We are living in a golden age of retrospectives and home video releases. Abel Gance’s Napoleon has been near impossible to see except in rare theatrical screenings, there was a VHS release of the shorter cut assembled by Francis Ford Coppola and a Australian DVD of that cut as well. However BFI’s Blu-Ray and theatrical release will be the first time that many a cineaste will get to experience this towering motion picture.
Abel Gance has been a figure in world cinema that cineasts have heard about but due to the lack of available on much of his work haven’t seen many if any of the his films. 1927’s Napoleon is his best known work but he made numerous films well into the ’60s. Despite making this film about Napoleon it didn’t stop him tackling Napoleon again with Austerlitz in 1960 and making numerous versions of Napeoleon including a sound version with special effects etc.
One of the most surprising things about Napoleon is despite the mammoth length of 5 and half hours it only goes up to Battle of Montenotte henceforth there is another 25 years of Napoleon’s life to tell. This is partly down to the fact Gance originally planning it to be 5 films but due to that Herculean task he scaled in down to this 3 part 5 and a half hour film. However despite its length its riveting from the first moment of the snowfight to the astonishing and much talked about Triptych battle sequence which closes the film.
Over the years it have proved to be influential on everyone from Jean Vigo who lifted the pillow fight scene for his own Zéro de conduite to the French New Wavers to New Hollywood filmmakers like Coppola and Scorsese . Despite on the front cover with Kubrick claiming it to be”masterpiece of cinematic invention” he disliked the film. His full quote was “I know that the film is a masterpiece of cinematic invention and it brought cinematic innovations to the screen which are still being called innovations whenever someone is bold enough to try them again. But on the other hand, as a film about Napoleon, I have to say I’ve always been disappointed in it.”. However Kubrick was a bit of snob when it came to what films he liked but then again he loved White Men Can’t Jump for some reason and he never did make his much fabled Napoleon film after all.
The film however is a tour be force in every regard especially with its aesthetical choices. The film uses montages in unique way and even now they would more be akin to experimental film than something you would do within the constraints of a narrative and commercially released film. Abel Gance may have been influenced by the then brand new films by the Russian master Sergei Eisenstein but that can’t be confirmed, he would meet with Eisenstein when he came to Paris in 1930 though.
The editing is also way more modern and influential than anything D.W. Griffith did despite Gance being highly impressed by Griffith’s work, it has rapid cutting which only the German and the Russian filmmakers had only started toying with but not to these extremes. The masterfulness of the image even goes down the choices of colour when it comes to the tinting, in the final Triptych sequence the colours for instance become the French flag. The way Gance moves the camera predates a lot of what Orson Welles and Max Ophüls would later make their names on.
The restoration by Kevin Brownlow has been over 50 years in the making. Since being a young boy he has been fascinated by the film after he bought a few reels of it. He made it his quest to try to compile a completed version and over the years he has screened different cuts. It hasn’t been able to be released on home video because of legal issues between Brownlow and Francis Ford Coppola, however at least in the UK these matters have been settled. The newest version is the most complete it can be, there is a small missing sequence which is substituted by a inter-title.
The new version is restored in 2K and looks magnificent, I can only imagine what it would look like on the big screen especially with a live score. It uses the much acclaimed Carl Davis score which makes it one of the best juxtapositions of music and image ever. The features including a commentary with Paul Cuff for the entire running time, various versions of the Triptych sequences. The two other big features are a 45 interview with Davis and a Brownlow documentary on Gance he made back in the ’60s which is an excellent watch. It also includes a big fat booklet and it will be very hard to top this for the home video release of the year.