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Ninety years ago today, on 7 April 1927, the greatest film ever made [1] premiered at what was then called the Théâtre national de l’Opéra, and what is now called the Opéra Garnier, in Paris. The charity gala (the proceeds were donated to charities supporting wounded veterans from the First World War) was attended by the President of the French Republic, Gaston Doumergue, as well as leading figures in the French military – including the young Charles de Gaulle and Marshal Philippe Pétain.

The screening was not uneventful. At three hours and forty minutes long, the film was far longer than promised (and was still running well after midnight). Arthur Honegger, composer of the film’s score, was forced to keep adapting the music in response to the director’s last minute edits and cuts. Several sequences had been spliced into the reels upside down, causing the panicked editor to rush to the projection box and halt the screening while she painstakingly reinserted the film. For the audience, though, the film was a triumph. During a fifteen-minute standing ovation, the cheering crowd at the Opéra acclaimed the film’s director: ‘Vive Abel Gance!’ [2]

The cover of the programme from the screenings of Napoléon at the Paris Opéra in 1927 . The programme is reproduced in the booklet accompanying the BFI’s 2016 DVD release of the film. Albert Dieudonné’s appearance in the film directly referenced the painting by Gros reproduced on the cover.

I can’t remember exactly when or how I first found out about Napoléon, though I think it was sometime around the end of my final year as an undergraduate. I might have come across a reference to the film while doing some reading for a module, or had my curiosity piqued by a still used in another context. For some reason, I keep thinking of an image of Antonin Artaud as Marat, looking for all the world like a bedraggled Studio 54 survivor in his head wrap and moulting fur-trimmed coat.

Antonin Artaud as Jean-Paul Marat. This is what I believe they call a ‘strong look’.

The more I found out about it, the more the film became a peculiar object of fascination. I went to the library and borrowed the book about the film written by Kevin Brownlow, who has worked for more than sixty years to reassemble Gance’s masterpiece and ensure its preservation for future generations. I learned how the film was supposed to have been just the first of a six-part Napoleonic epic (the rest were never made, though Gance’s papers give some indication of what would have followed)[3]. I read about the butchering of the film by various distributors, keen to make it more palatable to cinemagoers used to far shorter pictures, and how Gance’s own attempts to revisit and rework the film in the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s had in some cases seriously damaged its reputation.

Gratuitous photo of Abel Gance with Brienne, the stray (cute) dog he adopted on the set of ‘Napoléon’. Brienne appears in the Toulon sequence, carried along by the revolutionary army.

Having read Brownlow’s account of the acclaimed performances of his reconstructed version in the early 1980s, further digging around online revealed an ongoing battle over rights, finally resolved in 2008, that could have prevented any further screenings (Paul Cuff, an expert on Gance, usefully documents the film’s story in this article for Sight and Sound). The film was not available on home video or DVD, save in the less-than-satisfactory versions. The chances of seeing this thing were slim. I spent nearly ten years keeping an eye on the Cinémathèque Française, hoping for a screening in Paris, and enviously reading about screenings in the US.

And then I finally saw it.

I had planned, going into the screening at the Royal Festival Hall in November 2013, to write about my experience of finally getting to see this film that I’d spent so long reading about and harping on about to whatever poor unfortunate was hapless enough to listen. I found, however, that writing coherently about something so intensely emotional was no easy task. On some level, I was overwhelmed by actually seeing Napoléon, by experiencing something I had been anticipating for years. On another, I wasn’t prepared for the effect the film and Carl Davis’s magnificent score had on me, nor for how emotional the entire day would be – beginning with meeting Kevin Brownlow at a book signing beforehand.

It was as astonishing as I had hoped, from that first appearance of the little bicorne hat in the snow to the expanse of water, across three screens, that brings the film to an end.

As the screen switched suddenly to bleu, blanc, rouge, I realised I had been holding my breath. My gut instinct told me to stand up and roar approval, but I held back for a second. Then I noticed that the elderly man to my right was celebrating like he’d won the World Cup – and I let go.

Post-screening at the Royal Festival Hall in November 2013. Out of shot: me trying to pull myself together again.

In the days that followed the screening, I was still getting over it.

(Curiously enough these sentiments were echoed, albeit more eloquently, in this article by Cuff which I’ve only recently discovered.)

In 2015, the Cinémathèque Française announced a major restoration of their version of Napoléon, due to be released this year (or so they say) with a running time of nearly six and a half hours. It is likely to be accompanied by the (by all accounts rather inferior) score by Carmine Coppola. In 2016 the BFI released a digital restoration of the film, with tinting restored, a nationwide cinema release in the UK, and – best of all – a DVD and Blu-Ray release. (I greeted this news with the calm and reasoned response befitting my profession, as you can see.)

Here’s the trailer for the digitised restoration. The close-ups! Oh my, the close-ups.

 

There were some concerns expressed by enthusiasts about the transfer to digital, and whether the film would lose its mythic status through newfound ease of access. Silent London’s review of an advance screening suggested that the finale was ‘inevitably going to be diminished’ when viewed on a TV or computer screen, and noted that the ‘joins’ in Gance’s masterpiece were rendered more visible through digitisation. In truth, I quite like seeing his handiwork, rather like being able to hone in on individual brushstrokes in a painting and then step back to appreciate the art as a whole. And, having seen (and introduced!) the digital restoration with an audience twice, I can happily report that there is simply no diminution of Napoléon’s emotional pull or cinematic magic.

I admit that I would like to see the whole thing on film, with an orchestra, at least once more in my life – if only for the sheer joy of hearing two more projectors whirr into life as the final triptych sequence approaches. When I received the DVD of the film (a complete and utter bargain which you should buy, and buy directly from the BFI) I marvelled that something so huge could be made so compact.

Concerns that being able to stick on Napoléon whenever you like will somehow undermine this masterpiece, however, are rather wide of the mark. Accessibility is giving new life to the film. Recently, I introduced Napoléon for an audience at The Witham in Barnard Castle, County Durham, an event accompanying the Bowes Museum’s ‘Allure of Napoleon’ exhibition. Right at the end, as the rushing water disappeared and was replaced with the bold tricolour, I heard the older woman sitting behind me catch her breath, sigh happily, and say ‘Oh, wow’ to no one in particular, as if this was the best thing she had ever seen. That Gance’s masterpiece is now within the reach of everyone is perhaps the best ninetieth birthday present Napoléon could have.

***

[1] This is not up for discussion.

[2] My account of the première of Napoléon is based on Kevin Brownlow’s excellent Napoleon: Abel Gance’s Classic Film (2004; first published 1983), pp137-145.

[3] Paul Cuff’s detailed study of the production of the film contains some discussion of what might have been, including the visual reference points used by Gance in planning sequences on Saint Helena. See Cuff, A Revolution for the Screen: Abel Gance’s ‘Napoléon’ (2015).

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