Abel Gance's Napoléon was first screened in May 1927 at the Apollo Theatre in Paris. Since then it has been shown in several versions, none as long as the original nine hours; but the historian Kevin Brownlow, since finding two reels of the original movie when he was a teenager, has devoted much of his life to the painstaking restoration and production of this unique colour toned version. In 1980 Thames Television sponsored a theatrical presentation of the print with a new orchestral score to accompany it composed by Carl Davis. The impact on the audience was overwhelming and Live Cinema – the fusion of film and live music – was reborn. The same team, Brownlow, the late David Gill and Carl Davis, subsequently worked together on over thirty restorations of silent films, initially financed by Thames and later by Channel Four Television. Their efforts have resulted in a worldwide revival of this lost art form.

Now Davis has brought his spic score to the US, with two complete screenings at the grand Paramount Theater in Oakland, CA, part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in March 2012. The Oakland East Bay Symphony was conducted Carl Davis.

is a tour-de-force of experimental filming techniques using multiple cameras, the mounting of cameras on sleds, horseback and overhead pendulums to achieve stunning visual effects ahead of their time, the visual culmination of the film being the triptych in the last 20 minutes when three screens are used to show Napoleon leading his army into Italy. Carl Davis’s suitably epic musical accompaniment uses quotations from Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, including the Eroica and Pastoral Symphonies, Corsican folk tunes and a variety of other musical allusions and leitmotifs. This was an awe-inspiring performance of live cinema.


‘At 9:40 p.m. Saturday, the near-capacity crowd at the 3,000-seat Paramount Theatre rose from the places it had settled into eight hours earlier and cheered a mighty cheer, the kind of full-throated, sustained roar not usually heard in a movie theater…. The audience had just lived through one of the world's great cinematic experiences: an all-day screening (complete with snack and dinner breaks) of Abel Gance's mesmerizing 5½-hour silent film from 1927, accompanied by Carl Davis conducting the 46-piece Oakland East Bay Symphony, performing his own superb score. Their applause and shouts paid tribute to both the sustaining power of this kind of moviegoing experience and to Gance's creative genius.’

"My God, wasn't that incredible?" said Los Angeles-based author and film historian Cari Beauchamp, who came to Oakland for the screening. "Absolutely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Just glorious, glorious, glorious."’
Los Angeles Times (Kenneth Turan), 26 March 2012


‘There is no other movie like Napoléon, Abel Gance's 1927 silent masterpiece. There are other films, including silent films, that are equally great, but Napoléon is great in an entirely unique way, and the experience it provides - at times, akin to taking a drug - is unlike anything I've ever experienced in a movie theater…

It's a feast. Sometimes you watch one screen at a time. Sometimes you watch all three at once and drink it in subliminally. It's an overwhelming and surprisingly emotional experience. And the accompaniment by Carl Davis, conducting the Oakland East Bay Symphony in his own score, is so brilliant that it seems to account for all three screens. When the film triples in dimension, the arrangement suddenly becomes more complicated, with more sound, more layering of themes….

[it is an] Exceptional score…..Most people probably don't know Davis, but to anyone who has seen the silent film restorations coming out of England for the past 30 or so years, he is what silent films sound like, a romantic tradition made modern. His score mixes familiar classical music and folk songs, but to anyone who knows Davis' music, his own original themes are unmistakable. No one in the world does this better.’
SF Gate home of the San Francisco Chronicle (Mick LaSalle), 26 March 2012


‘…this one-in-a-lifetime event… Kevin Brownlow’s 332-minute restoration, with Carl Davis conducting his original score (never before heard in the US) across eight hours and three screens… so transfixed [its audience] that their collective applause and laughter (for the film is surprisingly comical, especially in the courtship of Napoleon and Josephine) carried through to the end.’

‘I will never forget the exhilarating experience of finally being able to see [Napoléon] last weekend…Without question, this ranks as the most extravagant moviegoing experience of my life.’
Variety (Peter Debruge), 28 March 2012

‘In cinematic form, Napoléon conquers all...The early reviews are in, and they are ecstatic.’

‘… in Saturday’s New York Post, Lou Lumenick exclaimed “.... no hype here, honest - the film experience of a lifetime.”

“Shattered all expectations ,” “Tremendous,” “Electrifying. Riveting,” “A blast,” and “a fantabulous epic” were just some of the tweets referencing the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s presentation of Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon at the Oakland Paramount.

“The moment the curtains revealed the triptych, the gasp was in unison.” And after the five-and-one-half-hour epic had ended, he tweeted again, “At closing, the applause for @CarlDavisMusic was ferocious, but got louder when Abel Gance’s sig appeared on screen.”

Another film buff tweeted yesterday, “In 6 hours, we will belong to the first of two groups the world is again divided into: those who have seen Napoléon, and those who have not.”

Davis [‘s]… truly remarkable original score – a score which adds immeasurably to the experience of Napoléon.’
SFGATE Blog (Thomas Gladysz), 26 March 2012

'This masterful film was restored over a long process of finding pieces of film and restoring it to an almost complete film by one of film’s most applauded members Kevin Brownlow. The film is being shown with a full orchestra, which is led by conductor Carl Davis. Mr. Davis wrote the stirring five and a half hour score and is itself a mere wonderment to behold.’
San Francisco Examiner (Kay Shackleton), 28 March 2012


‘I was curious to discover what made Carl Davis's score so preferable to Coppola's. What I realized over the course of the next eight hours was that nearly 80% of Davis's score is taken from Beethoven's Third Symphony (The Eroica), the storm scene from Beethoven's Sixth Symphony (The Pastorale) and some of his ballet music from The Creatures of Prometheus. Add in a hurdy gurdy, the French national anthem (La Marseillaise ), some excerpts from Tchaikovsky's popular Marche Slav, a tinkle of Mozart, and a Corsican folk tune that bears an uncanny resemblance to "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow" … ….Davis followed in the footsteps of Richard Wagner, who attached numerous leitmotifs in his 19-hour tetralogy, Der Ring des Nibelungen, to its characters, curses, swords, rings, castles, and dramatic themes.’

‘….Most silent film fans can't wait to see the final 20 minutes of the film (when Napoléon explodes onto three huge screens for Gance's famed triptych). This coincided with the sequence when the theatre's organ joined forces with the Oakland East Bay Symphony to acoustically anchor an unforgettable cinematic experience.’

Huff Post (George Heymont), 2 April 2012

‘To see it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience -- This epic version, lovingly restored by British historian Kevin Brownlow, will likely not be seen again in its full format in the United States.
‘…..it's not your run-of-the-pizza-parlor silent flick with tinny piano music and jerky sped-up motion. Presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the show will be seen as the late filmmaker Gance originally intended -- as a major production involving specially designed projection booths and a massive 82-foot-wide, three-panel custom movie screen installed earlier this week in the Paramount to accommodate synchronized, three-camera effects…
What's more, the on-screen drama is accompanied by a full orchestra -- the Oakland-East Bay Symphony, under the baton of British composer Carl Davis, who wrote a rousing original score for this new version of the film…Brownlow has dubbed the complex production "live cinema."
"With Gance's unusual techniques and the beautiful music -- it's simply riveting. There's absolutely nothing like it," said Anita Monga, the film festival's artistic director…’

Oakland Tribune (Angela Hill), 24 March 2012