For decades, Abel Gance’s 1927 silent epic was one of the Holy Grails of world cinema. The very grandeur of what Gance had attempted (including images that spanned three screens, predating CinemaScope) condemned the film to be whittled away willy-nilly in the first years of its release, only to be scattered altogether during World War II. Filmmaker and historian Kevin Brownlow undertook a painstaking 20-year search, and, by 1979, had reconstructed nearly 100 percent of the original. Gance (who died in 1981 at age 92) happily lived to see his masterwork triumphantly re-released and embraced by a new public. The film treats Napoléon’s early life, from his lonely boyhood (when he is bullied, but bursting with potential, as seen in a marvelously operatic snowball fight) to his proud, majestic aloneness atop a variety of Alpine pinnacles when he has achieved his first military victories and rallied France out of the chaos that followed its revolution. There are moments of wild beauty — “La Marseillaise,” sung with such fervor that voices all but burst from the silent screen; exuberant chases on horseback, filmed on horseback; cameos by such luminaries as Antonin Artaud (as Marat); and a Zen, eagle-beaked performance by Albert Dieudonné in the title role. If you love movies, seeing Napoléon on the big screen, in a rare 70 mm print, is a must — the film’s greatness is physical and theatrical, rather than in its depth of content. As an interpretive study of the psyche and historic meaning of Bonaparte, the film is lightweight, content to moon over the beauty of Napoléon’s destiny. Hero worship was Gance’s first language, and Napoléon is a pure expression of his own need to conquer. He’d been born out of wedlock, six months after Charlie Chaplin in 1889, and instinctively seized upon the newborn medium of cinema as his salvation from this primal lack of acknowledgment. But what of it? In so many ways that still give pleasure, Gance did conquer. His dazzling, symphonic, ferociously experimental cutting style — a trademark of even his earliest work, from the 1910s — influenced the more famous Eisenstein and Pudovkin, and for this, even today, he is seldom given due credit. Pauline Kael said it well: “Gance’s technique transcended his ideas . . . There was a fever in his work which came out of his love for the medium itself, and this love was the real subject of his movies.” Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Fri.-Sat., July 13-14, 7:30 p.m. (323) 857-6010 or www.lacma.org.
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