FILMMAKERS on FILMMAKERS ( ALAN PARKER on KEVIN BROWNLOW )

filming Napoleon

As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences welcomes Kevin Brownlow to introduce two of his classic silent movie restorations, “The Crowd” and “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg”, here is my tribute to this maverick filmmaker and inspirational film historian. I begin with an overview of his career, followed by an interview about Brownlow with his colleague and admirer, Sir Alan Parker.

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Director Alan Parker

There are many who would argue that film lost a certain magic in the transition from “silents” to “talkies”.  The literalness of adding speech, the specificity of anchoring images to sound, created a new filmic “reality”.  In the process we lost an elusive element of poetry that suffused the combination of image and music that was the silent film.  (The “silents” were never silent — there was always live music, both in the theaters, and on set when filming).

Silent movie musicians

Some would say the “talkies” have never fully recaptured that original magic, that poetry.

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Kevin Brownlow

One of the people who would be first to agree is Kevin Brownlow, the man who can rightly claim to have alerted more people to the wonders of the silent era than any other. And not just from writing about it, although he has done that better than anyone. Through restorations, theatrical presentations and documentaries, Brownlow has always used his own considerable filmmaking skills to turn faded curiosities into vibrant, vital film experiences for packed houses and millions of television viewers.

Reconstructed by Kevin Brownlow

As a boy he fell in love with the forgotten silents he watched in his makeshift home cinema, the classics and rare treasures he would bring home from flea markets and buy in catalogues.  He became a filmmaker himself, co-directing with his friend Andrew Mollo the startling It Happened Here (1964), a nightmarish fugue that imagined life in England if the Nazis had won the War.  It was the original low-budget indie before such a thing existed.  He also worked as an editor in the British film industry – on films like Tony Richardson’s iconoclastic Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) (which he described to me as “professionally the most enjoyable experience I’ve ever had.”)

Polish Poster

Polish poster for Charge of the Light Brigade

But his greatest passion remained that long forgotten era in Hollywood, when the most recognizable people on the planet – Valentino and Garbo, Chaplin and Keaton, Pickford and Fairbanks – created a new art-form among the orange groves of Hollywood.

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Hollywood c.1906 (the High School is the white building in center)

Chaplin's Film Studios in the 20s

Chaplin’s Film Studios in the 20s

I first became aware of Brownlow’s work at school, thanks to the same enterprising schoolmaster who had introduced me to the notion that film could be more than just entertainment via movies like Stagecoach and Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game and Un Chien Andalou. He screened a documentary Kevin had made about the French director Abel Gance, and his “lost” silent epic Napoleon, that Kevin had been painstakingly reconstructing over the years.  That documentary, The Charm of Dynamite, was revelatory. I had never seen film used like this. Every element of the medium was pushed to the limit to immerse the viewer as deeply as possible into the drama, the emotion, the poetry of what was unfolding on the screen.

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I immediately read Kevin’s seminal history of the silent era, The Parade’s Gone By, and was transported into another world. Through the detailed reminiscences of everyone from stars to cameramen to stunt-men and directors, the silent era was transformed into a kind of cinematic Camelot.  It was a gilded age of kings and queens, princes and princesses; with court intrigues and pretenders to the throne; errant knights, court jesters and the occasional damsel in distress — all working to create a new art-form and entertainment industry first in New York, then in the wild, wild west of California.  The Parade’s Gone By was to form the basis for the subsequent groundbreaking, 13-hour television series, Hollywood.

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In an irony not lost on its creators, Hollywood was funded and produced by a television company, Thames, part of Britain’s commercial network.  The dreaded box in the living-room, which had brought the film industry to its knees in the 50s and 60s, turned out to be the vehicle that preserved and celebrated Hollywood’s neglected history at a time when the studios were still mindlessly chucking out their archives, to end up as landfill for freeway construction. And it was a British television company to boot.

The success of Hollywood brought unforeseen gifts.  One Saturday morning I found myself with my best friend riding a train from Oxford to London to attend an occasion neither I, nor, I suspect Kevin, ever imagined would take place.  It was a full theatrical screening of the now completed Napoleon, accompanied by a symphony orchestra performing a specially composed score, in one of London’s grand movie palaces, the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square.

Napoleon at Empire

It all started in the morning.  No film started in the morning!  Well this one did, because it lasted all day!  Up to the podium strode composer/conductor Carl Davis, a striking figure with a flowing mane of curly hair, Liszt-like, every inch the showman and maestro.

Carl Davis conducting

He had to be.  He was going to be spending the next five-and-a-half hours leading his musicians without anything to keep him in sync with the film beyond his own instincts and sheer nerve. In musical terms, it was a high wire act, without a safety rope, over the Grand Canyon.  With forecasts of windy gusts and rain.

Napoleon in rain

The theatre was full of London’s cultural elite and movie buffs, with assorted movers, shakers and politicos thrown in for good measure.  What were we expecting?  Something great, something special, but absolutely not the utterly overwhelming experience that was actually delivered.  As the drama reached its climax with Napoleon’s invasion of Italy, the film exploded the bounds of the frame by expanding onto three screens in the final triptych sequence.  With Beethoven’s Eroica theme and Carl’s own transcendent “Destiny” theme thundering (with added organ now) from the orchestra, the theatre trembled, whole rows of grown men and women shaking with emotion.

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The triumph of Napoleon ushered in a golden age for Kevin, his producing partner David Gill (at right), and composer Carl Davis (center).

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They embarked on a series of documentaries and theatrical rebirths of silent classics, all presented in exquisitely restored prints with brand new orchestral scores.

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Ben-Hur, The Big Parade, Thief of Baghdad, Flesh and the Devil, The Wind  — I saw them all and more, and began writing articles about what was fast becoming an exciting phenomenon in festivals and movie houses across the world: “live” cinema.

The Wind - sold out

I got to know the team, and during the season at Radio City Music Hall, found myself chatting with Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, Lauren Bacall, John Gilbert’s daughter, and other luminaries of old Hollywood.  When I moved to Los Angeles, Kevin delighted in telling me that one of the greatest of all Hollywood directors, Josef von Sternberg (The Blue Angel, Morocco), had lived a couple of blocks away from my apartment; his son still resided in the same house.

During one of my visits to Kevin and David’s offices, I noticed their walls were decorated with a series of acerbic, and very funny, cartoons about the biz by the British director Alan Parker (Midnight Express, Mississippi Burning, The Commitments).

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It turned out that Kevin, like every film maker struggling to make a career within the insular, perennially on-the-edge-of-the-abyss British Film Industry, recognized a fellow rebel when he saw one. He mentioned something about Alan being a regular at their screenings, and having “borrowed” Abel Gance’s idea of using a camera suspended from a pendulum for his film of Pink Floyd The Wall.  I was always a fan of Alan Parker, especially of The Wall and Shoot the Moon, the latter a searingly honest examination of a disintegrating marriage that contains career-topping performances by Diane Keaton and Albert Finney.  Parker was an unabashedly commercial director who brought real fire and passion to his work, and wasn’t afraid to cock a snook at the doggedly inward-looking (some would say constipated) ethic of mainstream British film.  For me, his act of hommage to Abel Gance confirmed his class: he stole only from the best.

So when, last year, I was writing a piece about the triumphant screenings of Napoleon at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, I thought it would be interesting to contact now Sir Alan Parker for his thoughts on another maverick, now Oscar-winner Kevin Brownlow.

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This is what he had to say….

Parker shooting The Wall

Alan Parker (l.) shooting Pink Floyd The Wall

When and how did you first meet Kevin Brownlow? What were your impressions of him?

I first met him in David Puttnam’s office in the early seventies but didn’t really get to know him until about 1982/3 when he and David Gill asked me to do one of the segments for their Thames series “British Cinema: A personal view.” I wrote and directed one of these films: it was called “A Turnip Head’s Guide to British Cinema.” Kevin was a fan of my rather irreverent and subversive cartoons commenting on the film industry, which we developed into the film.

Parker - British Film Industry

Lindsay Anderson and Richard Attenborough also did segments of their own. David Lean was also meant to do one, but pulled out.

My first impressions of Kevin were of a shy, owlish, bookish individual: he looked like a history teacher from Tom Brown’s Schooldays or a bureaucrat from MI-6 .

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I was fascinated by the miniature notebooks he carried; the pages of which he covered with the tiniest handwriting. It could be a quote, an obscure film fact, or a rude put-down – into the book it all went. 

Did you read his book “The Parade’s Gone By”, and if so what kind of impact did it have on you?

Parade's gone by

I loved The Parade’s Gone By.  It’s one of the best books on the history of film and probably the best on the silent movie era. Although scholarly and erudite it was totally engaging, put together by someone who not only knew his stuff but also loved every person and every frame in it. He was the first to realize that an entire generation responsible for early cinema might not be around much longer, and his interviews with the significant, surviving players became an evocative and definitive history of the period.

Can you talk about your experience of seeing “Napoleon” for the first time: your impressions of the film, the effect of the music, and any influence the experience had on your own work?

I was certainly influenced by it.  After seeing the film I built a giant pendulum rig over a swimming pool at Pinewood Studios for a scene in Pink Floyd The Wall where Bob Geldof, with flailing arms, seems to be drowning in his own blood.

The Wall Geldof in pool

Bob Geldof as Pink

We also threw the camera around at any opportunity, influenced by Gance. A lot of the film was hand-held cameras. Gance taught us that all the usual rules could be broken to create cinematic energy, and a surreal, anarchic, in-your-face film like The Wall was a perfect vehicle.

The Wall - Geldof on floor 

Earlier, before the film, Pink Floyd and Gerald Scarfe in the mammoth stage version of The Wall (early 1980) had used three projectors in sync, creating a triptych image on the giant ‘wall’ screen.

The Wall "live" in 1980

The Wall “live” in 1980

Scarfe’s animation looked extraordinarily powerful in this form. Whether they borrowed this from Gance I don’t know, as it was before my time.

For anyone who has never seen “Napoleon”, what would you tell them to prepare themselves for?

Everything that was ever invented in cinema is here. It’s a masterpiece of course and overwhelming. A lot of people find the acting rather over-the-top and earnest but the film is so big, seemingly no screen is big enough to contain it. And how can you resist the smouldering, sharp nosed features of the actor who plays Napoleon with the dramatic god-given name of Albert Dieudonné!

Brownlow introducing Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne)

Brownlow introducing Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne)

How did Kevin’s and David Gill’s series of live presentations of silent movies with live orchestra, and their various documentary series, change your perception and opinion of the silent film era in movies?

I think, as a young filmmaker, it was impossible not to be affected by the invention and sheer craft of the work. And unlike us lot, following in their large footsteps, they were the first to do it. They were making up the rules, the grammar as they went along. The power, simplicity and beauty of images and music together is an extraordinary way to communicate to an audience.

John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil (1926)

John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil (1926)

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Lillian Gish in The Wind

The Phantom arrives at the Ball, Phantom of the Opera (1925)

The Phantom (Lon Chaney) arrives at the Ball, Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Sets for Thief of Baghdad (1924)

Sets for Thief of Baghdad (1924)

I had been captivated by the original Unknown Chaplin series in particular – being a Chaplin nut – and so the Chaplin films would have been particularly important to me.

Chaplin on sofa

You have always used music very creatively in your own films — why do you think Carl Davis’s scores for these silent films are so effective?

First and foremost they are an adjunct to the storytelling and not too self important or distracting. They meld with the pictures, creeping up on you rather than set you humming. They are not flashy, but serve the images.

Carl Davis and friend

Carl Davis and friend

Why do you think Kevin has been such an effective force in the promotion of the silent era in film-making?

His endless fascination with the minutiae of film is extraordinary. It seems he lives and breathes and loves it.

Brownlow at homeKevin is a great film historian who made us all realize the wealth of our cinematic heritage at a time when people had all but forgotten it. And he realized it fifty years before The Artist.

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Brownlow and Gill talking to Gloria Swanson

What were the most striking qualities of Kevin Brownlow’s own films “It Happened Here” and “Winstanley”?  Why you think it was so challenging for Kevin to make these kinds of films at that time in Britain?

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Both It happened Here and Winstanley were films that just wouldn’t have been made in the run of normal British film fodder.

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Winstanley

There was no such thing as “Indie film” at the time and It Happened Here took so long to make the trials and tribulations of making it were like Werner Herzog films: probably more interesting than the films themselves. I have the powerful image in my head – that has stayed since seeing the original film – of a platoon of German soldiers, in immaculate Andrew Mollo [brother of Star Wars costume designer John Mollo] uniforms, marching past Big Ben.

 It Happened Here (1964)

British film at the time was a curious sixties potpourri from brilliant to dire – and all financed by the mainstream film companies. It was a mixed bag from dopey Carry on… films, to the brilliance of Kubrick and Lean, to the sixties visions of Dick Lester and the Beatles. Brownlow must have appeared as a maverick loony.

Brownlow shooting 2

Do you have any particularly good stories about Kevin?

I remember a dry sense of humour. I was bemoaning the unpleasantness of the film critic, Alexander Walker, and Kevin said: “The problem with Alex is that his ad libs sound like they’re on their eighth draft.”

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Frankly-Seth-800x718 Parker

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LILLIAN GISH in “The Wind”

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In celebration of Lillian Gish whose 120th birthday falls today. Below you can watch her introducing one of her greatest films, The Wind (1928).

The Wind main title

It is one of the most remarkable American films of the silent era, produced by its star, and helmed by the Swedish director Victor Sjostrom (anglicized to Seastrom), who later in life played the old Professor in Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries”.

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The version to see is the one presented by TCM in collaboration with Oscar-winning film historian, Kevin Brownlow, with a specially composed musical score by Carl Davis. (Music buffs might be interested to know that the orchestrators on this score, which includes all manner of orchestral “special effects”, were Colin and David Matthews, leading avant-garde composers in their own right. Colin has also worked extensively with the Benjamin Britten Estate to bring many of Britten’s “lost” compositions back into the repertoire).

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I attended the premiere of this version of The Wind at the London Film Festival in the 80s, and it was a knockout.

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At a later screening in New York’s Radio City Music Hall I had a chance to meet Ms. Gish, and she was the personification of charm and old-world Hollywood graciousness. The following clip, alas, features music other than Carl’s, but it gives you an idea of the extraordinary imagery that drives this story of a girl pushed to the limit of her sanity by events in this inhospitable, windswept country.

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Lillian Gish The Wind 1

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THE GARBO EFFECT

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Today would have been Greta Garbo’s 108th birthday. She is still considered one of the greatest sirens of the silver screen, a truly iconic figure embodying all the mystery and allure that the camera can bestow on the feminine form.

Garbo The Temptress

Want proof? Look no further than the following.

The year was 1926.

Filming a pivotal scene for Flesh and the Devil, the story of an illicit romance á la Anna Karenina, director Clarence Brown had little idea of how life was about to mirror art.

It was the scene where the leading lady, Greta Garbo, was to meet her great love, John Gilbert, for the first time. In real life as well as on screen.

Flesh and the Devil station

It’s the scene in the train station (alas, not available in clip form). When you watch it, you can almost believe you are watching the actors falling in love at the same time as their characters do. According to Gilbert’s daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, whom I met at a screening of the film in New York, that is exactly what happened.

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Director Clarence Brown later remarked upon his leading lady:  “She had something behind the eyes that told the whole story. On the screen Garbo multiplied the effect of the scene I had taken. It was something she had that nobody else ever had.”

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Creating Garbo’s deliriously sensual aura was the work of cinematographer William Daniels, a veteran collaborator of maverick director Erich von Stroheim. Using heavy gauzes and filters over the camera lens, he wraps the lovers in a shimmering passion and eroticism.

Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Listen to how Carl Davis’s score enhances the effect with its allusions to Richard Strauss, especially the Moonlight music from Capriccio.

You’re about to watch the climactic scene where the lovers kiss for the first time. It begins at a ball. Gilbert can think only of the woman he met at the train station. Will he see her again?

They move into the garden…..

Gilbert and Garbo were to marry. The story goes that, on his wedding day — a grand, Hollywood affair — Garbo failed to show. Gilbert got drunk and took it out on his boss, Louis B. Mayer. Mayer swore he would destroy Gilbert’s career. Gilbert never made the transition to talkies, ostensibly because of his reedy voice. But maybe the apocryphal version of how events unfolded holds the greater truth: could any man ever survive loving Garbo? (Or pissing off Louis B.?)

Garbo insisted that Gilbert co-star with her in Queen Christina (1933)

Even though Gilbert’s career was in decline, Garbo insisted that he co-star with her in Queen Christina (1933)

While Gilbert spiraled downwards, Garbo continued to ascend higher into the Hollywood heavens. With the arrival of talkies her accented voice beguiled as much as her looks, and she later revealed a talent for comedy in Lubitsch’s sublime Ninotchka (1939). Audiences were so accustomed to Garbo smoldering rather than smirking that the studio used her new-found levity as a log-line on their posters.

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If you’re ever in need of a cinematic pick-me-up, look no further.

Garbo and Lion

Even MGM’s Leo the Lion seems cowed by the Legend that was Garbo

Forget Helen of Troy.  It was Garbo who not only launched a thousand and more ships of romantic dreams, but then dashed them upon the rocks of her early retirement and retreat from the world. She was, finally, alone.

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But in the garden of film immortals she awaits her lovers still….

Garbo reclining

THE GREATEST FILM EVER MADE? ( “NAPOLEON” on BASTILLE DAY )

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Gance's inscription

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Gance as Saint-Juste in Napoleon

What is the ultimate movie-going experience?  The ultimate big screen blow-out?

2001: A Space Odyssey?

Lawrence of Arabia?

Star Wars?

Think again.  Think a silent film, released in 1927.  A film that was almost lost to history, if it were not for the obsessive efforts of a young British film-maker and historian, Kevin Brownlow.  Today, on Bastille Day, we celebrate that masterpiece of French and world cinema: Napoleon, vu par Abel Gance.

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I’ve got long history with this film.  I was present at the now-legendary first screenings of Brownlow’s restoration at London’s Empire Theater in Leicester Square.  That experience led to a friendship with Kevin, his producer David Gill, and composer Carl Davis, and a series of articles about their ground-breaking restorations of silent movies.

Then, in March 2012, Kevin’s definitive version of the film arrived for the first time in America, complete with Carl Davis’s superlative score.  I dragged friends, my daughter and her mother (an ancestor of hers, a mistress of Napoleon, appears as a character in the film) to the screenings.  They could not believe their eyes or ears.

Napoleon at the Paramount Theatre, Oakland, 2012 (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

Napoleon at the Paramount Theatre, Oakland, 2012 (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

The following is the review I wrote of the occasion for the Financial Times, supplemented by extra pictures.  For those of you who are interested, a screening is taking place in London this Fall.  Do not hesitate to do whatever it takes to be there.

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Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon

It has taken 85 years, but America is finally seeing one of the cinematic wonders of the world in all its glory, as the enterprising San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents screenings of Abel Gance’s five-and-a-half-hour 1927 silent epic Napoleon.

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French director Gance originally intended to make six films covering Napoleon’s entire life, but blew his budget on Part One, which takes us from Napoleon’s boyhood to his campaign to liberate Italy. Its first audience didn’t even see all of that: when Napoleon premiered at the Paris Opera, the film had already been severely shortened by nervous producers.

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The birth of the Marseillaise is vividly brought to life in the film, and is here rendered into a 1927 poster by Georges Scott

In the succeeding decades, the film was scattered across archives, private collections and flea markets around the world. By 1954, when 15-year-old Kevin Brownlow discovered a 9.5mm home-movie version of excerpts, Gance and his film barely made the footnotes in movie history.

Director Abel Gance and the young Kevin Brownlow

Abel Gance and the young Kevin Brownlow

For Brownlow, a future editor and director himself, viewing the film was a moment of revelation. “The camera did things that I didn’t think it could do, and it represented the cinema as I thought it ought to be, but had never seen an example of,” he recalls. “It was beautifully, brilliantly staged. You couldn’t believe it had been shot in the ’20s.”

The aftermath of battle

The aftermath of battle

Young Napoleon and the Eagle of Destiny

Young Napoleon and the Eagle of Destiny

Napoleon on boat with flag

Escaping from Corsica

Gance saw film as an immersive medium of poetry and passion. To achieve his aims, cameras were thrown on to galloping horses, mounted on cables and sleds, and swung from pendulums.

Mounting cameras on horses for Napoleon's escape from Corsica

Mounting the camera on a horse to film Napoleon’s escape from Corsica

He used split screens, multi-layered dissolves and revolutionary editing techniques to challenge every convention of cinematic storytelling.

The ghosts of the Revolution

The ghosts of the Revolution

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Young Napoleon in a precursor to his later battles: the pillow fight

In the finale, when the frame is no longer big enough to accommodate Gance’s vision, the film explodes on to three screens.

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Napoleon tryptich 4

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He even shot test footage in colour and 3D. Rarely has the avant garde been given such heady rein in a mainstream narrative.

Napoleon embracing Josephine -- and the world

Napoleon embracing Josephine — and the world

Brownlow’s efforts to reconstitute the film turned into a full-blown restoration with the support of the British Film Institute in London. In 1980, British TV company Thames Television funded a theatrical presentation, commissioning an orchestral score from composer Carl Davis.

Carl Davis

Carl Davis

Davis turned to the classical music of the period – “If the whole film is a biography, a portrait of Napoleon, it could also be a study in the music of Napoleon’s time – Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Cherubini, Gluck,” he said – as well as popular songs. The result was a score that perfectly matched the film’s tone and energy; such was the combined impact that those early screenings passed into film-buff legend.

Young Napoleon (Vladimir Rudenko)

Young Napoleon (Vladimir Rudenko)

It was always hoped that this version of Napoleon would be shown in the US, but the rights there were controlled by director Francis Coppola, who favoured his own, shorter version, with a score by his father Carmine. It enjoyed great success, but was a pale shadow of the British production.

The execution of Danton

The execution of Danton

Over the years, Brownlow uncovered more footage and better versions of the material he already had. In 2000, the BFI and Photoplay Productions unveiled a dye-bath toned and tinted print, incorporating all the new material.

Fast-forward to 2010. In a twist right out of the movies, Brownlow found himself in Los Angeles receiving an honorary Oscar for his work as a film historian. Next to him sat another honoree – Francis Coppola. Whatever transpired in that meeting, the result was that all parties came together to enable the current Oakland screenings.

Coppola and Brownlow on Oscar night

Coppola and Brownlow on Oscar night

All concerned have done Napoleon more than proud, not least in their choice of venue: the Paramount Theatre’s art deco splendour is a worthy setting for the film’s epic scale.

Paramount theater lobby

Paramount Theatre, Oakland, CA.  By Euan Rannachan & Ron Essex. www.paramounttheatre.com

As for the film itself, the many visual refinements of the current restoration bring an extra cohesion to its narrative flow. The exquisitely nuanced photography registers more clearly, along with the meticulous crafting of period detail, while the tinting, especially in inter-cut scenes of different coloration, adds another level of emotional density. One sinks more deeply into the film.

Death of Marat

Death of Marat

But maybe the greatest gift of this Napoleon is the opportunity for American audiences at last to hear music that is fully the equal of the powerful images it accompanies. Carl Davis conducts the Oakland East Bay Symphony in a spirited account of his stamina-challenging score, which, like Brownlow’s restoration, has grown over the years.

With the unveiling of the film’s final triptych, the Paramount’s 85-foot proscenium span ensured that even those who had seen the effect before gasped in astonishment.

Final tryptich (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

Final tryptich (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

It may have taken 85 years to get the film restored and back on the screen, but what’s a few decades when it comes to cinematic immortality?

Josephine, Saint-Juste, and Napoleon

Josephine (Gina Manes), Saint-Juste (Gance), and Napoleon (Dieudonne)

You can read more about Kevin Brownlow’s unique career as a filmmaker and historian in my interview with renowned director, Sir Alan Parker, here.