Said to be a labour of love lasting over forty years, the restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon by filmmaker, restorer and archivist Kevin Brownlow, has gone down in the annuls of film history. With the latest restoration having been successfully screen and rapturously received at the San Francisco silent film festival, this November sees a special screening of the epic five hour film with a live score conducted by Carl Davis. I spoke to Kevin about his relationship with the film and the history of its restoration.
Celluloid Wicker Man: Could you describe the process of the restoration that Abel Gance’s Napoléon has been through? Were there any major technical issues or problems with the print and how were they overcome?
Kevin Brownlow: The first time I glimpsed Napoléon was on my Pathescope 9.5mm projector in 1954. I was fifteen. There were only two reels but they included the most astonishing footage I had ever seen. I managed to find all six reels that were released on 9.5mm and, the more I added, the better it got. Then, disaster struck. I saw a 35mm version supplied by the Cinematheque Francaise to the National Film Theatre. It was awful. Was this how the film was released in 1927? I had invited all my friends, but it was so insufferable I walked out.
Years later, the CF sent over another version which was supposed to be much better. It was, however, in unrunnable condition and I was asked to fix it. I did so, and it proved to be as different to that first CF version as you could imagine. I decided it had to be copied – the CF had sent over an original tinted print – and that became the basis for the restoration. Jacques Ledoux, of the Belgian Cinematheque and in charge of the Federation of Film Archives, heard what I was doing and circulated all the archives to send me anything they had on Napoléon. The British Film Institute gave me a cutting room and a copy of their blow-up of a 17.5mm print. It took me twelve weeks, working after hours, to assemble this first restoration. When I showed the cutting copy at the NFT, the audience reaction was extraordinary.
The drawback was the inferior quality of the 17.5mm sequences. I promised myself that one day, all those scenes would be substituted with 35mm, and that has been fulfilled. I also hoped that one day we would be able to tint and tone it to match the original. That, too, has been done.
You have a long, well documented history with the film and its restoration going back to when it was first seen in segments of 9.5mm film. Will there be a time when you consider the restoration to be fully complete or will there always be segments to add and frames to clean up?
The CF announced, after the recent, immensely successful show of our version at San Francisco, that they are going to restore Napoléon. I would be thrilled if this meant that even an extra ten minutes was revealed. But one has to ask, if they had the material, why did they wait fifty years?
How does Gance’s work sit within the canon of epic silents?
Can you think of any film, even Citizen Kane (1941), that is so packed with innovation?
Napoléon is often considered within Gance’s work alongside his two other well known pictures, J’accuse (1919) and La Roue (1923). How does Napoléon fit in with Gance’s style, vision and perhaps auteur tendencies?
In the light of J’accuse, it is remarkable that such a pacifist should make a film extolling Napoléon. La Roue is a masterpiece that historians seem to have overlooked. Here is the origin of Soviet montage, for instance. But Napoléon works for modern audiences far more powerfully than either of the others.
Napoléon is famous for showcasing a number of groundbreaking film techniques including a variety of visual illusions and effects. Were there any in particular that stood out as still spectacular after the restoration had revealed them? Or is there any scene or segment that still captures your imagination in particular?
The snowball fight stands as a masterpiece of rapid cutting, transforming a child’s game into an epic battle.
The film was notoriously cut (by MGM?) and received mixed reviews on its limited run. Was this predominantly because of the cuts involved or was it also to do with other factors such as the on-coming of sound or other outside influences?
The Americans have never liked technique interfering with the story. They didn’t understand this epic and they cut it into a programme picture. It brings to mind the exhibitors who objected to a flood of historical pictures after World War One: ‘Don’t send us any more pictures,’ they wrote ‘where the people write with feathers.’
The screening in the Royal Festival Hall in November will be with Carl Davis conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. The film has had a number of musical scores over the years so what does Davis’ music bring out of Gance’s film? Is it sourced from earlier material for period accuracy or simply composed with the era in mind?
Carl Davis’s score is a great achievement. He decided to use music by composers who were alive when Napoleon was active. The result is incredibly moving and incredibly exciting. You feel yourself deep within the 18th century. No other score I have heard can match it.
If you had to sum up Abel Gance’s Napoléon for a younger audience unused to silent cinema in general, what would you say about it to fire their imagination?
This film enables you to feel what it is like to be a general at the age of 26, to be a civilian facing that general’s troops and to be a child in the midst of the French revolution. The director takes you out of the audience and makes you an active participant. I doubt that you will ever see such an authentic and exciting recreation of history.
Abel Gance’s Napoléon screens at The Royal Festival Hall on the 30th of November. Tickets are available here.