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1 November 2016

Why this historic six-hour silent film about Napoleon is ideal for the boxset generation

Abel Gance’s black-and-white epic from 1927 has been digitally restored, in the culmination of a 50-year project. And somehow it’s perfect for modern audiences.

By James Cooray Smith

In 1927, French filmmaker Abel Gance released his masterpiece, Napoleon. It was, and is, an ambitious, technically innovative picture, and one which, despite running in excess of four hours, depicts Napoleon’s life and career only up to the age of 27, because Gance intended it as the first in a series of films about Bonaparte’s life.

Napoleon was expensive, and some of its innovations meant that it required extra equipment to project. (The finale, a “triptych” consisting of three separate juxtaposed images, needed three screens and three projectors.) These demands – combined with its extraordinary length – made it hard to screen, and even harder to make a commercial return. Gance’s sequel plans were shelved.


All photos: The BFI, courtesy of Photoplay Productions

Across the late 1920s, Gance’s film would find itself routinely both sped up and chopped down to try and make a profit (in the US it ran for under two hours). It was even released, in a shortened six-reel version, for purchase by those very few people capable of projecting film in their own homes in an attempt to claw back a few Centimes.

Decades later, two reels of the home exhibition version were acquired by Kevin Brownlow, then a British schoolboy (born in 1938) who had received a 9.5mm film projector for Christmas. On viewing the reels, which he’d swapped for something he didn’t like without any idea as to their content, Brownlow immediately fell in love with the material. He marvelled at a quick cutting snowball battle between military cadets (which the child Napoleon wins by organising it like a military campaign) and a sea storm sequence shot with a swinging camera.

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Such dynamism fed into Brownlow’s conviction that the whole edifice of silent film had been the victim of a concerted propaganda effort from studios who wanted to sell new, sound films at the expense of older, silent ones.

Putting together a “complete” version of Gance’s Napoleon for his own use became an overriding ambition for Brownlow. Which was a problem. Not only was the release of the six-reel 9.5mm version for UK home projection far from complete – it slowly became apparent that there probably wasn’t a full version of the film in good quality anywhere in the world.

Brownlow’s ambition to have a good copy of the whole film for his own use became a quest to ensure there was one for posterity’s sake. He spent years visiting film archives in the US and Europe, including the Cinémathèque Française, looking for missing parts of the film, or better quality copies of those scenes he already had.

As Brownlow pieced Napoleon together, it became apparent quite how extraordinary the film was. Its technical innovations – on top of those that initially so enraptured Brownlow – included the use of handheld cameras, extreme close-ups, underwater shots and the superimposition of one image over another.

The film also featured far more extensive location filming than you would expect for a silent feature, and some scenes required hundreds, even thousands, of extras. There were even scenes that looked like they had been shot by starting a camera turning and then simply throwing it towards the action. Most of which can be sampled in the BFI’s trailer:

These devices make the film far more “realistic” than many silent films, yet it is also at times boldly defies naturalism. For example, it features wholly symbolic characters, such as a woman who represents France, and ghosts who are, within the film itself, undoubtedly supernatural beings.

At one point, after a section in which Napoleon returns home to visit his parents, the film briefly turns into a documentary, explaining how these sequences were shot in the real Bonaparte house in which they took place. It’s as if an episode of Arena has invaded The Godfather, but somehow Gance gets away with it. Gance always gets away with it.

All these things combined make the film not merely extraordinary, but unique. It is always absorbing, emotionally fulfilling, and entertaining. Even though watching it takes all day. As the writer, presenter and academic Matthew Sweet has observed, it feels in some ways like a piece of art from the distant future, not the distant past.

Reassembling Napoleon is not the whole of Brownlow’s career. He’s made several documentaries and written important books about the silent film era, and directed two (superb) films himself: the faux documentary It Happened Here (about a Nazi occupied Britain) and Winstanley, a painstaking drama about the Diggers’ Commune during the seventeenth century.

He’s won an Oscar, and Martin Scorsese is a fan. But whatever else Brownlow was working on, his Napoleonic campaign continued.

By 1979, Brownlow had a version of the film that lasted about five hours when projected at the correct speed for a picture of its vintage, and was able to publicly exhibit it, initially with an improvised piano score. Gance, now in his early nineties, was able to attend screenings, and be feted as a genius responsible for a lost-and-found mutilated masterpiece.

In the 1980s, Carl Davis (of the London Symphony Orchestra, but best known to the public for the theme to Thames TV’s The World at War) was invited to score the nearly complete film. Davis’ inspiration was to base his score on music that had already been written when the scenes the film portrays had already taken place. Davis’ score became the standard for screenings of Napoleon in the UK, usually performed live. Brownlow continued to work on the film, requiring extensions of and revisions to Davis’ work.

It is Davis’ score that will accompany Napoleon on its nationwide re-release this month, and which is included on the BFI’s imminent DVD and Blu-ray release of the film. (There was an earlier, inferior DVD from another company, which Brownlow would occasionally discourage people from buying.)

While no home viewing of Napoleon could equal the impact of a cinema screening, there’s a strange sense in which this DVD/Blu-ray release is Napoleon’s biggest victory, and not just because the discs will be available long after the screenings have finished. Gance’s film is divided into several parts, and these themselves fall neatly into smaller parts. It’s an episodic epic on your shelf, one which can either be binge-watched or eked out over days as you choose, because it has natural points of pause and renewal. It’s as if Gance, working so early in the history of film, hasn’t got the parameters, the limitations, the impositions of form as well as content, which history has since imposed.

Before television existed, what Gance did was unknowingly make Napoleon Season One, and after the longest gap in history we finally have the boxset. And that we do is thanks to Kevin Brownlow who, lest we forget, became the film’s champion after watching it projected onto a wall, in the privacy of his parents’ home.

Napoleon, restored by the BFI National Archive and Photoplay Productions, premieres at the Royal Festival Hall, with live score performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Carl Davis, on 6 November.

It screens in selected cinemas from 11 November and is released on DVD, Blu-ray and BFI Player on 21 November.

Find out more about the BFI’s latest releases.