The Transformation of Napoleon: From 35mm to 9.5mm to Digital

Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) is still making it’s impact throughout the country. We just can’t get enough of it. So you will forgive us to be excited to say that Gance’s epic will be returning to the south west at the Curzon Cinema & Arts, Clevedon in September 2017. Sunday 10th September, 11:00am to be exact!  Not only will this give everyone a chance to experience one of the most incredible cinematic experiences available but to also experience it in a cinema which has a longer history than the film itself. The Curzon Cinema in Clevedon is an incredible venue, perfect to see this incredible film!

On top of the UK Cinema Release we also knew that the release of Napoleon on Blu-ray and DVD was going to have a big effect on the international silent film community! But the impact was far greater than we could possibly imagine. As the release date dawned, copies of Gance’s great epic invaded more countries than even the Emperor ever achieved in his life time. Many of our friends throughout Europe, America and Asia all posted pictures of the shiny new addition to their silent film libraries. In fact, so many copies were bought up within the course of the first few weeks the BFI ran out! The same happened with both online and high street retailers! So popular was the Blu-ray editions that at this very moment the first editions are incredibly hard to get hold of. Don’t worry however, new stock has already arrived at the BFI and are already on the way to the retailers.

But are we really that surprised?! Kevin Brownlow’s triumphant restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (a restoration which has taken more than 50 years to put together) has been the one title which many of us have been praying to see released on commercial DVD and Blu-ray (even VHS) for years let along see in our local cinema. It has been an incredibly long road for many of us (far more for Kevin of course) since we first saw it in 1980. To be honest, some of us weren’t even born while others were around but didn’t get the chance to see it in 1980. One such person was our regular contributor and good friend Mark Fuller. Mark has however made up for not seeing it in 1980 by seeing it more than any of us from then on. Whether it was being screened in the UK or in San Francisco, Mark has been there. So who better than Mark to tell us about the story of how this incredible restoration has developed since Napoleon was first conceived by Gance so many years ago.

napoleon-image-7-courtesy-photoplay-bfiWe all have our regrets. One of mine is coming to silent film relatively late in life. Having seen the usual Chaplin Mutuals on children’s telly in the late sixties, despite seeing Hollywood on ITV in the seventies, my first live-music silent event wasn’t until I saw Metropolis at The Watershed with a synth-piano performance by a very young Neil Brand at some point in the late eighties. Thus it was that I missed most of the 80s resurgence of silent film performance, plotted by Photoplay, Thames TV, Carl Davis et al. Further to that I missed the wider rediscovery of Napoleon Vu Par Abel Gance in the early eighties. I was old enough, I could have been there.But I didn’t know it was happening, so I wasn’t. As such my knowledge of that era of Napoleon (as I shall henceforth call it) is all second hand. Indeed, much of the first seventy years of the history of that film is second hand, but here it is anyway.

Napoleon started big, though never as big as originally intended. It was planned to have been a six-film biographical series stretching over the course of the man’s life. Yet by all accounts, when the production was complete on Abel Gance’s first film in the series, the money was already gone. So we have Napoleon the boy and young man, the young General about to break into European history with his invasion of North Italy in 1797. And that’s it. But that was something; at the famous ‘Apollo’ screening in 1927 it ran close to nine hours in total. Kevin Brownlow in his book on the film and his restoration of it, refers to this as essentially a rough cut. According to production paperwork the finished article – the definitive version – ran about 6 1/2 hours once Gance’s fine-tuning had taken place. But already in 1927 there were multiple versions: a shorter 4 hour cut, though panned by critics, had already been screened to the trade and industry at the Paris Opera. Thus we have the very distinct Opera and Apollo cuts of Napoleon.

But the film never caught the public interest, and it struggled commercially. The sheer length of it, the technical issues with screening the two triptych sequences all conspired to make the film a tricky and risky prospect for exhibitors. So the process of cutting it down began. This was still underway when, inevitably, sound arrived. Gance started to prepare a sound reissue, with some dubbing, including newly shot sound sequences. What began as death by a thousand cuts, eventually became a right old mess of film sequences from different decades. Gance’s attempts to give his beloved film new life instead disfigured and all but killed it.

camera-on-horsebackBut not quite. While sound films had conquered the cinemas, silent films still persisted, uniquely in much more domestic surroundings. Drastically reduced versions were released on 17.5mm Pathe Rural, and 9.5mm Pathe Baby/Pathescope formats for village hall and the homes of wealthy enthusiasts. The latter was billed as Napoleon and The French Revolution, and released in the UK in the late 20s with English titles. It was this very release that was chanced upon, some 25 years later, by a 15-year-old schoolboy called Kevin Brownlow. Who decided this film needed to be restored to its full glory, and made better known. And thus he has spent the last sixty years leading the fight to do just that. It was a privilege to attend a screening arranged by Bristol Silents at the Watershed about ten years ago, where Kevin was present to tell us this story and to then project those very same 9.5mm reels on a vintage projector borrowed from one of our members. And the film’s allure still shone through. Even on 9.5mm, even on eighty-year old reels, the photography shone, the action swept you along, the camera movements and editing dazzled. It would be the starting point of a lifetime’s work, undoing the damage Gance had wrought to his own masterpiece.

It does read rather like a benign horror story, a disfigured entity gradually coming back to life and health through its own energy and unwillingness to die, with the assistance of an acolyte willing to toil and sacrifice so much on its behalf. This story has been told repeatedly in the media recently, how thanks to Liam O’Leary at the BFI, and a mother willing to hoick Kevin out of a school exam, Kevin got to meet Gance, establishing a friendship, and as time progressed, got introductions to the archives that held what remained of the 35mm elements of the original film. Do read the book for a full run-down of the visits, the hurdles jumped and the hoops leapt through, just to gain access, let alone use of the film clips. Film archives have changed drastically in their approach to collaboration over the decades. Back then, it was a “What we have, we hold” culture. Kevin was breaking new ground with every step, figuratively breaking doors down. While there were many setbacks along the way, progress was still made, with work-in-progress screenings held at the NFT from time to time. That is until 1980, when there was a coherent if incomplete film, lasting 4h 50m at 20 frames per second, suitable for a more general public. As the Thames Silents series had paved the way and built an audience for spectacular orchestrally accompanied silent films, the time was right.

napoleon-image-2-courtesy-photoplay-bfiWith the support of the BFI and Thames Television, the Wren Orchestra, and a newly commissioned score from Carl Davis utilising arrangements of classical pieces from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Napoleon was set for its new premiere. At The Empire Leicester Square the film managed what its subject matter never did, it conquered London. It was shown again the next March, four times. It toured the UK (including Bristol), was screened on Channel Four, gaining new admirers. It travelled to Los Angeles, and famously played the Telluride Film Festival with Gance viewing it from his hotel balcony, until 3.00am, at the age of 92. In the wake of these screenings, Francis Ford Coppolla decided he wanted to screen it in New York. His father, eminent film composer Carmine Coppolla, would compose a new score and conduct it, at Radio City Music Hall. A new layer of versions and complications was about to be added. In order to fit in with Radio City’s scheduling, changes had to be made; 50 minutes had to be cut from the length of the film to get it to a 4hr length. The time was found by projecting the film at 24fps, and by some cuts. This was then the template for Coppolla Senior’s score, and this became the Radio City Version. And for the following thirty years the only one shown in the US. Four hours long, at the wrong speed, with a score which is good but not great; this was the version that crawled out on DVD at some stage but that is, truthfully, of curiosity value only.

The Brownlow/Davis version also screened in France to rave reviews, but there was more to come. Further research in the French archives found another five minutes of material. A French titled version of the restoration incorporating this extra material was made by Bambi Ballard, and a score using elements of Honegger’s original 1920’s was commissioned to go with it; but it was screened to a lukewarm response, with blame being focussed on the new score. More footage emerged from Corsica following a screening there. So a new restoration incorporating all of these new discoveries was needed. Financing was found and a revision/restoration began. Firstly Kevin re-edited some of his previous restoration to correct what he calls mistakes – but these were simply best guesses that didn’t quite match those of Gance’s when vintage prints eventually emerged. The titles – previously created piecemeal – were created in the original 18th C typeface used by Gance, and with new translations into English. Tinting and toning, missing from the prior restorations, was recreated in the labs using those vintage prints as guides. It was recognised that the opening Brienne sequence, shot by a different cameraman to the rest of the film, was playing too fast at 20fps, so was to be projected at 18fps instead. And to match all this of course, Carl Davis had to modify his score; instead of 4hr 50m, we had a Napoleon running at over 5hr 30m. It was ready to be screened at the Royal Festival Hall for the FIAF conference in 2000. Which was where I first got to see it. It didn’t ever feel like a long film, it had too much energy, cinematically and musically. And when the triptych is revealed, after five hours plus watching a film, in darkness, in academy ratio, suddenly having the picture expand to triple the width has the effect of pressing you back in your seat, like in an aircraft at take-off. If I hadn’t been totally captured by silent film by that point, I was then.

2016-07-04-10_29_51-act1_build_081115_hdThis is the version that was screened occasionally over the succeeding years in the English speaking world. Screened in London in 2004 under threat of legal action from the US, and, when finally peace broke out, four times in nine days at The Paramount, Oakland, California, an immense art-deco picture palace, with a proper orchestra pit to contain the Bay Orchestra and, conducting his own score, Carl Davis .The San Francisco Silent Film Festival team took that gamble, and so far, that remains the only four times the full length restoration has been screened in the US with its definitive score. According to Patrick Stanbury, the best presentation of the film they have ever achieved and having been there I can only agree. Those of us in attendance feel utterly privileged to have experienced it. It was screened again in London a few years later, to a new generation of silent film enthusiasts from all over Europe who had been too young to see it a decade earlier. It may be that that will be the last time that the film will ever be shown on 35mm. Because now thanks to the BFI we have the digital version. Based on the 2000 cut with new digital restoration work, stabilising and cleaning the image, removing the occasional trace of soundtrack masking from the elements recovered from sonorised versions. It was shown again at the Royal Festival Hall with Carl Davis and the London Philharmonia in November. The RFH has always been a problematic venue for silent film. Yes, you have the number of seats needed to make an orchestrally-scored film financially feasible, but the orchestra has to be on the stage; this much reduces the potential screen size, is distracting in itself, and the light pollution from the music stands really impacts upon the screen. The vibrant colours of the tinting and the deep blacks of the monochrome sections were washed out almost entirely, just a small strip at the bottom of the screen revealed what we should have been seeing. But the triptych, now stabilised and the images more precisely matched, has never looked better.

ctc7zouweaepsbmSince then, the long awaited BFI DVD and blu-ray release has followed, and the DCP of the digital restoration has been touring the country, gaining new converts. It had been estimated that since 1980 only 9,000 people had seen Napoleon based on ticket sales and on the basis that people only see it once. As the latter assumption is quite wrong, I’ve now seen it six times myself, the true number must be far lower. Or was, until the blu-ray and the cinema screenings happening now will expand that figure considerably. It looks and sounds terrific on my less-than-state of the art set-up at home. I have had it playing in the background as I write this, if only I had the three digital players and projectors needed to recreate the full triptych effect, as the blu-ray release allows for, utilising one panel on each disc. But also including a triptych-in-one on disc three for those of us without such resources. For the best impression of the restoration, it will have to wait until the Watershed’s series of screenings during Christmas week, all the grandeur of Carl Davis’ score, the recording sessions of which I understand he paid for himself. Of course I have to be there at The Watershed !

If you think that might be a little mad, you’re not the first to say so. I was in the queue outside the Oakland Paramount when Kevin Brownlow walked past. He spotted me, retraced his steps and said “Are you mad? ” A reasonable question – I had blown a month’s wages on a long weekend in San Francisco, flying from Bristol, to see a film (twice) I had already seen twice in London. A trip of a lifetime. But this coming from the man who had dedicated a huge chunk of his adult life – it is now 62 years since he first projected those 9.5mm cassettes for his parents – in bringing this undoubted masterpiece back into being so it can finally be seen by the numbers of people Gance once envisaged. While Kevin is by no means a fan of digital projection, he is also a pragmatist, and this latest digital restoration (I won’t say last – who knows what may yet emerge) is probably the biggest step, in realising Gance’s and his own dream. Whereas previously, only the relatively well-off or the utterly obsessed could justify the outlay to see it, it will now be seen by as many as want to, and can find the price of a normal cinema ticket. Vive La Revolution!

See Napoleon on the big screen at the beautiful Curzon Cinema & Arts, Clevedon on Sunday 10th September, 11:00am.

Recommended reading;
Napoleon, Abel Gance’s Classic Film by Kevin Brownlow, 1983, Revised edition, 2004.

Napoleon by Nelly Kaplan, BFI Film Classics series, 1994


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