French director Abel Gance’s magnificent 1927 silent film Napoleon was only rediscovered thanks to the efforts of an English schoolboy, who was given a film projector as a Christmas present…
There are films about legendary figures that become legends themselves. Such a film is Abel Gance’s Napoleon. Premiered in 1927, it was so far ahead of its time, technically and cinematically, that it failed at the box office both in Europe and America. Nevertheless, and against all odds, it had a cinematic resurrection. Critics then hailed the film as a masterpiece. This triumph, that was as unexpected as it was critically decisive, was to begin in London at the end of the 1940s when an eleven-year-old boy was given a film projector as a Christmas present.
The boy’s name was Kevin Brownlow. Like many boys before and since, the cinema fascinated him; unusually, however, and by accident rather than design, he became enamored of an era, and indeed an art form, that was then deeply unfashionable. How he came to be so interested in silent movies was largely pragmatic: No one else at the time was purchasing them. Copies of 16mm films of many of the Silent Era’s classics could be had for pennies from various shopkeepers in London who were glad to be rid of the many bulky canisters that held those reels. The boy quickly amassed a collection of some of the greatest films from the 1920s. While his contemporaries were collecting stamps or comics, unwittingly the young Brownlow had started to curate a library of films from the Silent Era.
Brownlow’s collection led him ever deeper into the world of silent movies and to an increasing appreciation of what those early filmmakers had achieved. Watching one of these films that he had ordered and then found he disliked, he asked a stockist if he could exchange it for something else. The retailer had available but one other silent film. Its title was Napoleon and the French Revolution. This sounded as if it would be a “classroom film.” These were films that were deemed educational but that were barely movies; they were often still photographs with many captions, and were rarely, if ever, entertaining. Reluctantly, the boy accepted the offer of the swap. When, the film arrived—only two 9.5 mm reels at this stage—Brownlow screened it on a wall of his family home with his parents also watching. Even then, as the film flickered on the living room wall in a truncated form, those present sensed they were witnessing something remarkable.
What followed is a tale in pursuit of a lost masterpiece that perhaps only an adolescent could have lived and undertaken. It is a story of an obsessive search for the missing reels, combined with an equally obsessive desire to discover everything that there was to know about this epic film that had burned itself into the consciousness of the young Kevin Brownlow.
As the boy grew to manhood his obsession did not abate. Over the next thirty years, by tracking and finding film canisters related to Napoleon from all over the world, Brownlow was to achieve the restoration of the film, almost to its original magnificence. He was also to arrange screenings with the required technical framing, and with a new score specially composed by Carl Davis. Napoleon was no ordinary film to exhibit, requiring a screen large enough to accommodate the celebrated triptych at the end. Achieving this was no mean feat in itself, and, but for a few rare occasions, this was something that had been denied it upon release.
By chance, at the beginning of his obsession, the adolescent Brownlow was to meet the director of Napoleon. By the early 1950s, Abel Gance’s career was all but over; the period following Napoleon had been the equivalent of his own cinematic St. Helena. By sheer fluke, however, Gance was visiting London at the time his future acolyte was screening Napoleon at home for anyone who wished to see it. Many were as equally intrigued as the film’s young projectionist by what they saw. Unexpectedly, around this time, Brownlow was called out of a school exam. His mother had called the school, feigning a domestic crisis, for she had heard that Gance was in London but only for a few more hours. Armed with this intelligence, the schoolboy made his way to the city’s National Film Theatre and met Gance. Brownlow spoke very little French; Gance had no English. Nonetheless, they communicated after a fashion, and a friendship was born between the boy and the man now in his late sixties.
On account of that meeting, Gance would live long enough–he died in 1982–to see his masterpiece judged by critics as just that. He would witness its resurrection, and its becoming the toast of critics throughout the world. For this, he had to thank a schoolboy with a cinematic hobby whose passion for this one film came to dominate all else.
The work on the film’s restoration done in the early 1980s has now been superseded: since then fragments of the original have kept turning up. In November 2016, what was hailed as a “cinematic event” occurred when the latest restoration was screened, and Napoleon conquered London.
Watching Napoleon is not for the faint-hearted, given its length of 440 minutes. A viewing, however, repays the effort. That said, it is not just the scale of cinematic ambition revealed here that is of note, but also the craft and skill with which this is executed. The acting is superb throughout; each part is perfectly cast, including Gance’s performance as Saint-Just. Significantly, during the film’s many hours, the pace never slackens. In fact, the spectacle expands as the film progresses. And yet, for all its grandeur, there is an intimacy to the portrait on display. Nevertheless, today, for those who have never seen a silent movie there is the initial shock of so different a form of storytelling. When watching Napoleon, however, this bewilderment does not last long—such is the force of narrative and the charisma of the film’s subject matter. Audiences are soon swept up in this cinematic imperial adventure, much as a nation was by the real thing two hundred years previous.
The film has many technical aspects that were revolutionary at the time and, to some extent at least, remain so. There is the use of jump cuts and montage–especially effective in a visual demonstration of the use of memory by the central character. There is the now-celebrated use of three screens. The triptych was and is audacious, demanding as much from the film’s exhibitors as from the audience. One of the film’s initial problems when first released was the lack of equipment and suitable auditoria for its exhibition.
The film starts with the young Bonaparte and ends not with the Battle of Waterloo but with the beginning of the Italian Campaign of 1796. Gance had intended this film to be the first installment of a series of six films on the life of the Corsican. In the end, the film cost so much and made so little that it proved to be the director’s and the proposed series’ Waterloo.
Unlike the Emperor, however, Gance was to return from “exile” and witness, if late in life, his hero conquering cinema audiences. For Gance, who was as obsessive in crafting his masterpiece as his young friend was to be in restoring it to its first glory, this must have proved a vindication of imperial proportions. Viewed from a distance of nearly ninety years, there remain few attempts in the world of cinema so daring as Gance’s Napoleon. Many decades after its stillbirth on the screens of the late 1920s, it appears to have at last found its audience on the wide-screens of another millennium. It was, and it remains, a unique experience of cinematic storytelling.
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