The Oscar success of The Artist; Martin Scorcese’s homage to the silent era, Hugo; and a recent Bernews story about rare footage found of The Relief of Lucknow, a film made in Bermuda 100 years ago, reminded me of one of my most memorable cinematic experiences, more than 30 years ago.
I was privileged to see Abel Gance’s 1927 silent masterpiece, Napoleon, performed with a full orchestra in London. Or at least I saw part of it. For Gance’s original film, which used numerous innovative and ground-breaking filming and editing techniques, ran to more than nine hours and was only seen in its full glory a handful of times. Over time parts were lost or damaged but in the 1970s, British film historian Kevin Brownlow, doggedly began to piece together fragments of Gance’s masterwork. The version I saw in 1980, and marked the premiere of Carl Davis’s score, ran to a mere 4 hours and 50 minutes!
Incredibly, Brownlow is still at it and this week is showing the film in its most complete version since 1927. The 330 minute-long film will be shown just four times by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Oakland Paramount Theatre and will feature the film’s famous 20-minute, three-screen “Polyvision” finale.
If you ever have a chance to see this film performed, grab it. There are DVD versions around but this really is one film where anything other than a theatre experience is essential.