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“Napoleon in San Francisco”
or “The Eagle of Destiny has landed”

The 70mm Newsletter
Written and photographed by: Mark Lyndon, London, EnglandDate: 15.04.2012

Reception and Gala Dinner

M. Romain Serman Consul General Of the French Republic in San Francisco. Image from home page of Consulat général de France à San Francisco.

A very special reception and Gala Dinner took place in the lobby of the stunningly beautiful art deco Paramount Picture Palace in Oakland, California.

We celebrated on the eve of the first complete screening of ‘’Napoleon vue par Gance’’ in the US on the 24th of March 2012.

We celebrated in the presence of M. Romain Serman, the Consul General of France, Maestro
Carl Davis the composer, conductor and arranger of the truly monumental score, and the world’s leading film historians Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury, of Photoplay Productions, who had made it all possible.
More in 70mm reading:

Abel Gance’s "Napoleon" Presented in “Polyvision”

"Napoleon" in Triptych was an Absolute Triumph

Kevin Brownlow Interview

Carl Davis Interview

Projecting “Napoleon” – une pièce de resistance

Cinerama As Perceived By Abel Gance

Internet link:

Carl Davis' Blog

Consulat général de France à San Francisco

The majestic Oakland Paramount, San Francisco was restored to its former grandeur during the 1990s

Toasts were proposed, inspiring speeches were made and the champagne flowed.

Maestro Davis summed it all up when he reminded the guests of the moment when he suddenly knew what Gance was after. During the battle of Toulon, Napoleon orders his men to do the ‘impossible’ and turn the cannons round saying:

‘‘Impossible n’est pas Français. !’

And so it proved, (in spite of the best efforts in the name of Health & Safety by the Oakland Fire Department), history was made, and the masterpiece was screened.


The Great Screening

A full house in the majestic Oakland Paramount, San Francisco

The Maestro’s inspired choice of Mozart’s great ‘Little G minor Symphony’ No 25 to accompany the opening sequences was not lost on Milos Forman when he made his own opening sequences for the film "Amadeus" three years later. Moreover, never forget that Gance’s seminal work was and remains an inspiration for all those who aspire to turn the moving image into art.

American audiences love a feisty courageous but ultimately lonely young hero who is up against it. The young Napoleon, played by the gifted Vladimir Roudenko, won the west coast audience from the outset with his many trials and battles at the military college at Brienne.

Revolutionary breakthroughs in camera techniques, which produced a fluency never before seen and multiple imagery, pioneered by Gance and wonderfully showcased in these sequences, continue to astound film makers as well as audiences. Our Paramount audience were wonderfully astounded.
Carl Davis conducting the symphony orchestra

Gance was a keen admirer of Wagner, translating his conception of total theatre into that of his own - total cinema.

The brilliance, skill and astuteness of the score by Maestro Davis is revealed at the first appearance of the Eagle of Destiny - a potent symbol of Napoleonic greatness to come; this theme recurs at key points in the epic narrative engaging and gathering emotion each time.

The measure of the greatness of this score is how well this point is intuitively understood. The Eagle leitmotif and the wonderful variations thereof underpin and underscore this film like no other.

The French Revolution - The Terror

The event that many historians regard as the greatest in history is firmly placed at the heart of Gance’s "Napoleon". The French revolution has been dramatised in many films, but surely never as searingly as this; both filmmaker and score composer rose to the occasion.

The reign of terror is chillingly and eerily evoked through the operation of two instruments - the guillotine and the hurdy gurdy. A wonderfully creepy performance by Edmond van Daële as Maximilien Robespierre reveals his own desperate attempts to soothe his terror of the guillotine by encouraging a hurdy gurdy player to play on.

At this point Napoleon, now played by the charismatic Albert Dieudonné, is seen as an unwilling witness to an atrocity exhibition – the Terror !


The Corsican scenes offer a welcome but all too brief respite from events in Paris but, even here, Bonaparte is to be pursued by sworn enemies. Escaping by sea into the arms of a violent and raging storm, Gance intercuts this section with the tempest raging in the National Assembly - at the point of highest drama he mounts his camera on a swing hurtling into and out of the riotous Assembly !

To this day, these sequences remain unsurpassed in their audacious and breathtaking boldness. Gance took Danton’s dictum:
‘‘L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace !’’
to heart and dazzled cinema audiences thereafter.

The Battle of Toulon

The orchestra sitting below the standard screen

Gance’s version of the battle of Toulon, has never been equalled in the long history of warfare on screen. It is quite stunning (guess who wins !), but it is worthwhile noting that, all the while, the magnificent score continues to shimmer and shine in the skilful hands of Maestro Davis and The Oakland East Bay Symphony Orchestra.

Where lovers met …

At the victims’ ball, a gorgeous creation of Gance’s art in itself, where victimhood was a trés chic fashion accessory, the first historic meeting of the most famous lovers since Antony and Cleopatra took place. Josephine, played by Gina Manès, flirtatiously waves her fan and coquettishly quizzes Napoleon:

‘’Which weapons do you fear most?’’
‘’Fans, Madame !’’

His subsequent attempts at wooing Josephine are deftly played to the hilt. Here, Gance proves himself a master of light comedy.

Compassion and humour feature very strongly in Gance’s marathonic masterpiece.

Tenderness and humanity, which feature so prominently in this glorious marriage of film and score never, ever descend into sentimentality.

Tristan Fleuri, a kitchen scullion played by Nicolas Koline, is a wonderfully observed character who observes the fortunes of Bonaparte throughout. He is an unashamed supporter from the days of the military college at Brienne. His natural decency and warmth wins over the audience to the noble cause of Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Revolution enters Italy

Signature pose of the three screens and a panorama from "Napoleon" - very well projected by the Oakland Paramount team

The glory of this film goes on and on. Napoleon, on the eve of his invasion of Italy enters the empty and ghostly chamber of the National Assembly. Confronted by the ghosts of the revolution, once titans of the revolution and all consumed by it, he is made to realise that the revolution will die unless he acts. He must take the revolution outside the borders of France - into Italy; Gance’s direction of this scene is a masterly political drama, none finer.
Able Gance using Triptych technique to make a "painting" of images. Notice Josephine’s face superimposed on the globe – an image Napoleon carried with him.
Same image in French colors of the Tricolore

The pitiful state of the Army that would carry out this historic task was unflinchingly portrayed, but leavened with Gance’s deep compassion. The slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was the perfect choice to underscore this scene ; yet for all the misery of the Army of Italy there was a growing sense in the audience that something truly stupendous was about to happen; it did!
“The eagle of destiny is significant in that it depicts the central symbol of Napoleon, (or a maguffin as Hitchcock called it!).

The audience gasped audibly, then cheered wholeheartedly when the screen opened up to reveal the world famous ‘Napoleon triptych’. The Eagle of Destiny had landed. The Eagle then flew in complete triumph over all three screens. The triptych became a great tricoleur, awesome! - here was history in the making, here was a real Cinerama moment !

Suddenly it was all over. The Maestro put his baton down. The audience roared their approval and rose to their feet as one. Many felt that it had changed their lives; it had !


The Paramount in Oakland, California

Abel Gance's epic masterpiece together with the score by Carl Davis has surely merited the ultimate accolade; that they be proudly placed amongst the greatest achievements of mankind.
Poster for the film in San Francisco
The interval where the company served refreshments included in the price of the tickets.
Standard screen for "Napoleon" at the Oakland Paramount 
The Triptych screen, with right and left angled a bit
“5½ hours later, around 10 p.m., it is all over”.  
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Updated 21-01-24