The One And Only ‘Napoleon’

I am always complaining about movies being too long. The exception? Abel Gance’s 1927 masterpiece “Napoleon,” a silent movie, black and white mostly, and over four hours long. Maybe not an easy ticket to sell in 1981. But add Carmine Coppola leading the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra through his original score, and you had countless movie fans crowding into the Ocean State Performing Arts Center (now PPAC) for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And it was a technical marvel; Gance invented a system he called Polyvision, the Imax of its day, which employed three cameras and three projectors for a panoramic effect.

However, following years of cutting and reformatting by studio philistines trying to figure out what to do with this unwieldy specimen, the movie itself had to be reassembled from different sources by devoted film historians like Francis Ford Coppola and Kevin Brownlow. The latter wrote about the technical innovations in the program:

Technicians in the German studios were putting the camera on wheels. Gance put it on wings. He strapped it to the back of a horse, for rapid inserts in the chase across Corsica; he suspended it from overhead wires, like a miniature cable-car; he mounted it on a huge pendulum, to achieve the vertigo-inducing storm in the convention. But nothing caused more surprise than the Triptychs — the three screen process which anticipated Cinerama by 30 years.

And it never felt long. In fact, “Gance had intended to span Bonaparte’s life in six separate productions. The problems of finance were so severe, however, that he was barely able to finish the first.” By 1981, Gance was already 91 years old. At the time he was planning a new epic production based on Christopher Columbus.

“Napoleon” toured around the country, finding venues that could accommodate such a production. The story here in town at the time was that Carmine Coppola, who died in 1991, was particularly happy to be in Providence as he had friends over on Federal Hill with whom he was dining every night. His thoughts on the project from his notes in the program:

I will have a symphony orchestra — 60 musicians. This is a blessing in disguise for a four-hour film. A blessing because I could borrow from the masters — Handel, Mozart, Beethove, Mendelsohn, Berlioz and Smetana — in disguise because who can play for four hours straight? So, the score has some organ music for contrast but also to relieve the orchestra and the harpsicord is used extensively for 18th century flavor.

At the time the production arrived at the Kennedy Center for a two-week engagement, the Washington Post wrote about the ticket price, “No current movie returns as much entertainment value and esthetic excitement for the dollar. We’re talking about a lot of movie.” Exactly.


Not surprisingly, Courvoisier signed on.

(Imdb has many stills from the film.)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Providence Daily Dose