NAPOLEON," which finally arrives in Washington Tuesday for a two-week engagement at the Kennedy Center's Opera House, is a moviegoing blowout well worth indulging. The range of ticket prices -- from $15 to $30 -- may look daunting, but I'd strongly recommend splurging on this once-in-a-lifetime presentation, which restores Abel Gance's awesomely creative silent classic to what must be a near approximation of its original grandeur.
No current movie returns as much entertainment value and esthetic excitement for the dollar. We're talking about a lot of movie, 4 1/2 hours, enhanced by a presentation designed to reproduce the impact of "Napoleon" when it was first shown at the Paris Opera in April 1927. On that occasion Arthur Honegger conducted the orchestra in a specially arranged score, and the stage was equipped with a huge screen to accommodate Gance's most spectacular pictorial innovation, Triptych Polyvision, a three-screen process that anticipated Cinerama by three decades and directly inspired the inventor of CinemaScope, Henri Chretien.
Carmine Coppola, the father of Francis Coppola, a co-distributor of this restored version of "Napoleon," was commissioned to write a new score, which he conducts with a 60-piece orchestra. Hearing a live, full-scale musical accompaniment to a silent movie spectacle is a stirring experience. Moreover, "Napoleon" gives conductor and orchestra a phenomenal workout. In the course of the performance they're spelled only twice, for periods of about half an hour, by an organist. When contemplating the price of admission, remember that it represents not only a movie but also a live symphonic concert.
This presentation, the culmination of a lifelong labor of love by film historian Kevin Brownlow, is also invaluable for restoring Gance's concluding Polyvision reel, a stupendous 18-minute finale of panoramic and poetically juxtaposed imagery. This scenic enhancement requires a particularly elaborate installation at the Opera House, which is seldom used for movie exhibition. The distributors have supplied every necessary component except the projectionists. Under the technical supervision of Chapin Cutler, who operates a company called Boston Light and Sound, an 80-foot wide screen will be mounted at the far edge of the orchestra pit and five 35mm projectors positioned in adjacent anterooms on the box-seat tier.
Boston Light and Sound became involved in the show during the initial revival at Radio City Music Hall in January 1981. When "Napoleon" subsequently hit the road, Cutler's company was engaged to supervise the technical aspects of the presentation. Washington's lack of capacious old movie palaces probably accounts for its relatively late participation -- "Napoleon" played 16 other cities before being booked at the Opera House, where it will play evening performances Tuesday through Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. The final performance is the matinee of Feb. 21.
However, in certain respects local spectators may enjoy decided advantages. Cutler pointed out that "the Opera House is nice in that we don't have sight-line problems." Since the auditorium isn't nearly as cavernous as the Music Hall, the image should look fairly imposing from any vantage point. The print itself has also been enhanced significantly since the early engagements. After it became apparent that this revival had roadshow potential, co-distributor Robert A. Harris decided to restore the tints that adorned the original version and consulted Gance's files to determine precisely what color enhancements had been used. The "Napoleon" that plays Washington will offer not only Polyvision and the Coppola score but also vintage tinting.
Gance, who died last November at the age of 92, was in many respects the French counterpart of D.W. Griffith, and the resemblances included a tendency to mix the sublime with the ridiculous in attempting to sweep spectators off their feet. "Napoleon" was the culmination of Gance's prodigious career, which began in 1911 and included at least four landmarks on the way to "Napoleon" -- "Mater Dolorosa" in 1917, "La Dixie me Symphonie" in 1918, "J'accuse" in 1919 and "La Roue" in 1921.
Begun in 1925, "Napoleon" emerged as a monumental fragment, at once Gance's greatest achievement and professional Waterloo. It was conceived as the first of a six-film cycle on the life of Napoleon and traced his career from boyhood intimations of greatness to the rallying of the French army that conquered Italy in 1796. But this opening installment grew into such a costly production that Gance was never able to marshal the resources for sequels. He had failed to enlist the financial support of French movie producers in the first place. His angels on "Napoleon" were German and Russian industrialists.
Although Gance continued to direct for many years, he was kept on a tight financial leash. "Napoleon" appeared in its optimum splendor in only a few European cities. In Paris it evidently ran about six hours, divided into three two-hour chapters shown on consecutive days. MGM purchased the American distribution rights for $400,000, an impressive sum at the time, then cut it to 80 minutes and released it in a form that confused audiences, infuriated exhibitors and presumably began the film's descent into obscurity. Gance believed that MGM had gutted "Napoleon" deliberately, out of fear that audiences would demand Polyvision at a time when Hollywood already felt jittery about converting to talkies.
Gance also acknowledged being so obsessed by the potential of Polyvision that he lost his interest in "the conventional cinema." He continued tinkering with "Napoleon" over the years. In 1934 he supervised a condensed reissue with a music track, stereophonic sound effects and astutely post-synchronized dialogue, spoken where practical by the original cast members. In 1971, financed by Claude Lelouch, he assembled a reconstruction called "Bonaparte and the Revolution," which mixed footage from the original version with the 1934 revision and a smattering of new transitional scenes. There was also a touching enhancement, a prologue in which Gance himself introduced the film. At the age of 80 he still appeared to embody the passionate enthusiasm that animated his original movie.
In either version it's abundantly clear that Gance, a Napoleonic filmmaking artist, was spurred to astonishing feats by the subject of Napoleon. In addition to inventing and developing a wide-screen process, he made extraordinary efforts to liberate camera movement. Gance mounted a cameraman on horseback for one chase sequence, suspended cameras from wires for overhead tracking shots, invented gyroscopic devices to steady the movement in hand-held shots and strapped a camera to a pendulum to create the surging, vertiginous illusion that climaxes the famous "double tempest" sequence, in which images of Napoleon struggling to ride out a storm in a small boat are intercut with scenes of political turmoil so convulsive that the delegates at the Paris Convention literally pitch and roll in rhythm with the waves buffeting Napoleon. It's amazing to consider the devices that Gance discarded: three other Polyvision reels, a reel in an experimental color process and a reel in 3-D, which he regarded as effective but too distracting.
The fabulous concluding reel depicts the general (modern audiences may find the actor cast as Napoleon, Albert Dieudonne, reminiscent of Marty Feldman with a straight face) restoring discipline to an unruly high command and then rallying his demoralized army to victory in Italy. "The Beggars of Glory leave history to pass into legend" reads one title card, eloquently underlining a prolonged panoramic shot of proud, singing infantry on the march.
Gance's achievement echoes this description. "Napoleon" is vulgarized history and a shamelessly nationalistic celebration of military conquest, but it reawakens the explosive emotional climate that triggered a tumultuous historical period. This phenomenal movie derives its power and fascination from Gance's vision of a heroic national past. It sustains an almost mystic quality of illusion by seeming to bear witness to the very moments where history and myth have merged.
"Napoleon" glorifies a military genius destined to control the forces released by a militant nationalism. Not so long ago Gance might have been roundly condemned (as he was frequently condemned by French critics in the '20s) for the martial sentiments that propel his finale. Reduced to "content," the closing reel is, of course, a call to arms and glorification of conquest. Despite its nationality and historical setting, "Napoleon" may have answered a peculiarly timely need for patriotic inspiration when it played a year ago right after the return of the hostages.
It's difficult to tell if an equally susceptible emotional climate exists in Washington a year later, but Gance's "Napoleon" is the kind of moviegoing experience that can overwhelm you even as you recognize that certain aspects of it are extremely cornball or even screwball. "I have been in perpetually unstable equilibrium on the rails of small Deauville train," Gance once remarked, summing up his career metaphorically. "What good is a powerful locomotive if it cannot run quickly along somewhat solid rails?" Thanks to the efforts of Brownlow, the Coppolas and many others, "Napoleon" has been remounted on solid rails. Confirmed moviegoers would be cheating themselves if they neglected this opportunity to go along for a sensational cinematic ride.