The film clips from Napoleon vu par Abel Gance © Universal Pictures, All Rights Reserved.
AT THE END OF MARCH, I drove the 350 miles from Studio City to the Paramount Theater in Oakland, where I joined a provident group of 10,000 to witness the only exhibition on the continent of the five and a half hour silent picture Napoleon vu par Abel Gance, exquisitely restored by Kevin Brownlow, accompanied by the Oakland East Bay Orchestra. The older couple to my left came from Manhattan, the film students on my right from Seattle, the fellow behind me from Chicago. We sat down to start the film at 1:30 in the afternoon; with bathroom breaks and dinner, we rose to cheer the final scene at 9:40 that night.
Although everyone laughs at Chaplin and Keaton, serious silent films are an acquired taste. Not everyone in this audience had acquired it, but they gave themselves to Napoleon, and they were rewarded, in the words of Chronicle critic Mark LaSalle, with “an experience — at times, akin to taking a drug — that is unlike anything I've ever experienced in a movie theater.” This was silent film in its purest form: not story, not argument. The audience mainlines pure emotion.
While the best silent performers showed beautiful restraint, their audiences were more tolerant of the emotional hard sell. Like practitioners of modern sign language, actors often telegraphed their feelings so effectively that watching serious silents, modern audiences run the risk of overdosing. But at their best, silent films reveal a new world of feeling. Without the distraction of talk, moments slow down so the audience can savor the flux of expressions, what a modern movie writer would call pure subtext. Without synchronous sounds to knit together images the audience becomes more sensitive to their expressive content. Motion becomes emotion — horses hooves, raging ocean, dancing, fighting become their subtext just as talk scenes did. Vast tableaux, wordless, had the power to awe. Dominated by dialogue, sound film pushes the story balance away from pure emotion and toward exposition. Now instead of being over-acted, stories are over-explained. The unique power of images to tap emotion is often forgotten.
Gance put that pure emotional power in the service of a big idea. When the ghost of Robespierre tells Napoleon, “We have realized that the Revolution cannot prosper without a strong authority. Will you be that leader?” “Yes!” answers Napoleon, and Gance has brought the audience to a point where they flood with gratitude. Napoleon will save the Revolution! Gance built his movie from moments that force an audience to feel, cast with faces that magnify those feelings. He drew performances of eerily credible intensity, balancing epic and intimate, action and tableau in a mesmerizing blend. When critic Charles Champlin saw Napoleon the last time it was shown in this country, 30 years ago, he said it was “the measure of all other films, forever.”
Napoleon is not available on DVD and is hard to find on the web. With a handful of brief clips I will attempt to give you its essence, a glimpse of the vanished glory of silent film. Imagine these sma...read more