The titan of silent cinema is finally going digital, in cinemas and on blu-ray!
Abel Gance’s epic portrait of the French military commander has a long history in its own right, and public screenings of it with musical accompaniment have become rare in the modern era. Commercial releases have been equally elusive, with truncated versions abounding, and the best release doing the rounds being one taped off a Channel 4 broadcast! Finally the pre-eminent authority on the film, Kevin Brownlow, is teaming up with the BFI and composer Carl Davis to bring this hugely important silent film, it’s brilliant techniques and innovations, not to mention the impressive triptych to new audiences around the world.
The history of the film since it’s release in 1927 is one of the more complicated of any film, silent or otherwise, and a quick glance at a helpful chart on Wikipedia shows that over twenty different versions are known to have been screened over the course of the film’s 89 year history, ranging from a brisk 1h51m cut for US release to the colossal version définitive which clocks in at hefty 9h22m. That’s just shy of 13 km of film for the distance-minded projectionists out there. Having suffered innumerable cuts at the hands of impatient distributors and exhibitors through the ages, the film fell into disrepair, the impact of it’s stunning camera work and innovative techniques seemingly fading from the annals of film history.
Thankfully the film found an unexpected champion in a sixteen year old English school boy, who having stumbled across two 9.5mm reels of the film was absolutely stunned by what he saw. While adult life would see Brownlow make the controversial “what if we had lost” post-war film It Happened Here, his work as a film historian continued, and a lot of time was dedicated to tracking down and compiling all extant footage of Napoleon he could find. Premièring at the Telluride Film Festival in 1979, Brownlow was able to present a reconstructed version of the film to a new generation, and Abel Gance, in attendance, could receive the adulation his masterpiece had been denied for so many years.
Over the years Brownlow was able to make numerous additions and edits to this version, and working with the British composer Carl Davis, an ‘as-definitive-as-possible’ version emerged with what has now become an iconic soundtrack. It is safe to say that it is widely recognised that Kevin Brownlow’s working retrieving, restoring and re-editing Napoleon is one of the greater achievements of recent film history. Though you needn’t take my word for it when Martin Scorsese put it so eloquently. Or better still, you can just point toward the Honorary Academy Award that was given to Brownlow in 2010 for his work on film history preservation.
While rumours about this new release have been floating around for the last few months, at midnight last night (UK time) the BFI released a statement announcing that the restoration that Brownlow completed in 2000, taken from various 35mm sources, has now been carefully digitised for release in UK cinemas, and is currently being authored for commercial home release on DVD as well as blu-ray. This last point has given rise to certain confusion, as the first published news report made no mention of the blu-ray, causing the internet rumour mill to churn on suspicions that the surviving elements of the film left were not fit for high-def commercial release. It must however be made clear that the official BFI press release does repeatedly note that the film is coming on blu-ray. While distributors have reneged on the promise of high-def releases in the past, it seems unlikely that such a definitive announcement would be made were they not confident of following through with this release.
Already a page has been set up on the Royal Festival Hall’s website, where tickets will be released in the not too distant future. Hopefully we can expect more venues in the UK to announce the tour of the DCP, and we’re waiting with bated breath for more news on the BFI’s commercial release as well. This tremendous release is not to be missed, a formative experience for any silent film fan, and we’ll spread the news as we get it!
AN UPDATE FROM THE BFI:
Release date for the separate DVD and a Blu-Ray release on Monday 21st November 2016:
This definitive restoration (with music recorded in 7.1) presents Gance’s masterpiece in all its glory and is a must-see on either the big screen or small screen this autumn.
Marking a new chapter in the history of one of the world’s greatest films, the release of Abel Gance’s Napoleon is the culmination of a project spanning 50 years. Academy Award-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow and the BFI National Archive have completed a new digitally restored version of this cinematic triumph, and audiences will be able to experience this extraordinary film complete with Carl Davis’s magnificent score when the released on DVD & Blu-ray in November.
Originally conceived by its director as the first of 6 films about Napoleon, this five and a half hour epic features full scale historical recreations of episodes from his personal and political life, from the French Revolution to the heroic arrival of French troops in Italy that marked the beginning of the First Italian campaign of 1796. Utilizing a number of groundbreaking camera and editing techniques, Abel Gance’s Napoleon offers one of the most richly rewarding and thrilling experiences in the history of cinema, a brilliant pairing of music and film, comparable to grand opera in its intensity, offering dazzling scenes of unparalleled brilliance.
Abel Gance: Charm of Dynamite (Kevin Brownlow, 1968, 50 mins):
Documentary on the life and work of Abel Gance, narrated by director Lindsay Anderson (If…, This Sporting Life)
Interview with composer Carl Davis on the recording of the score for Napoleon
60 page illustrated book including new essays on the film and music plus full film credits
The triptych ending for this film is made up of 3 separate 1.33:1 images, resulting in a presentation ratio of approx. 4:1.
The images have been very carefully assembled in the digital master to ensure their cohesion as a triptych without cropping
Other extras TBC
Napoleon on Tour in the South West:
Tuesday 27th – Friday 30th December 2016: Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927)
The film itself is one of the real legends of the history of the cinema! The epic restoration undertaken by film historian Kevin Brownlow was legendary in itself. Abel Gance’s epic 1927 masterpiece finally enters the digital era following a monumental, generation-spanning restoration project led by Brownlow. This coming December join us to experience one of the most incredible films ever made on the big screen!
Book your tickets NOW! What better way to conclude 2016!