My husband, Frank, discovered that Abel Gance's epic silent film, Napoleon, was playing with a live orchestra in Oakland last weekend. When I found out it was 5 1/2 hours long, I told him, "You're on your own, bub."
This is his account of a classic movie-going experience that may not be repeated.
I had the good fortune to get a ticket last weekend for the final showing of Napoleon, Abel Gance’s silent movie masterpiece. I recall hearing about the version released with a score by Francis Ford Coppola's father in the early 1980’s, but I skipped it then, and always wondered what I’d missed.
Now, for the first time in 30 years, a new, more complete restoration was on offer as part of the 2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, It was being shown with a live performance by the Oakland East Bay Symphony, playing an original score conduced by the composer Carl Davis. Billed as a once-in-lifetime experience, I snapped up a ticket online and headed to Oakland on Sunday, April 1.
This French movie was made in the 1920s, and was first shown in 1927. The director, Abel Gance, got funding to make 6 films to chronicle the whole life of Napoleon. He blew the entire budget on just the first installment, which only carries us through Napoleon’s early life, but even with this limited material, the film is over 5 hours long.
At first, we see him as a teen at boarding school, commanding a snowball fight among his peers. We watch the French Revolution and Napoleon’s imprisonment and the effect this has on him. We see his military talent (and defiance of authority) at the Battle of Toulon in 1793, his romance and marriage to Joséphine, who turns out (at least according to the movie) to have been imprisoned with him (and was saved by a judicious bureaucrat who literally ate – yes, tore up and swallowed - her paperwork rather than letting her be guillotined). The film finally ends with Napoleon’s invasion of Italy in 1796.