Every time Abel Gance's Great Work gets screened it's described as a "once in a lifetime" opportunity - but this year promises not only a restored and revitalized version of that cinematic experience but also Napoleon's first appearance on top-end digital media.
On 6th November cinemutophiles (thank you Pamela H for that!) will gather in the capitol for a screening at the Royal Festival Hall with Carl Davis conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra playing his score: the longest ever recorded and surely one of the most remarkable.
I was lucky enough to be invited to a preview screening at the BFI where Kevin Brownlow introduced a restoration he has been working towards, on and off, almost from the time when he first saw a 9.5mm print whilst still at school in 1954. For Kevin, Carl Davis - who was also present - and generations of film archivists this digital restoration puts Napoleon back where he belongs: in front of an audience.
So, whether you're intending to stream from the BFI Player, watch on your TV/home cinema or in the posh seats rattling your jewelry at the RFH... why should you be counting the days?
|Gance joked with Kevin Brownlow that he need the triptych to fit in all the extras|
We're all used to cinema as fireworks or as computer game from exposure to superhero films that aim to assault the senses but Gance was there first. His camera is right in the centre of the action whether on horse-back for exhilarating chases or amidst a snowball fight where you follow the young Napoleon's charge against his cheating opponents. You can almost feel the cold, ice-melting impact of the snow as the focus remains on the young "general" with battle intensifying all around him.
No one did point of view quite like Gance and the frequent us of hand-held shots reinforces the feeling that you are, actually, in the picture.
|You won't fool the Children of the Revolution...|
Kevin Browlow talked about the score being almost magical and it's true that there is magnificent alchemy at play between the screen and music that takes a philosophical as well as melodic lead from contemporary composers. Beethoven - who had a personal connection to the future Emperor - Mozart and Haydn are all sampled and the resultant mix is both empathetic and complimentary. This is music that is as questioning of the ancien régime as the protagonists: revolutionary and opinionated, it's there to create a stir.
The speakers in NFT1 were turned up to "eleven" ensuring that this glorious mix pulled you in as surely as the visuals - for such a long film the narrative and emotional energy is maintained with intensity.
Gance was mythologizing one of the founders of modern France and also the revolution itself. Napoleon is not so popular a figure in so-called Great Britain but he played his part in establishing a new political legitimacy in France following the removal of the monarchy and the old regime.
Napoleon had a European aim too and it's very interesting to see the respect Gance gives him..."I wished to found a European system, a European Code of Laws, a European judiciary: there would be but one people in Europe..." Oh why is history so inconveniently complicated?
Napoleon reminds us to look at the facts first before we rely on assumptions: Bonaparte was always much taller than the British said he was... More history is required to fully understand this man and his continent.
|Edmond Van Daële as Maximilien Robespierre|
Gance was innovating and the film's rush and tumble feels at least twenty years ahead of its time: pop-art montage, hand-held intrusions, cameramen on horseback in the midst of battles and the biggest bloody screen you've ever seen for the climactic tinted triptych.
Technically ahead of the game the film also features superb performances from dozens of lead actors, all placed perfectly in context by their director.
Kevin Brownlow said that reading negative contemporary reviews he kept on expecting his search to reveal a dip in quality but that never happened and the film just kept on getting better. Today was only the second time I've viewed - half - the film and there were so many things I hadn't seen before: almost three hours on a sunny Sunday morning watching a silent film? It flew by!
|In the heart of the pillow fight - the screen split nine times|
The fact that we have so much of what Abel Gance intended is a near miracle and we should never take it for granted.
This film deserves our up-most support for all the years that Kevin Brownlow, David Gill and so many others laboured on it. They have restored one of cinema's truly great films and we should celebrate with a Blu-Ray or two and a live performance as often as possible!
|The BFI Blu-ray...looks irresistible doesn't it!|
The BFI Blu-Ray and DVD are available on 21st November, pre-orders can be made on the BFI Shop.
Sign up for the BFI Player newsletter to find out when the film will be made available although do try and see a screening if you can: it's longer than Batman v Superman and Captain America v Iron Man combined but also ten times as good!