Manohla Dargis charts the incredibly rocky history of Abel Gance’s silent masterpiece Napoleon:
SOON after Abel Gance’s “Napoleon” had its premiere in Paris in 1927, he wrote a letter to his audience, soliciting open eyes and hearts. “I have made,” he wrote, “a tangible effort toward a somewhat richer and more elevated form of cinema.” He had created a film towering in ambition, scale, cost, narrative and technical innovations, and believed that nothing less than “the future of the cinema” was at stake. His audacity had merit. The origins of the widescreen image can be traced to “Napoleon,” which also featured hand-held camerawork, eye-blink-fast editing, gorgeous tints, densely layered superimpositions and images shot from a pendulum, a sled, a bicycle and a galloping horse.
The film was an astonishment, and it was doomed. One hurdle was its length — his early versions ran from 3 hours to 6 hours 28 minutes (down from 9 hours) — while other difficulties were posed by Gance’s advances, specifically a process later called Polyvision that extended the visual plane into a panorama or three separate images and that required three screens to show it. Partly as a consequence, distributors and exhibitors took harsh liberties: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cut it down to around 70 minutes for the American release, a butchering that seemed to encourage bad reviews. Gance continued to rework the film, adding sound for a 1935 version and, decades later, new material. Yet even as he was taking it apart, others — notably the British historian Kevin Brownlow — were trying to restore “Napoleon” to its original glory.
In truth “Napoleon,” as it was initially hailed, no longer exists, which raises ticklish questions about authorship. In his book on the film, Mr. Brownlow lists 19 versions of “Napoleon” — including those created by distributors, Gance and Mr. Brownlow himself, who for decades has tried to restore the long-lost full version.
It’s almost a metaphysical question: how can you re-create the “original” when even the creator was busy re-shaping it at every stage along the way? George Lucas looks like an arch-conservator in comparison to Gance’s efforts.