Episode 7: NAPOLÉON

A new Cinémathèque Française restoration directed by  Georges Mourier of the silent masterpiece.


Abel Gance's Napoléon at the Paramount Theatre Oakland, 2012. (Photo by Pamela Gentile, courtesy of San Francisco Silent Film Festival.)

There are two sorts of music, the music of sound and the music of light which is none other than cinema itself; and it’s the music of light which stands higher in the scale of vibrations.
— Abel Gance

This is the first — and likely only — podcast episode of The Drunk Projectionist featuring a movie I’ve never seen. Which is weird, I know. But I can explain.

In 2012, I was a finalist in a national radio competition. If selected, I’d spend a year in North Dakota covering the oil boom, an appealing project for an ambitious journalist. If I lost, I told myself, I’d travel to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival to watch Napoléon.

Oui, Napoléon.

The 1927 black-and-white silent, directed by France’s Abel Gance, rarely screened in the U.S., complete with musical accompaniment by a full orchestra, was being shown for four nights only at Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California. And I missed it. So the good news is I was one of the winner’s of the national radio competition and made this. The bad news: No Napoléon.

It’s six years later. And I still haven’t seen it. Because I’m waiting to watch Napoléon with a live orchestra and a giant screen. However, I did hear George Mourier, film restoration expert, speak about Napoléon at the 2016 San Francisco Silent Film Festival. It turns out Mourier is working on a new restoration (due to be completed in 2020) ... so I interviewed him for Episode 7 of the The Drunk Projectionist film podcast about the mystery and magnificence of the movie.

— Todd Melby

This is a film which must — and let no one underestimate the profundity of what I’m saying — a film which must allow us to enter the Temple of Art through the giant gates of History. An inexpressible anguish grips me at the thought that my will and my vital gift are as nothing if you do not bright me your unremitting devotion.

Thanks to you, we are about to relive the French Revolution and Empire ... a unique task. In you, we must find the passion, the folly, the power, the expertise and the self-denial of the soldiers of Year Two. Personal initiative will be all. I want to feel, as I watch you, a swelling force sweeping away your last rational defenses so that I can no longer tell the difference between your hearts and your red caps!”
— Abel Gance, in a speech to his crew, June 24, 1924

Georges Mourier of Cinémathèque Française presents an excerpt of the new restoration of Napoléon. Mourier is also a guest on Episodes 7 of The Drunk Projectionist podcast.


Movie of the '20s notes Napoléon consisted of "three years' filming, 180 actors, thousands of extras, hundreds of technicians" making it the "biggest avant-garde epic of all time.

• When Napoléon vu par Abel Gance debuted in Paris in 1927, it screened at two theaters with two different lengths: On April 7, 1927, Napoléon premiered at the Paris Opera House. Gance and editor Marguerite Beauge sliced film up until the projectors began rolling. At one point an upside down image appeared on the screen so the pair had to scramble to the projection booth and repair it. Yet, this 4+ hours movie was hit, grossing 562,000 francs during its 10-day run. Its success inspired Gance to cut a new version, this one 9 hours in length. The film was shown over two days to friends and journalists, measured 12,878 meters in length and arrived at the Apollo Theatre on 42 reels. The musical score was altered, it lacked a triptych, yet critics liked it better. "The proportions are more harmonious, they rhythm better sustained, and events are clearer and they link together more effectively," read an Echo review.

A 2016 trailer for the British Film Institute (BFI) restoration.

• According to Cinémathèque Française, Napoléon received five restorations between 1950 and 2000: 
- 1953-1959: by Marie Epstein and Henri Langlois, in 19 coils
- 1969-1982: by Kevin Brownlow (6630 meters, 4h50) 
- 1983: by Kevin Brownlow (7155 meters, 5h13) 
- 1991-1992: by Bambi Ballard (7500 meters, 5:28) 
- 2000: by Kevin Brownlow (7542 meters, 5:30)

• The actor who played Napoléon, Albert Dieudonnlé, wanted the role so much, that he showed up at Abel Gance's house in the middle of the night, in full costume. Gance's guard told him that Napoleon's ghost was at the gate. "Intrigued, Gance went to see what was going on and there he found, amid period decor and lit by the ghostly flickering of candles, a staggering likeness to Napoléon," wrote Nelly Kaplan in Napoléon, her book on the movie.

A clip from Abel Gance's abortive 1929 feature C'est Polyvision, in the three-screen process invented for Napoléon.


Napoléon, by Kevin Brownlow. Published in 1983. As a kid, Brownlow haunted London thrift shops, buying 9.5 mm films for his home projector. After acquiring two reels of Napoléon, he became obsessed. As an adult, he restored the film several times, including most recently, for the British Film Institute.

• Napoléon, by Nelly Kaplan. Published in 1994. By the time Kaplan wrote Napoléon for BFI Film Classics series, she'd seen it on 60+ occasions, served as second unit director on several Abel Gance sets and directed Abel Gance and His Napoléon, a 1984 documentary on the subject. In the book's preface, Kaplan writes: "There was once a film, rather many films, called Napoléon."

• A Napoléon timeline, beginning with Gance's vision of creating a six-film series of the French leader's life, each perhaps 75 minutes. British Film Institute, 2017

Napoléon FAQs, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's primer on why it chose to screen the movie in Oakland, with a 48-piece orchestra and a screen big enough for Polyvision,  San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 2012

• How one cinema screened Napoléon — three projectors! 70mm.com, 2011

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