Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’ (1927)

❉ “Cinema like this must be FELT as well as witnessed.” We report back from the BFI’s preview of the restoration of Abel Gance’s silent epic, out this month.

Abel Gance’s revolutionary silent epic, depicting the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, is a cinema landmark, famed for its groundbreaking technical innovations – including its widescreen triptych finale – and a 330 mins running time.

Fifty years in the making, the restoration of Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’ – digitally restored by Photoplay Productions and the BFI National Archive, with a newly-recorded score, composed and conducted by Carl Davis – comes to UK cinemas, DVD/Blu-ray and BFI Player this November.


Where to begin with ‘Napoleon’? If any film can be said to bear the burden of history it is this one: the history of its eponymous icon (‘hero’ seems too small a word for the almost supernatural, implicitly immortal figure we are presented with here), the history of the battlefields, landscapes and palaces he bestrides, the history of a continent and a culture.

Beneath and behind all of this there is the history of the film itself: intended by its pioneering, visionary director Abel Gance as the first episode in a six-part series of grand epics detailing every illustrious and ignoble step in Napoleon’s life both public and private, it was originally presented as a near-6-hour monolith, but found itself cut down again and again for exhibition in various territories over the years, until it ended up so mangled by the 1950s it was pretty much considered ‘lost’: a key text in post-war European cinema all but abandoned to its fate as a crippled cinematic curiosity, an enticing fragment of a greater whole that would never again see the light of a projector.

Until that is the intervention of schoolboy film enthusiast Kevin Brownlow (later to become perhaps the world’s leading expert on the silent era), who happened upon an unusually complete version of Gance’s ‘Napoleon’ by chance: so began a lifetime’s dedication to restoring this hobbled magnum opus to its former glory, or at least as near to it as possible.

That lifetime’s dedication brings us to NFT1, the pride of the BFI Southbank on a blazing Sunday morning in September to view a new digital projection of (most of) what is now believed to be the definitive cut. Now in his seventies and sporting the rather fetching combination of grey suit and baseball cap, Brownlow relates his memories of showing the film in the 1950s on 9.5 mm (“Be kind to this film…remember, it’s already 27 years old!”) and his warm memories of collaborating with Gance (even though they had no common language between them) on its restoration and rehabilitation with the public and critics. Dwarfed beneath a vast, imposing projected still of the film’s Napoleon, Albert Dieudonné, he seems such a slight, fragile figure to have marshalled the forces necessary to conquer the cinematic battle about to be witnessed. But this he did, in collaboration with composer Carl Davis (another august attendee this morning) who composed and adapted what is arguably the longest film score in history: Five and half hours of original music interspersed with bold arrangements of Haydn, Mozart and (predominantly) Beethoven. The achievement already seems staggering without a frame of film being seen.

Once the film itself gets underway there is little doubt that all those decades of struggle to bring it back to life have been worth it. As Davis’ warm, sentimental theme music peals out the screen fills with a snowscape: schoolboys in militaristic garb swarm like black ants and pelt each other with snowballs. The familiar outline of a black hat emerges from behind a snowdrift and the teenage Napoleon (the intense, frowny Vladimir Roudenko) commands his schoolmates with the same cool authority that would later serve him well in theatres of war throughout Europe. It becomes instantly clear that we are to witness nothing less than the origin story of a superhero: a kind of ‘Bonaparte Begins’, where our hero’s every move is decisive, his haughty genius an aloof beacon to dazzle and bewitch all others in his wake.

What stuns the contemporary eye however, is the assured methodology employed by Gance to bring these historical shadows to life. It may only be schoolboys pummelling each other with snow (and occasionally, in a dirty trick by Napoleon’s arch-enemies, the odd sharp stone which draws blood), but it is filmed with a shockingly modernistic energy and sense of pace. The camera plunges and swoops, children tumble and slide, the frame vibrates with freeform, hand-held imagery that would not look out of place in the films of Paul Greengrass or Lars Von Trier. Gance splits the screen into a collage of faces, the bloodied boy Napoleon barking orders and assessing the battle with little bird-like snaps of the head. The cutting becomes faster and faster until the film blurs into abstraction, as if the celluloid itself can’t contain its excitement at the innovative way it is being used.

From this breathtaking opening, Gance’s portrait opens out to explore the sensitivity and ego that shape our future icon. Fiercely proud of his Corsican roots (railing against a schoolmaster’s disparaging comments about the island), then lost in an odd, sad-eyed, prescient reverie at the mention of St Helena which would be his final resting place in exile many decades hence. In these scenes Gance’s film more closely resembles a religious epic, Napoleon having within him a sense of destiny which others witness only flashes of but which dominates his every waking thought.

It is here that Gance begins to saturate the viewer with the film’s central visual metaphor: the pet eagle which Napoleon keeps in a garret at the top of his school is set free by the same malicious malcontents who cheated in the snowball fight, and Napoleon predictably seeks revenge, wildly lashing out at his school chums in their dorm (one can see seeds of Vigo’s Zero De Conduite in these scenes, with feathers pluming out from split pillows, the screen checkerboarding into multiple, frenzied images) until he’s banished outside to languish on top of a cannon. When the eagle suddenly returns, it is superimposed over his joyful, tearful face, and this image will return again and again, always at moments of Napoleon’s greatest triumphs.

From here we are presented with set-piece after set-piece of ingenious staging, edge-of-the-seat urgency and cavernous grandeur. Rouget De Lisle teaching La Marseillaise to ranks of Parisian citizens in the grip of revolutionary fervour is still a moving thing to witness (the now-adult Napoleon tells him “Your hymn will save many a cannon”), and also “a daring thing to do in a silent film!” as Brownlow himself noted. Napoleon witnesses the Parisian mob (through a deep red filter) hanging a man in the street and his purpose to reclaim the mob from such street justice takes shape. He barely escapes with his life from treacherous forces in Corsica, improvising a sail on a stolen boat with a similarly-purloined French flag: the waves buffet him mercilessly as the ‘storm’ movement from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony flashes and crashes. Gance places his camera low in the water, saying he wanted to ‘See what a wave looked like to another wave’ and the effect is startling, even in these days of Perfect Storm CGI.

What is striking about these sequences now is the way sophisticated, notably ahead-of-their-time techniques are employed to service simplistic, almost storybook moral parables. Napoleon is the flame of France and his judgement and courage are never in doubt. All others, from the weak-willed generals who campaign with him (“You are a CHILD, Massena” he sneers at one point) to the mad-eyed Danton and the sleek, conniving Marat (Antonin Artaud looking like a member of The Cramps in leopardskin and bandanna) are obstacles or pawns, to be sacrificed for the greater glory of Napoleon’s France.

All of this contemporary moral quandary is laid to rest as the climax of the film approaches: Napoleon galvanising the starving, half-dead Army Of Italy to rousing action. It is these final sequences that show the depth of Gance’s daring as a pioneer. The cinema curtains purr into life and slide apart to accommodate the three-screen ‘Polyvision’ technique which was developed for this film and never re-used. This version of Napoleon is the first commercially available version to re-create this method as close to Gance’s instructions as possible, and it is a unique thrill to see from our perspective what must have seemed like Industrial Light and Magic to a contemporary audience. Real men and real horses massing on a real hillside, stretching as far as the eye can see, crossing (slightly out-of-line) from one screen to another.

The battle rages, the Marseillaise booms, the screens become a tricolour flag and Napoleon’s eagle-beak features hang above the scene, observing it with satisfaction. It’s a hard thing to communicate the effect of these sequences as they loom and flicker above the heads of an audience. It is, of course, more than likely that the vast majority of people nowadays will see it on Blu-Ray, perhaps on a tiny monitor or laptop screen. This is a shame, for whatever the film’s many pleasures, the BIGNESS of it adds immeasurably to the spell it weaves: the LOUDNESS of Davis’ score (never letting up for a second, in all its runtime) grips one by the throat. Cinema like this must be FELT as well as witnessed.

After Gance’s signature has faded from the screen and the audience of guests and critics filter out, buzzing and chatting, among them is the smiling, practically glowing figure of Kevin Brownlow. He still radiates excitement at this film he has watched and re-watched hundreds of times, in dozens of versions for over 60 years and the film belongs as much to him (and Carl Davis) as it did to Gance now. Everywhere in the BFI there are posters and looped videos stating that ‘Film Is Fragile’. It is something to ponder that without this man (himself a frail sight at 78) this five-hour-plus monument to the early days of cinema might have remained a footnote, an embarrassed shrug, a question mark.


❉ New 2K restoration
❉ The Charm of Dynamite (Kevin Brownlow, 1968, 51 mins): BBC documentary on Gance’s silent films, narrated by Lindsay Anderson
❉ Composing Napoleon – An Interview with Carl Davis (2016, 45 mins)
❉ Feature-length commentary by Paul Cuff
❉ Napoleon digital restoration featurette (2016, 5 mins)
❉ Stills and Special Collections Gallery
❉ Alternative single-screen ending
❉ Individual triptych panel presentations
❉ Illustrated 60-page book with writing by Paul Cuff, Kevin Brownlow and Hervé Dumont; an extensive interview with Carl Davis; and full film, music and restoration credits.

Blu-ray product details:
RRP: £34.99/ Cat. no. BFIB1239 / Cert PG
France / 1927 / black and white, tinted and toned / silent with English intertitles / 332 mins / original aspect ratios 1.33:1 + 4:1 (triptych) // BD50 x 3: 1080p, 24fps, 7.1 DTS-HD (48kHz/24-bit) and PCM 2.0 stereo (48kHz/24-bit)

DVD product details:
RRP: £29.99 / Cat. no. BFIV2081 / Cert PG
France / 1927 / black and white, tinted and toned / silent with English intertitles / 332 mins / original aspect ratios 1.33:1 + 4:1 (triptych) // DVD9 x 4; 25fps, 5.1 DTS-HR (48kHz/16-bit) and PCM 2.0 stereo (48kHz/16-bit)

❉ ‘Napoleon’ will open in selected cinemas from 11 November, followed by release on BFI Blu-ray, on DVD and on BFI Player on 21 November.

❉ BFI releases are available from all good home entertainment retailers or by mail order from the BFI Shop.

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