The title card of Napoleon is followed by another, making the full title Napoleon vu par Abel Gance. And it is through Gance's eyes that we see this figure from history. There's an argument that cinema thrived because it arrived when the time was right for it. Walter Murch in his interview book with Michael Ondaatje, The Conversations suggested that in Gustave Flaubert and Ludwig van Beethoven were the spiritual fathers of cinema. The former is because he typified an interest in the minute, detailed observation of nature and the world, which the then-new medium of photography was far superior at doing than painting or sculpture. In Beethoven's case it is because he was the great exponents of dynamics, the juxtaposition and movement of a work of art. Add these to the experiments of Edison and others in moving pictures and you have cinema. The fact that the new medium developed in such a short time – that feature length films (that is, over an hour) arrived only eleven years after the Lumiėre Brothers' first public showings and that, twenty years after the Brothers, we had The Birth of a Nation, and the template of narrative cinema was by then in place - showed that it was an invention that had found its moment.
Ten years on from D.W. Griffith's epic, the last years of silent cinema showed a mature medium. And in Abel Gance it found someone who would push the medium to its limits, in some aspects further than others following him would do. Sound (other than there being a score to accompany film showings) was just about the only thing Gance didn't utilise. He uses rapid cutting, superimpositions and split screens, creating many visually overwhelming sequences. He also shot sequences in colour (two-colour, as three-colour Technicolor hadn't been invented yet) and in 3D, though sadly these sequences are now lost. And, at the end of this film, he expands the film from just one screen to three side by side, sometimes individual shots side by side, sometimes a single ultra-wide shot. This, which Gance called Polyvision, was achieved by a camera made up of three lenses and three film magazines stacked vertically. Needless to say, most cinemas were then and are now incapable of showing this final triptych as it was intended. The cinema would not see the like of it again until 1952, with the introduction of Cinerama. But at a time when, other than some early experiments with shooting on and projecting from 70mm film, cinema was resolutely 4:3. So add widescreen to the list of Gance's innovations, and it's clear even from the twenty-one minute triptych “Entry into Italy” sequence which survives – the “Double Tempest” sequence, intercutting Napoleon (Albert Dieudonné as an adult) battling a storm at sea with a metaphorical storm in the French parliament, was also originally a triptych but survives only in its single-screen form – that he had an instinctive grasp of the possibilities of a wider screen. Seen in a cinema, either projected on a single screen in Scope-letterboxed-to-4:1 or with three projectors projecting on three screens (I have seen both) it's breathtaking, and even on a small screen is still impressive. This Blu-ray set gives you the possibility of creating your own triptych, of which more below.
Even before this, Gance could create cinema on a grand scale: his previous feature La roue (1922) ran over four hours. Napoleon was planned as the first of six films covering the whole of Bonaparte's life (Vladimir Roudenko playing him as a child, Albert Dieudonné as an adult), each around 75 minutes each. However, the production used up and exceeded the budget for all six. Gance was originally contracted to complete the first film by the end of December 1924 and all six by March 1936. However, shooting did not begin until January 1925 and completed in September 1926, with some 290 hours of footage having been shot. Among the witnesses to the production was another great director of the time, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and both this film and Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc feature acting roles from playwright and Theatre of Cruelty advocate Antonin Artaud – who plays Jean-Paul Marat here. Gance himself plays Saint-Just.
What was intended as the first of a series ended with Napoleon's triumphal march into Italy in 1796. Finally, this was edited into two versions: a shorter cut shown at the Paris Opéra which nonetheless ran for four hours and included both the triptych sequences mentioned above, and a single-screen cut shown at the Paris Apollo a month later, which lasted for nine hours and forty minutes, necessitating being shown over more than one day. What happened next was partly bad luck: MGM's Ben Hur played in the Paris cinema which had been reserved for Napoleon and was such a hit that it stayed there for over a year. Various versions were released outside France, edited down to shorter lengths often without Gance's consent: three hours in France in 1928, 128 minutes in London, 100 in the USA. By now the sound era had arrived. In 1935 Gance produced Napoleon Bonaparte, featuring scenes from his silent epic with new material, adding his original triptych to the film in the 1950s. The original silent film was a distant memory to those who had seen it nearly three decades earlier, and much of it was believed no longer to survive in the archives,
An English schoolboy called Kevin Brownlow enters the picture. A film fan from childhood, he first saw Napoleon when he bought two reels of it on a 9.5mm print and was fascinated by what he saw. Entering the film industry primarily as an editor, he began the work of reconstructing and restoring Napoleon in 1969. Ten years later, his restoration premiered at the Telluride Film Festival with Gance present. The following year, the reconstruction – now around five hours – was shown at the London Film Festival with a live orchestral accompaniment. Carl Davis was commissioned to write the score, and was given a mere three and a half months to do so. Brownlow continued to work on restoring Napoleon, which by 2000 ran for five and a half hours. This is still not complete and much is still missing and probably lost forever. Occasionally intertitles cover what happened in missing scenes. Other intertitles indicate which scenes and dialogue exchanges are based on historical fact.
That reconstruction was photochemical, on 35mm film. Needless to say, it has been not been widely shown, given the logistics: not just the film's length, which extends to nearly eight hours with intervals, one of them often being a dinner break between Acts II and III or First and Second Epoch. In addition, you would need to hire a full orchestra with Davis conducting and would also need not one but three projectors capable of running at the silent speed of twenty frames per second. (Showing the film at the sound speed of twenty-four fps cuts about an hour from the running time.) The most recent showing of this version, with three screens for the final triptych, was at the Royal Festival Hall in 2013, with Davis conducting his own score. I was in the audience. The present digital restoration of Brownlow's 2000 reconstruction, makes the film more widely available for audiences, not just in cinemas but online and on disc.
Napoleon has been released by the BFI in two editions: a three-disc Blu-ray and a four-disc DVD. This review is based on checkdiscs of the Blu-ray edition, which is encoded for Region B. The film is divided into two Epochs and four Acts. Disc One contains Act One (113:43). Acts Two and Three (170:45 in total) are on Disc Two. You can only select Act Three via the scene-selection menu: it starts with chapter nine, at 63:36). Act Four (48:34 with triptych ending, 42:32 with single-screen ending) is on Disc Three. With this final Act, you have the option of playing it with the triptych or with the alternative single-screen ending which Gance produced for the cinemas incapable of playing the three-screen version – most of them, in fact. This single-screen ending can be played on its own from the extras menu and runs 15:17. Other than the commentary and the separate triptych panels (see below), all the extras are on Disc Three.
As mentioned above, the majority of the film is in the standard ratio for silent film, which is 1.33:1. (The Academy Ratio standardised for sound films in 1932 is slightly wider – 1.37:1.) Other than the now-lost colour sequences mentioned above, Napoleon was shot on black and white 35mm stock. The digital restoration enables scenes to be tinted according to Gance's specifications. The results speak for themselves, with solid blacks and the panchromatic film in use at the time allowing a wide greyscale. Grain is natural and filmlike. As the film was intended to be shown at twenty frames per second, instead of the sound standard of twenty-four, it has been rendered into 1080p20 by repeating every sixth frame, something you won't notice unless you progress the disc frame by frame.
Twenty-eight minutes into Act Four, the “Entry into Italy” triptych begins. This sequence is presented in the intended ratio of 4:1, that is, the full width of the 16:9 frame with substantial letterboxing to accommodate the wider image, like so:
However, you can create your own three-screen triptych using this set. Each disc contains one panel : the left on Disc One, centre on Disc Two, right on Disc Three (all 21:21). The 1.33:1 images on Left and Right are shifted to the right and left of the picture respectively. If you have three players and three viewing devices, line them up appropriately, press Play simultaneously at the appropriate point and voilà:
(There is a little artistic licence here, of course. The centre panel has its 1.33:1 image with black bars on either side, but judicious overlapping of your screens will enhance your triptych experience. You will also have to pause to move Disc Three to the right-hand player once it reaches the appropriate point in Act IV, but details.)
The soundtrack is Carl Davis's score, available in either DTS-HD MA 7.1 or LPCM 2.0 (which plays in surround). I'm only 5.1-enabled, so can't tell you the difference four surround speakers makes to two (or indeed a mono surround on the LPCM track). But what is still certain that Davis's score sounds very good indeed, full-bodied when it needs to be, quiet at other times. Crank it up and disturb your neighbours.
The extras begin with a commentary by Paul Cuff. As this lasts the whole length of the film, it must be one of, if not the, longest commentaries ever recorded. It's very much worth listening to, with few pauses as he discusses Gance's mise-en-scène and the circumstances of the making of the film.
Carl Davis is the interviewee in “Composing Napoleon” (45:42). He talks about how he first came to score silent films, by being employed on Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's series Hollywood (not on DVD or Blu-ray as no doubt licensing so many film extracts would be a substantial and expensive headache – a pity as many, including me who saw it on broadcast would snap it up if it were available). He says this series was an education to him, not least in showing that silent films weren't always accompanied by a solo pianist or organist, but sometimes by a full orchestra. This led to his commission to score the 1980 London showing, and after that the series of silent films whose restoration by Brownlow and Gill was financed by Thames Television, the results of which were later shown on Channel Four. (Napoleon was one of them, in 1983. The triptych would undoubtedly have looked tiny on a 4:3 TV set, but Channel Four showed the single-screen ending.) Given the challenge of producing such a lengthy score in a short period of time, Davis drew on composers who were alive and active at the time of Napoleon, notably Beethoven who had dedicated his Eroica Symphony to Bonaparte. Davis's research also inspired the striking use of a hurdy-gurdy during the Revolution sequences.
The other substantial extra is “Abel Gance: The Charm of Dynamite”. This was the first cinema documentary that Kevin Brownlow made. It was first broadcast on BBC1 as part of the Omnibus strand on 28 May 1968 and had a repeat showing as part of a series called “Great Directors” om BBC2 on 26 July 1974 (despite being in black and white at a time when all the then three British channels were broadcasting in colour). Narrated by Lindsay Anderson, it makes a case for Gance's significance, at a time when that may well have been in doubt. His major silent films were then hard to see, so there are quite a few extracts from J'accuse, La roue and indeed Napoleon, a year before Brownlow began his work of restoring it. Gance himself is interviewed, as is Albert Dieudonné, both speaking in French with English subtitles. A major British cinematographer of the future worked on this: Chris (billed here as Christopher) Menges.
Also on the disc is a restoration featurette (4:48), which goes a little deeper than the usual before-and-after comparisons, including interviews with those working on the digital restoration, with words from Kevin Brownlow. Finally, there is a self-navigating gallery (11:29) of stills and production materials.
The BFI's booklet runs to fifty-six pages. As if delivering a five-and-a-half-hour commentary were not enough, Paul Cuff kicks off proceedings with an essay, “Living History: Abel Gance's Napoleon”. Inevitably this does overlap with the commentary, as it covers the film's inception and making of the film.
Kevin Brownlow then describes how he first came to see Napoleon as a film-enthusiast schoolboy, an extract from Brownlow's book on the film from 2004. “Napoleon on Film: Legend, Prejudice and Manipulation” by Hervé Dumont looks at Napoleon's portrayals on screen. He is one of the most-portrayed historical figures in cinema history, with roughly a thousand films about him and his times, about twice as many as those which depict Jesus Christ. After this are full credits for the film, Gance's proclamation to his cast and crew, made on 4 June 1924 at the start of production. A reproduction of the programme for the Paris Opéra screenings is followed by another appearance from Paul Cuff, here interviewing Carl Davis. Inevitably this covers much of the ground of the Davis interview on Disc Three, where he speaks to camera, but under Cuff's questioning he goes into more detail about his approach to composing the score and his quotations from Beethoven and other contemporary composers, and talks about the experience of conducting the score with a full orchestra.
The booklet is concluded with credits for the music, notes and credits for the extras and restoration notes.