When Abel Gance made his epic Napoléon in 1927, it wasn’t just sound that movies lacked; it was vision. Nobody knew about rapid-fire editing or strapping cameras to the saddles of galloping horses, let alone lining up three saddle-mounted cameras in a row for a simultaneous triple-screen Polyvision climax. So Gance pioneered all of that, enlarging the medium in order to give his nation’s most famous militarist the grandest possible tribute.
Nowadays, Napoléon looms among cinematic celestial objects like some magnificent comet, showing up only occasionally throughout history, usually in some form of restoration by the Oscar-winning British film historian Kevin Brownlow. He’s made several versions, including one with a score by Francis Ford Coppola’s father, Carmine, in the early ’80s. But the pièce de résistance opens this month at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre, as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, with the American premiere of a new score by soundtrack maestro Carl Davis, who will conduct the Oakland East Bay Symphony in accompaniment.
This is literally a once-in-a-lifetime event, not just because the multiprojector film runs five and a half hours and involves a screen so big that it needs a special dispensation from the fire marshal, but also because it’s so technically and logistically complicated that after these four Oakland showings, no others are planned anywhere, not even on a DVD. (Each day’s screening will be divided into four parts with three intermissions, including a dinner break.) It’s no wonder that people from all over the world are planning pilgrimages.
Gance, who died in 1981, may not have made history as a political biographer, but his 85-year-old masterpiece has surrendered none of its dynamic authority. After all, people still sometimes say it was Napoleon who gave us the idea that a picture is worth a thousand words. March 24, 25, and 31 and April 1, Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland, 510-465-6400, silentfilm.org