernard Vernier-Palliez. His wife, Denise Vernier-Palliez, had already seen the movie once.
"My father produced it," she said. Her father owned the Pathe movie company, comparable to Paramount or MGM here. "I remember it took two years to make, and I heard about it for a very long time at home," she said. "But the movie was not very popular back then because people found it too long. It was shown in two parts, without music."
"Napoleon" was first shown at the Paris Opera in April 1927. At the time it was considered to be an advanced and innovative effort using new cinematic techniques. One of these, the triptych screen -- that is, a screen divided into three parts -- was particularly spectacular. The movie was resurrected by Coppola and film historian Kevin Brownlow, who spent 10 years piecing together the various reels stored in libraries throughout France.
"You know, the actor who played Napoleon Albert Dieudonne went mad after the movie," noted Claude Harel, the French Embassy's minister counselor. "He refused to do another part. He thought he was Napoleon.
"I know the story of Napoleon very well," added Harel wistfully. "Napoleon saw his life as a work of art. He was a true romantic. You know, he died May 5, 1821, at 6 o'clock. Every Frenchman knows that. . . ."