Napoleon complex: Oscar-winning historian Kevin Brownlow restores a groundbreaking classic

Those lucky enough to attend the Oakland, Calif. screenings of Napoleon on March 24, 25 and 31 and April 1 will see the culmination of Kevin Brownlow's work of over 45 years to save and restore this monumental epic by director Abel Gance. This will be the most complete and lavish screening of Napoleon ever shown in this country, with an orchestra of 46 playing a score by Carl Davis, and the Art Deco Paramount Theatre outfitted with three synchronized projectors for the film's remarkable Polyvision sequences.

As of this writing, some seats are still available, but buffs should get their tickets quickly. There are no plans for additional screenings in the United States, and no plans for a digital release of any kind.

One of the most respected film historians in the world, Brownlow received a Governors Award from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2010 for his work in making, writing about and restoring movies. He is the author of landmark books like The Parade's Gone By... and The War, the West, and the Wilderness, works that helped draw attention to the artistry of a generation of silent filmmakers. Alone or with partners, Brownlow also directed groundbreaking documentaries on Charlie Chaplin (The Unknown Chaplin), Harold Lloyd (The Third Genius) and Buster Keaton (A Hard Act to Follow). His Photoplay restorations of films like Raymond Bernard's The Chess Player are among the most complete and beautiful works of their kind.

Brownlow ranks Abel Gance higher than any other filmmaker. He dedicated The Parade's Gone By... to him, writing that "he made a fuller use of the medium than anyone before or since."

Brownlow came across Napoleon almost by accident, finding a two-reel version of the film on a 9.5mm home-movie format. Even in poor shape, "it was the cinema as I thought it ought to be and yet hardly ever was," he tells me by telephone from his offices in London. He sought out more complete versions, eventually amassing six reels which he showed to film historians and critics.

When Gance visited London to see how the Cinerama process looked in theatres, Brownlow was lucky enough to meet him. They formed a friendship that lasted until Gance's death in 1981.

Napoleon's failure at the box office, and that of his subsequent film End of the World, ended Gance's association with epics, although he continued to write and even direct at times. "He was resigned to the grimness of being an artist in the cinema," Brownlow remembers. "He was quite funny about it at times, but he had gone through an awful lot."

Gance tried to adapt to changes in film technology. He saw Cinerama as a variation on his own Polyvision process, which he adapted into Magirama for screenings at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels.

Few viewers had a chance to see Polyvision, a widescreen process, at the time Napoleon was released. Although the triptychs that close the film received considerable publicity, they were shown in only eight cities. Like Cinerama, Polyvision needed three projectors to throw a widescreen image onto the screen. But Gance used the process in a revolutionary way, sometimes to show broad landscapes, but also breaking the screen into complementary or discordant images.

Expensive and complicated, Polyvision was quickly abandoned. Exhibitors simply took the three sets of images and strung them into one strand at the end of Napoleon. "The last reel on the home movie was just shots of soldiers marching from left to right and right to left," Brownlow says. "I couldn't figure out what was going on."

In fact, Brownlow didn't experience Polyvision himself until he saw Napoleon at a festival of multiscreen films. (Multiscreen became a brief fad in the 1960s, when films like Grand Prix and The Thomas Crown Affair had montages in which the screen was divided into several images.)

When Brownlow saw a restoration of the Napoleon triptychs by Marie Epstein, the sister of a noted experimental filmmaker, he was impressed, even though titles were missing and sequences were out of order. Although "it was a very illegal thing to have done," he gathered enough money to make his own copy, which he began to reconstruct in the proper order.

Brownlow worked from Gance's published 1927 screenplay, aware that the director frequently changed his mind when it came to shooting a scene. He was also backed by the FIAF (the International Federation of Film Archives), which appealed to archives around the world to send materials to London. "These prints came pouring in," Brownlow recalls, "every one of them with different elements. It was unbelievably exciting."

In 1970, Gance made the bizarre decision to release another version of Napoleon, this one called Bonaparte and the Revolution. Gance not only recut his 1927 footage, he shot new material. "He plays [Louis] Saint-Just in the 1927 version and Saint-Just in the 1970 version," Brownlow marvels. While not a creative or financial success, the new version gave Brownlow the opportunity to pore through Gance's negatives, printing up more missing material.

A shortened version of Brownlow’s restoration with a score by Carmine Coppola toured the United States in 1981. Several years later, a researcher unearthed an original, 17-reel, tinted print of the film in Corsica. "Some of it was definitive," Brownlow says. "In other words, you could see that this was the version that Gance had settled on before it was chopped about."

This version had new surprises for Brownlow. "The whole picture was in black-and-white until ‘La Marseillaise’ is sung for the first time," he notes. "Suddenly through the stained-glass windows, the sun glows and you see amber like gold for the first time. The tinting became very elaborate after that, as well as reverting to black-and-white at times."

Brownlow is quick to point out the other technical aspects of Napoleon, including Gance's use of handheld cameras and his predilection for rapid cutting. "After he made La Roue in 1922, Gance saw a film called Kean, about the English actor. It was directed by Alexandre Volkoff, a Russian who was an expert in rapid cutting. When Gance saw Kean, he hired Volkoff to work as an associate director on the snowball fight and Napoleon's flight from Corsica at the beginning of the picture."

The snowball sequence, a montage built from several angles and filmed over a series of days, used shots as short as single frames. It's a remarkable achievement, especially considering the equipment Gance was using. But to Brownlow, it raises another of the director's innovations.

"In Napoleon, Gance wanted to make an actor of the audience. He wanted to break viewers' inhibitions and force them to become participants in the story, so that they are being punched in the nose during the snowball fight, or dancing around and running away and coming back into the action. It's an astounding use of technique."

It would take decades for filmmakers to catch up with Gance. New Wave directors like Claude Chabrol were struck by Napoleon, which they saw in a sound version released in the 1930s. "There was a lot of reshooting in it," Brownlow says of that version. "Actors aged ten years before your eyes. And the overall effect is completely different—it's more nationalistic, for one thing." Still, it's easy to see Gance's influence in films like Le Beau Serge and The 400 Blows.

Brownlow is quick to assert that Napoleon is not a challenging or difficult film to watch. "After all, Gance was making it for the audiences of the 1920s," he says. "He wasn't trying to give them a lesson in technique, he was trying to corral their emotions.”

And Brownlow is especially proud of the score by Carl Davis, "the finest score I've ever heard for a picture. Carl made the decision to use composers who were alive at the time of Napoleon, and that gives the film an incredible sense of authenticity." (Composer Arthur Honegger wrote music for the original release, but was not happy working on scenes that Gance kept re-editing.)

With all the different versions of Napoleon over the years, it's easy to lose sight of how revolutionary the film was. In our lifetimes, the majesty and scope of the movie has emerged slowly, drawn out bit by bit by Brownlow and other film historians.

And yet Brownlow still has difficulty raising funding for his projects. He has been trying to produce a documentary on Douglas Fairbanks, one of the industry's most important early stars, "but no broadcaster wants it."