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A massive six-hour biopic of Napoleon, tracing his career from his schooldays (where a snowball fight is staged like a military campaign), his flight from Corsica, through the French Revolution (where a real storm is intercut with a political storm) and the Terror, culminating in his triumphant invasion of Italy in 1797 (the film stops there because it was intended to be part one of six, but director Abel Gance never raised the money to make the other five). The film's legendary reputation is due to the astonishing range of techniques that Gance uses to tell his story, culminating in the final twenty-minute triptych sequence, which alternates widescreen panoramas with complex multiple- image montages projected simultaneously on three screens. Written by
Michael Brooke <email@example.com>
Perhaps the greatest film ever made, but still being suppressed by legal battles...
I was lucky enough to see the very latest restoration of Napoleon by silent film expert Kevin Brownlow at the Royal Festival Hall in London earlier this month (December 2004). Carl Davis was there in person to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a live performance of his own brilliant score. It was the most moving and overwhelming cinematic experience of my life and I doubt whether it can ever be bettered. The film is decades ahead of its time, the bravura editing and inspired direction reveal Gance as the true genius that he was.
The very performance I attended was under legal threats from Coppola, who wished to ban its screening. Back in 1980-81, he and his Zoetrope Studio helped fund a restoration and he got his father to compose a score. He helped get the US audiences to recognise what a remarkable work of genius Napoleon really is, and all credit to him for trying to do so. This would all seem very well and good, but even in 1981 Coppola wasn't showing the best version of the restored film that he could have. He had cut it down from Brownlow's (then) latest version to fit the score his father had written. He also showed it at 24 fps instead of the intended (and more realistic - the movements are at a normal rate, not unnaturally sped-up) 20 fps. Throughout the 1980s, Brownlow and others in Europe kept finding better elements and more footage. Yet, Coppola's version was still being called "THE restoration" and not altered at all. Brownlow also found prints with more authentic editing, giving a much better idea of the order and number of cuts in many sequences (so many versions/reels of Napoleon have had inferior takes/editing put in by people other than Gance that it took time to discover the best and most authentic). It was becoming increasingly clear that Coppola's version was very much flawed and out-of-date with the new discoveries. In 2000, the latest and most complete version available (including the authentic tints, near-definitive editing in line with Gance's intentions, and the best print so far etc.) was screened in London. Carl Davis had altered and lengthened his magnificent score to match the latest version. Even after this showing in 2000, elements were still being improved to make the film as close as possible to Gance's intentions. The 2004 screening which I attended had a print that ran for nearly 5 and a half hours. Coppola's version runs for less than 4 hours and it hasn't been touched to include any improvements in print quality or more authentic tinting or editing.
The Coppola version of Napoleon, with a run time of 223 minutes (3 hours and 43 minutes) is out on DVD in Australia. I do not know when or even if it will come out on DVD in the US. Rest assured, it will NOT be the best version of this great film, or anything close to it. Coppola and Zoetrope sold rights to their version of the film to Universal in the 1980s and so now the issue of rights has become entangled with a major studio (Universal Studios, incidentally, destroyed all their silent film negatives in 1947 - a very (in)appropriate choice of distributor for a film whose failure and subsequent neglect was mainly due to a horrendous re-editing by studios (MGM) in 1927).
The Australian DVD, released by Universal, is filled with faults. Apart from inferior image quality (unlike the 2004 print, which was superb and scarcely a speck of dirt was visible any time during the whole 5 and a half hours), the final triptych sequence is horrendously cropped from 3.99:1 to 2.55:1 and isn't even adjusted for widescreen televisions. It's also exactly the same version from 1981 which, even back then, wasn't the best there was available. The music, admirable though it is, cannot compare to Davis' score (he has worked on many other silent film scores with great acclaim) - especially now that Davis has reworked the score for the latest version.
Coppola's efforts to suppress the latest restoration are a dreadful example of precisely the kind of money-driven censorship and selfishness that Napoleon has been dogged by for eighty years. Not just the 90+ minutes of extra footage, but the score and print quality itself, makes the latest print by the BFI/BFA/Brownlow indispensable. Anyone who claims to have rescued this film (as Coppola did in 1981, even though Brownlow had been working for decades before then, alongside Gance himself, to remaster the film) and yet tries to ban a closer version to the original film is monstrously hypocritical. As much as I welcome any hope of seeing Napoleon on DVD, I recoil at the thought of thousands of people being forced to watch a terribly flawed and inferior version of this masterpiece. Even as I type, there are rumours of even more lost footage from Napoleon being found in Denmark
with any luck this will lead to an even better restoration than the
This ongoing saga of restoration (and much credit is due to the person who seems to have the least legal rights out of the whole cast of those involved in the restored film: Kevin Brownlow) means that a DVD release of the Coppola version, with its many flaws, seems absurd and remarkably selfish and damaging. This film desperately needs to be released on DVD, but only in as close a form as possible to Gance's original masterpiece of 1927, seen by far too few people. That US rights-holders are trying to ban better versions with over 90 minutes extra in them is just another sad chapter in the story of this much-abused wonder of cinema. This is a magnificent film and deserves better than the shoddy and selfish treatment it has been given in America.
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