Let’s get one thing out the way: Five and a half hours is a hell of a long time to sit through a movie. Most filmmakers wouldn’t think of subjecting an audience to such a lengthy production — except when the film in question is Abel Gance’s 1927 silent epic, Napoleon.
Longtime silent film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow has devoted five decades to restoring the visually masterful film tracing the life of the famed French military leader. His fixation on preserving the old film even led to a friendship with Gance and a book about the movie. Since the 1950s, when Brownlow was just a schoolboy in England, he’s been combing archives for long-forgotten footage of the four-part biopic — appending lost scenes, recreating the tints and tones of the film’s original reels, and ultimately ensuring the survival of a classic piece of silent-era cinema. “God only knows what would have become of Gance’s reputation or Napoleon had Kevin not come across it,” said Anita Monga, artistic director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
While Brownlow’s half-century-long work-in-progress has been shared over the years in various iterations, public screenings have been rare. In 1979, a less lengthy version played at a Colorado film festival attended by Gance himself. It toured US theaters in the early 1980s under the auspices of Francis Ford Coppola, and decades later premiered in fully restored form in London. So it’s something of an epic occasion that the US debut and sole screening of the completely restored Napoleon is being held at the Paramount Theatre (2025 Broadway, Oakland), a historic 3,000-seat venue that organizers from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (which is orchestrating the affair) say is the only Bay Area theater that can comfortably accommodate such an ambitious production.
That’s because each screening of the 35mm film entails much more than the flick of a projector switch. There’s also space needed for the 48-piece Oakland East Bay Symphony, which will provide the soundtrack under the direction of composer Carl Davis. Then there are the extra screens being installed for an elaborate triptych technique, invented by Gance for the final scenes of Napoleon, in which three film reels are projected simultaneously for a widescreen effect. “It’s such a complex and arduous thing to put on,” explained Monga, who said the production is the biggest project ever taken on by the film festival. “It’s not like people were beating down the door to do it. It really takes a lot of effort and love and faith. And we have the faith that people are interested in seeing this.” The special screenings (each with three gracious intermissions) take place on Saturdays and Sundays, March 24 through April 1 at 1:30 p.m., $40-$120. 510-465-6400 or SilentFilm.org