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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 It was becoming increasingly clear that Coppola's version was very much flawed and out-of-date with the new discoveries.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 2004 one.
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.
Abel Gance's 'Napoleon' was premiered on April 7, 1927, at the Paris
Opera House, the first movie to be accorded such an honor
It was been
shown on a triple screen and to full orchestral accompaniment, running
slightly under four hours
Impressive as it seems, it was conceived as the first of a six-part biography running many hours and tracing the life of Napoleon from childhood to the bitter end in St Helena Fortunately-for Abel Gance who directed and for us-the project was only completed to that moment where Napoleon enters Italy at the head of the French army, and the later and less pleasant aspects of his spectacular career were left unfilmed... The Little Corporal, after all, is a less controversial figure than the Emperor
Gance needed a figure as emblematic and powerful as 'Napoleon' to fulfill his dream of super cinema
'Napoleon' is a masterpiece of excess:
- The child Bonaparte keeps a pet eagle and wins a snow fight while at school in Brienne... In this sequence, the frame splits into nine subliminal images; as Napoleon watches his men entering Italy, the screen expands on each side to form a breathtaking panorama, then changes into three coordinated views of the scene
- The National Convention seems to sway and rock as Napoleon makes his escape from Corsica in a storm-tossed sailboat
- The Gallic of cabaret singers, Damia, leads French troops into battle personifying 'La Marseillaise'
'Napoleon' is like one grand musical composition. It throbs with life
That was Gance the great filmmaker who thought that film could do everything and who said to Kevin Brownlow: 'For me, the cinema is not just pictures. It is something great, mysterious and sublime.' Brownlow is known now not only as an English filmmaker and film historian but also as a great restorer of silent films, notably Abel Gance's 'Napoleon.'
Modern film-goers are used to explication, to having everything explained
for them. The art of visual story-telling -- where images and action
indicate the emotional state of characters, rather than have the actor
you how angry or sad or excited they are -- has almost been lost. But
"Napoleon" is a masterpiece of visual art. (Writer-director Abel Gance
honored at the Telluride film festival a few years ago for this film. Far
too late, in my opinion.)
The film tells the life of Napoleon Bonaparte -- the Corsican who adopts France as his homeland, rises to supreme general of the French armies during the Revolution and eventually seizes the seat of government itself (twice!). It starts out with a lengthy (if perhaps mythological) examination of Napoleon's childhood in a Catholic school. Snowball fights between Napoleon and two future foes portend the future. Napoleon's friendship with a pet eagle foreshadows his role as emperor of France. But even though these scenes represent more artistic license than history, they are tremendously well-acted by the young Vladimir Roudenko (as young Napoleon). Among the many innovations are some relatively naturalistic acting by the members of the cast and some jaw-dropping editing and montage sequences (especially during the brawl during the snowball fight and the fight in the sleeping quarters). Such innovative use of editing probably wouldn't be seen for another 30 or 40 years!
After almost an hour of this three-hour epic, we're transported to the period of the adult Napoleon -- acted with gravitas and iciness by Albert Dieudonne (who is among the cast's taller actors, just as Napoleon was in reality fairly tall, too). The film dwells extensively on the formative period when Napoleon first arrives in Paris during the late Revolution, focusing heavily on how the chaos in the city stamped into Napoleon the authoritarianism and dictatorial leadership traits that would emerge later in life. This is perhaps the highlight of the film. The editing and visual images create a swirling, spinning, mind-blowing effect that is extremely effective.
The film then focuses on Napoleon's return to Corisca -- whose people held allegiances to Spain and Italy as well as France, and where Napoleon faced imprisonment due to his French leanings. For anyone interested in learning more about the life of Napoleon, this segment is pretty eye-opening. It's followed by a sequence at sea that's amazingly effective in conveying the power and terror of a storm at sea. For its time, this film contained some powerful ocean footage (watch for those amazing low-angle shots, and the ingenious intercutting of the "angry storm" of the French assembly and Napoleon's tiny skiff tossed about on the stormy seas).
The final hour and a half of the film depicts Napoleon's rise in the army and his tenure as emperor of France. This is perhaps the portion of the film that most viewers would think of as "the story of Napoleon." But perhaps one of the reasons why this film is so fascinating is that it delves deeply into the formative episodes in Napoleon's early life and gives as much importance to them as to his later actions on the battlefield in Italy, his tenure as emperor, and his subsequent exile, return, and exile. And the film does so without being heavy-handed, un-subtle or overly expositive.
A restored version of "Napoleon" is making the rounds in the US in cinemas and on television. It contains a new musical soundtrack by Carmine Coppola, which is fairly good (although at times repetitive and too loud). The film was restored and re-edited by Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope studio. Zoetrope added some tinting (the ocean scenes are all blue, the "angry mob" scenes are all red) that is interesting but perhaps not quite the "restoration" some viewers might have had in mind.
Watch "Napoleon." You'll be very surprised at how modern the film is. Compared to other silent films of the 1920s, with the undercranked action, overly emotive acting, fantastic plots and theatrical make-up and costumes, "Napoleon" is years ahead of its time. Silent films require concentration to watch. "Napoleon" will keep your interest.
I saw this back in '81 or '82, on the Big Screen at the Shrine Auditorium in
Los Angeles, with Carmine Coppola conducting a live orchestra -- there has
never been anything like that in all my movie-going experience! The closest
that's come since was _Intolerance_, restored, with another live orchestra
performing under the baton of the composer, Gillian Anderson (no, not the
one from the X-Files). That, too, was an occasion to remember ... but where
is Napoleon on DVD?
As many other reviewers have said, Napoleon was a relevatory experience. Certainly, other films to that point had used most of the devices Gance employed so brilliantly (except, of course, his three-screen-wide "Polyvision"), but then sound came in and the requirements of the microphone killed the recently mobilized camera. The camera became very static for at least the next ten years of films -- dynamic camera movements only returned when sound mixing came in to being, and scenes could be shot MOS (mit out sound), with foley and overdubbing replacing the missed sounds.
For this reason, Napoleon is important to see -- as a technical achievement. But Gance's artistry wasn't limited to gimmicks. His pacing, editing, and direction of the actors (including Dieudonne as Nappy -- looking amazingly Rod-Stewart-like) is excellent as well.
Highly recommended -- and when the DVD comes out -- hopefully, with the fuller, five-hour restoration, and Coppola's music on one track, with a reconstruction of the original music on another (and perhaps Gillian Anderson has a score of her own to share?) -- you'll owe it to yourself, as a student of Film, to see it, over and over again.
The (more or less) full length version of Gance's NAPOLEON assembled by
Kevin Brownlow over many years is an absolutely astounding achievement,
for Gance's inspired execution of a vision nearly too big for the screen,
and Brownlow's dedication and perseverance, not to mention his superb
reconstruction skills in bringing such a masterpiece back for the enjoyment
of the world.
Well, not the whole world... Despite all this effort, the full restoration cannot be seen in the United States, on video or theatrically. It's a long story, but I just wanted potential and past viewers of this film to be aware of a few things:
-First of all, though video may be the only way to see this film in the U.S., keep in mind that home video can not even come close to providing the proper setting for such a gorgeous and epic film. The word "epic" has in fact never been so appropriate. So while I don't discourage people from seeing the video for lack of theatrical viewing opportunities, remember that the film was made on and meant to be seen on a grand scale.
-Secondly, the version currently available in the U.S. is not shown at the correct speed (24fps instead of the necessary 18/20fps). Also, it is missing footage. It is my understanding that in order to provide wider release possibilities in the U.S. upon the completion of the first major restoration in the '70s, the U.S. prints were edited somewhat to cut down on the admittedly long running time. This is also why the film is shown faster in the U.S., at "sound speed" or 24 frames per second. The newest restoration runs at 333 minutes, while the U.S. version is only 235.
The primary reason why the latest, glorious 2000 restoration of the film cannot be seen in the U.S. lies mainly with Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola controls the U.S. distribution rights, and allows only the U.S. version - with a score written by his father - to be shown. This is unlikely to change in the near future, so until then, deal with the substandard videotapes or plan your next European trip around one of the periodic English screenings of the film version - believe me, it's worth it!!
I was one of the thousands who were fortunate enough to see the fullest
version of Napoleon at the Royal Festival Hall in early December 2004.
As noted in 'alternate versions', this may prove to be the last showing
until the second half of the Century (when copyright lapses) of what is
so far the definitive version of the film.
It was a truly memorable experience. I had not seen 'Napoleon' for several decades, and that was a shorter version with piano accompaniment ~ though still played at the correct speed. This longer version at the correct speed with The London Philharmonic Orchestra and the RFH organ playing in full volume for the climax was a mind-blowing experience. I have not seen Coppola's 'keystone cops' version, but if the trailer on this website is any guide, with Napoleon strutting in Chaplinesque mode, it seems a travesty of what I saw; More 'Homage to Mack Sennett'.
It is clear that these two versions are radically different. It seems grossly unfair to score and review the two main versions in a single poll as if they were the same. The 95 minute difference in running time is longer than many complete films reviewed on this site ~ such as Bronenosets Potyomkin from the same era. There are clearly enough reports/votes to permit the two versions to be scored separately. I suspect the approval rating of the longer version would be significantly higher than for the Coppola version.
It there is ever another opportunity to see this latest version (or even better, an even fuller version) with the Carl Davis score, I shall do my utmost to seize the opportunity.
January 23, 1981. Radio City Music Hall. Nearly midnight. One of the most thrilling experiences of my life. "Napoleon", restored, and reconstructed, not seen for over fifty years, was debuting in front of 6,000 people packed into the great theater with Carmine Coppolla conducting a huge orchestra rising up on the lift as lighting cast fifty foot shadows of the conductor on the walls. The score was magnificent. By the end of the film when the tryptyches stretched the size of the screen to triple size filling the glorious famous sunburst proscenium, Radio City Music Hall erupted in a standing ovation - and Kevin Brownlow, who restored the film, at that very moment from the theater had Abel Gance (soon to die) live on the phone from France to hear the ovation! Just incredible. Glorious. The film is a masterpiece of the Twentieth Century. And a must see. The best scene was the battle in the Convention between the Girondists and Jacobins superimposed on Napoleon's escape from Corsica in a sea storm. Staggering editing and camera work. It is a tragedy for us all the the remaining chapters of Napoleon's life were never put on film as Gance planned.
"Napoleon" is an absolute masterpiece in the world's history of
filmmaking. In 1927, it was completely overshadowed by the technology of
"The Jazz Singer". And that was a real tragedy for decades.
Gance is a director I will always admire for his innovation in filmmaking
that still is impressive in the 21st Century. He mounted cameras on skis
and swings to give the audience the effects that he wanted to convey, and it
works perfectly. I was impressed by two great scenes - the 'ocean storm'
scene and the final battlefield scene, which
was done in the tints of the three colors of the French flag. Any aspiring
director should study the techniques of Abel Gance, because
brilliance of this great director would be inspiring! Gance was
instrumental in perfect casting. Though Albert Dieudonne was older,
actors go, he was perfectly cast as Napoleon. If this was an American film
and not a French film, I'm sure it would be considered as one of the
greatest films ever made by AFI and other organizations.
I was glad that Abel Gance was able to see the affection that audiences had for this film in the late 1980's and early 1990's when the film went on a world tour with a world class orchestra. It would have been sad if Gance had passed on without knowing that his film was considered a masterpiece. If their was ever a silent film that 'pulls out all of the stops', this film is it. Viva Le Gance - the Visionist!
I had the privilege of seeing the restored version of this film, to the
accompaniment of a live orchestra under the baton of Carmine Coppola,
in Los Angeles' un-air-conditioned war memorial. Despite uncomfortable
seating and terrible heat, the experience of this four hour movie
remains a watershed for anyone who attended. To think that because of
the invention of sound, this masterpiece was partially destroyed by
Abel Gance in a fit of depression, is heartbreaking. More shocking is
that Gance's invention of Cinemascope - of which today only the end of
the film retains in its triptych screen effect - was lost to filmgoers
until its reinvention years later.
Obviously true art can't be hidden forever, and Gance did live to see Napoleon take its rightful place in cinematic history. Though it is many years later, I can still remember the tears and the ovation when the black screen with the white signature, "Abel Gance", signified the end of the film. A compelling and great work of art.
At the weekend i went to see Napoleon at the Royal Festival Hall in London. I am a relative newcomer to silent moves but too see a 5 and a half hour performance with the London Philarmonic Orchestra was incredible. Loved it, there seems to be some dispute with Coppola about the rights to this production, but if it is ever done again, it is something that any serious movie goer should make an attempt to see. And to prevent others from seeing this with an orchestra would be a travesty. The music by Carl Davies added another dimension to what was a fantastic film. It would appear that the work is a lifes work for Kevin Brownlow, he should be very proud of this acheivements.
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