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Movie Poster of the Week: Abel Gance’s “Napoleon”

80 years of posters for Abel Gance’s lost-and-found epic masterpiece.
Abel Gance Napoleon poster

After the first screening of the restored Napoleon, Abel Gance’s beleaguered 1927 masterwork, at the Empire Leicester Square, London, on November 30th, 1980, the director of the British Film Institute Anthony Smith was quoted as saying “After Sunday the world will be divided into those who have seen Napoleon and those who haven’t.” The world of the haves over the have-nots expanded to the US the following year when Francis Ford Coppola famously brought Napoleon to Radio City Music Hall to be performed with his father’s score, but in the intervening three decades the film has not been seen again in the US. Come March 24th, however, thanks to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the world will once again be divided between those who have and those who haven’t when the film returns to the US for four screenings of Kevin Brownlow’s complete restoration—accompanied by Carl Davis’s score and a full orchestra—in Oakland’s extravagant Art Deco movie palace the Paramount Theatre, which, like Napoleon itself, has to be seen to be believed.

Kevin Brownlow’s amazing story of his lifelong quest to restore Napoleon to its former glory is recounted in his essential 1983 book of the same name and it’s as thrilling a story about film restoration—complete with heroes and villains, unexpected twists of fate, eleventh-hour rescues and tear-inducing happy endings—as you will ever read. Over the past few weeks I’ve felt a little like Brownlow himself as I’ve searched high and low for posters for the film, encountering bureaucratic obstacles and the kindness of strangers along the way.

Brownlow himself, though he has been very helpful in this quest, has said that “the posters are the only thing I don’t like about Napoleon” and his book features only one design, a black and white MGM poster (more on which later).

The problem with posters for Napoleon is that the film existed in so many different versions that it is often hard to place the various designs in the correct era.

The first posters for the film in 1927 don’t look like movie posters at all. Painted by military artist Georges Scott (1873-1943) to look like grand framed paintings, they don’t feature anything in the way of titles or credits. The full-length two-panel portrait, which is 94" x 63", simply has a nameplate that reads “Napoléon Bonaparte” while the stunning 4-panel poster, which is 94" by 126" (over 10' wide), has the caption “Rouget de Lisle singing The Marseillaise for the first time to the people of Paris.” It’s more like the world’s largest lobby card.

Abel Gance Napoleon posterAbel Gance Napoleon posterAbel Gance Napoleon poster

This poster, more recognisably a movie poster, is also from 1927 and also a giant 4 panel piece (click on both the above to see them large and in detail), though I have little more information about it.

Napoleon had its triumphant world premiere in Paris in April 1927 at the Paris Opéra in a four hour version, and was then screened a month later in a version twice as long, twice only, for trade and press. Though it lacked the celebrated triptychs (the tinted, three-screen finale to the film) which will be shown in all their glory in San Francisco, this is the version that Kevin Brownlow has spent 50 years trying to piece back together. 

In October of 1927 a shortened version of the film (under 3 hours but with the triptychs) was distributed in Germany by UFA, who also released it in Central Europe. I would hope that the striking German and Hungarian posters below are from this period though I can’t be sure.

Abel Gance Napoleon posterAbel Gance Napoleon poster

The MGM release of the film in the US in 1929, in a bowdlerized version, was a notorious disaster. Apart from this lobby card, the only posters I can find from that release are in black and white.

Abel Gance Napoleon poster

Brownlow says of the poster below right that the characters in the poster (and in the lobby card above) were actually “suggested by adverts for a forthcoming historical picture, Divine Lady” (a film about Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton) and not from Gance’s film at all (a resemblance can definitely be seen here). Brownlow goes on to say “[Albert] Dieudonné’s hair was adjusted on press advertisements to make him resemble the Napoleon more familiar to Americans; they even painted his hand inside his coat.” (Which reminds me that I did especially enjoy the Napoleon reference in The Artist).

Abel Gance Napoleon posterAbel Gance Napoleon poster

In 1929 Pathé re-released Napoleon back in France, in a shortened form, for rural audiences. In 1926 Pathé Cinema and the French Government had joined forces to launch Pathé-Rural which would distribute films on the much cheaper 17.5mm gauge in the hinterlands of France. According to Heritage Auctions, which sold perhaps the only original copy of the poster below in 2010, “17.5 mm film could be produced for only 75% of the cost of the regular 35 mm, and being thin enough in construction as to allow over one thousand showings with neither projection damage or without the audience being able to see any difference in quality between the two gauges. This smaller gauge was used in special projectors in small villages and the countryside with populations of less than 5,000 people.”

Brownlow has said that these rural screenings had “a disturbing whiff of right-wing politics – the films chosen tended to be nationalistic, like the de Gastyne Merveilleuse Vie de Jeanne d’Arc [which, coincidentally, David Cairns wrote about on the Notebook just yesterday] and Henry-Roussell’s Napoleonic epic Destinée.”  

Abel Gance Napoleon poster

The Pathé-Rural release was in two parts. The posters below (the second one a cruder variation of the poster above) are actually printed with the date of their showings in April 1931, one week apart, in the tiny southwestern town of Villecomtal-sur-Arros (current population 816). If you click on the posters to enlarge them you can read that the first part was screened with a comic short, a film about acrobats and a documentary film about Japan! The Pathé-Rural posters were painted by Maurice Toussaint.

Abel Gance Napoleon poster

In 1935 Abel Gance made a sound adaptation of the film which was titled Napoleon Bonaparte vu et entendu par Abel Gance. Two of my very favorite Napoleon posters, seen below and at the beginning of this post, are both for the sound version, and both by the great René Peron (1904-1972, perhaps best known for his 1956 ...And God Created Woman.)

Abel Gance Napoleon poster

I’m not sure of the exact provenance of the poster below which I have seen listed as 1950, although there was no French re-release of the film that year as far as I know. The poster is by Duccio Marvasi, who was certainly working in the 40s and 50s, and is based on the famous 1796 painting “Bonaparte au Pont d’Arcole” by Antoine-Jean Gros.

Abel Gance Napoleon poster

I have found no good version of the poster for Gance’s ill-advised 1970 re-edit/re-make Bonaparte et la révolution, produced by Claude Lelouch, beyond this. But there are plenty of versions floating around of the dramatic poster for Zoetrope’s Radio City screenings of the restoration in 1981, as well as for its national roadshow release that year.

But I am actually more partial to the dramatic simplicity of this British quad for Brownlow and Carl Davis’s June 2000 revival at the Royal Festival Hall.

Which brings us to the present and the tri-color portrait of Albert Dieudonné on the San Francisco poster by the great Paul Davis, best known for his New York theater posters

Abel Gance Napoleon poster

Tickets for Napoleon in San Francisco, certain to be the film event of the year, if not your lifetime, can still be purchased here. Many thanks to Kevin Brownlow, Bruce Goldstein, Dominique Besson, Sam Sarowitz and Sophie Dijan for their help with this article. The black and white MGM posters are courtesy of Photoplay Productions. The others are variously courtesy of Dominique Besson, Heritage Auctions and MoviePosterDB.

But I want to leave you with one last design. When Kevin Brownlow first discovered Napoleon for himself in 1954, at the age of 15, it was on 9.5mm film and the film had been as good as forgotten. Having fallen in love with the 90 minutes of the film that he managed to find, he started to screen it for friends and family at his home. This below was the cover of a programme drawn by Brownlow’s father for his “first proper show” of the film that would change his life.

Abel Gance Napoleon poster
Surely this event will make its way to NY?
Bluray release!
I saw it in DC 30 years ago at the Kennedy Center with Coppola’s father conducting and I am heading to SF for this event. I still love the poster from the Coppola screening; the one I got for this one is ‘nice’ but not as powerful. As for other screenings, think of this: 5-1/2 hours of music will need to be rehearsed days in advance by Carl Davis and a local orchestra. Lots of money. 3 synchronized 35mm projectors will have to be installed along with a massive screen in a theatre big enough for the band (orchestra pit) the screen and the 3 projectors at the right throw distances. Lots and lots of money. Union fees get high past 4 hours; something that influcenced the Coppola screening. They ran it at 24 frames per second (higher than needed) and trimmed some scenes to get the film done within the allotted minimum. If not: a whole hell of a lot of money. Paul Allen (who already has restored a beautiful film theatre in Washington state) could pay, and so could a lot of other people on this planet….the question is: will any one of them? This applies to any re-recording of the score and DVD/Blu-Ray release as well.
Claus, you are doubly lucky and sadly correct. From what I’ve heard these might be the only screenings of the film in the US for many many years to come, the costs of putting on this show being just too prohibitive. It is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Claus puts the scale and financial demands of the event into perspective very nicely. This full restoration has only played in a few places in the entire world. Anyone putting the money up for a DVD/Blu-ray release would do so out of love, not profit. I saw it ten years ago as the closing night film at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, presented at the Udine Opera House with Carl Davis conducting. Astounding event, absolutely thrilling, and I’ve got tickets for two successive showings in Oakland – Saturday and Sunday screenings, because I may not have another chance to experience it like this.
Re-restored, yet elusive as ever.
Did Napoleon actually stick his hand in his coat? The gesture is a convenient time saver for both artist and sitter (and we know from the film how Napoleon hated any time wasting). A well known non Napoleonic portrait which uses the same device is by Goya
Excellent post. You’ve done some great research. I have many of these posters (and a few others you missed). The George Scott posters are really fantastic. Here’s one on my living room wall (the line across is a light streak from the window): !(alt text)!
Unbelievable, Lothar, I can’t believe you own that (and others!). Are you a poster collector?
Thanks Lothar! That looks amazing framed. Do please share the ones that I missed—I’d love to see them and hear more about them.
Yes, I collect. I have the four-panel as well. Most interestingly, I have an “advance” poster announcing that the movie will be opening in Paris. I’ll try to dig it out of y files and photograph it.
This is an amazing group of posters !!! I would very much like to get some of them. Where can I find them? Best! Ed.
Ed, Dominique Besson, linked to in the article has a couple for sale but be warned that they are in the 3000 Euro range. On the other hand, the Paul Davis poster for the upcoming show is available for $30 at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival site.
Looking forward to. ;) Love the BFI poster and the 1927 original Paramount poster.
“Advance” Gaumont poster (about 30×40) announcing the rtriumphant screening of Napoleon
Three sheet from Coppola screening at Radio City Hall, NY. The poster is actually in better shape than it looks. It’s hard to photograph through glass.
Just to be clear, the “advance” (from 1927) is announcing the general showing to the public after the premiere.
Amazing Lothar, thanks for sharing!
To put a plug in for an old TV friend, Robert Osborne brought this wonderful film to TCM 4 or 5 years ago. We miss him in Athens. - pbji
Thank you for this excellent article and the many fabulous images. I had the great good fortune to be present at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles circa 1980 when Coppola debuted this film with his father conducting the orchestra. Could only afford a balcony seat, but all the seats were good, so no complaints. Everyone stood to sing La Marseillaise before the film began. Must confess my eyes got teary with emotion. It was a great night. I still have that release’s movie poster framed on my wall. Anyone who can make the trip to SF to see the movie, don’t miss the chance. It is a unique experience, well worth the effort.
Re. Movie posters of Abel Gance’s Napoleon As a scholar of Napoleonic History and movie fan, I appreciated very much your article on the film and the attached images. Let me share the emotions I felt the tree times I watched this masterpiece. The first time was in Rome by the Coliseum and the Costantine Arch on September 10, 1981. Were present Mr. Jack Lang, French culture minister, Mrs. Mitterand, French president’s wife and Rome’s major Mr. Veltroni. The enthusiastic audience did not move even when, during the second part of the show, the rain came. I was glued for three hours and a half to the seat as did the others 8.000 people present. Exactly two months later, November 10, 1981 Abel Gance passed away. The second time was in Alessandria, Italy, for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Marengo (June 14, 1800) held on June 17, 2000 into the Cittadella, the military citadel built in the years 1731-1745 and one of the best examples remaining in Europe of this kind of building. The third time was still in Rome, same place of the first one, on September 22, 2007. Also that event was attended by some 5.000 people. A large part of the audience was made by young people that never had the chance to watch the movie. I’d like to send you the leaflets’ images of the events along with the image of the first screening in Rome of Abel Gance’s Napoleon held at Capranica theatre. There is no date on it but I’m quite sure it was 1928 because I learned that in the same year Maestro Nuccio Fiorda, that used to collaborate with Capranica theatre for the silent movies’ musical accompaniment, composed the orchestral score for Abel Gance’s Napoléon and Camerini’s Rotaie (silent version). The theatre, built by the Capranica family in the year 1679, became in 1922 a movie-theatre. Today is still operative as a conference hall. Unfortunately I don’t know where I can send JPG files. You can visit my blog at Thank you Giampaolo Buontempo
A recurring error in the article text, e.g., “Tickets for Napoleon in San Francisco…” “Though it lacked the celebrated triptychs…, which will be shown in all their glory in San Francisco.” Your tickets would have done you no good in SF, and neither would you have seen the celebrated triptychs there. Instead, the film and its triptychs were shown across the Bay in Oakland at the beautiful Art Deco Paramount Theater.

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