From the archive: Napoleon’s cinematic exile to end in 2012 (2011)

July 16, 2012

For nearly 30 years, Kevin Brownlow’s acclaimed restoration of Abel Gance’s 1927 cinematic masterpiece, Napoleon, has gone unseen. That’s about to change.

It what is major announcement in the film world, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival revealed that it will present the U.S. premiere of Napoleon in a new and complete restoration by Academy Award-winning historian, documentarian and archivist Kevin Brownlow.

Rob Byrne, the President of the SFSFF Board of Directors, made the announcement from the stage of the Castro Theater on the opening night of the Festival’s 16th annual event. He was followed by Kevin Brownlow, who spoke of his lifelong quest to bring this silent masterpiece to a greater audience. Both Byrne and Brownlow were greeted by rapturous applause.

Four special screenings will take place at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland on March 24, 25, 31 and April 1, 2012. Each screening of the 5 1/2-hour epic will begin in the afternoon and will be shown in four parts with three intermissions, including a dinner break. The SFSFF screenings will also mark the U.S. premiere of an orchestral score, written over 30 years ago and twice expanded since, by the noted film composer Carl Davis. Davis will conduct the Oakland East Bay Symphony.

Abel Gance’s silent film masterpiece, “Napoleon,” returns to the big screen after a near 30 absence.

The 2012 presentation at the 3,000-seat Oakland Paramount will be climaxed by a finale in “Polyvision” – an enormous triptych employing three specially installed synchronized projectors that will dramatically expand the Paramount screen to triple its width.

In a prepared statement, Stacey Wisnia, Executive Director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival commented, “This will be ‘the cinema event of a lifetime’ and for once that’s not just hype, considering that we may never have another chance to see Napoleon presented on this scale, and with Carl Davis’ magnificent score. But we’re also referring to the lifetime of passion that Kevin Brownlow has devoted to bringing Abel Gance’s original vision back to life.”

Because of logistics and the enormous expense involved in such a production, there no plans to repeat the event in any other American city.

When Brownlow’s first restoration of Napoleon first showed in the United States, film lovers lined up around the block.

Under the auspices of Francis Ford Coppola and Robert A. Harris, a version of this first restoration, accompanied by a score composed by Coppola’s father, Carmine, was presented to great acclaim at Radio City Music Hall in New York City – as well as at other select venues in the U.S. and around the world in the early 1980s.

Brownlow and the BFI did additional restoration work in 1983. The current restoration, completed in 2000 but not previously seen outside Europe, reclaims more than 30 minutes of additional footage discovered since the very first 1979 screening and visually upgrades

much of the film. An early version of Napoleon was released on VHS some years ago – and is now hard-to-find; the film has never been released on DVD in the United States.

Abel Gance’s Napoleon (HD) from San Francisco Silent Film Festiv on Vimeo.

Tickets will be available online through the SFSFF website, http://www.silentfilm.org, beginning July 15. Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon is being presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, in association with American Zoetrope, The Film Preserve, Photoplay Productions, and the BFI (British Film Institute).

It was also announced that Brownlow’s Sunday morning talk at the Festival will not be about his life long work in the field of silent film, but will instead focus on Napoleon.

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