Kevin Brownlow

Napoleon dynamite

Kevin Brownlow on how he rediscovered Abel Gance’s epic 1927 silent film Napoleon in a library in Bromley

Napoleon dynamite
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I shall never forget my first encounter with Abel Gance’s Napoleon. I saw it under the most unpromising circumstances — fragments of the great original, shown on a home projector, 25 years after its original release. Yet those fragments changed my life.

I was 15, still at school in Hampstead, and already obsessed by the cinema. My parents had given me a projector for my 11th birthday. Since the only films available to me were silent films, I found myself immersed in the rarefied atmosphere of a forgotten art.

As home movies were being abandoned in favour of television, I found a surprising number in London’s junk shops. Among the best were the French silent films.

My admiration for them, however, was subject to the occasional shattering blow. When I was offered a print of Jean Epstein’s Le Lion des Mogols (1924), it proved abysmal, the sort of silent film which parodies the whole period. Depressed, I phoned the film library in Bromley from which I had bought it and asked if they would exchange it. They agreed and suggested I chose an alternative.

I examined their list with care. There was nothing much of interest. One of the two-reelers was called Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution, but who wanted a classroom film, full of textbook titles and static engravings?

The moment the parcel arrived, I set up my projector and summoned my parents. On 18 January 1954, I saw scenes from Napoléon vu par Abel Gance for the first time. The first shot faded in to reveal the leaders of the French Revolution — Marat, Danton, Robespierre. What struck me most were the superbly chosen faces. I had no idea that the legendary Artaud was playing Marat. I felt the film blaze into life, like a masterly newsreel of the 18th century. This was no educational film!

In the revolutionary Club des Cordeliers were more extraordinary, expectant faces — all chosen with uncanny skill. I was exhilarated by the rapid cutting and the swirling camera movement. By the time Napoleon had been introduced, in no contrived, theatrical manner, but as an obscure artillery lieutenant on the edge of the crowd, I was in love with the picture.

When the action moved to Corsica, and Napoleon was forced to flee, the furious storm at sea intercut with a storm in the Convention made me realise I was watching something exceptional. ‘That,’ said my mother, ‘is a beautiful film. It’s the best one you’ve got.’

I had only two reels. I gathered that six had originally been released on 9.5mm in Britain. I determined to find the remainder. I placed advertisements in Exchange and Mart. I continued combing London for junk shops and photographic stores. Every so often, another reel would turn up — to be pronounced by my parents as ‘the best yet’.

The last episode of Napoleon arrived soon afterwards. The film stopped as Bonaparte’s legendary career began. It was to have included the Emperor’s entire career, but Gance had run out of money. However, far from sloughing off the final scenes, he had presented them with astonishing spectacle and imagination across three screens.

With Abel Gance as the fountainhead of so much modern technique, it seemed criminal that he was so little known. I felt it was up to me to do what little I could to revive Gance’s reputation and that of Napoléon. But all I could think of doing was to show my modest ‘rediscovered’ version, of about 90 minutes, to as many people as possible. I set up twin turntables, selected a range of gramophone records, and presented the film with full orchestral accompaniment.

Gradually, word spread, and to my delight, several members of the staff of the British Film Institute came to see it. The praise that greeted it thrilled me as much as if I’d made the film myself. I set out to discover all the facts I could about this remarkable man.

In the 1920s Abel Gance’s reputation was at its zenith. His La Roue was the equivalent of Citizen Kane for film-makers of France — the most daring film ever made. ‘There is cinema before and after La Roue,’ said Jean Cocteau, ‘as there is painting before and after Picasso.’

This gave him a unique standing among his colleagues. Who else would have asked fully fledged directors to work on his film as assistants — and who else would have succeeded?

So radical were his ideas concerning camera movement that the photographic equipment organised for Napoléon was more complex than for any film before or since. ‘Make a series of scenes entirely on the move,’ he wrote in one of his scenarios. ‘Without one static shot. Close-ups will be made on horizontal or vertical rails — the camera rising or descending. Battles will be taken thus in perpetual movement.’

In 1924, the stationary camera was accepted practice. Of course, movement had always been possible, but it was difficult and it was felt that it tended to attract attention to technique. Gance changed all that.

‘The spectator has so far been passive,’ he told Paris-Soir. ‘I want to make an actor of him. He must no longer watch, he must participate in the action.’

Gance showed a rough-cut of the full version (which clocked in at well over six hours) to his closest friend, the poet Blaise Cendrars. ‘Ma vieille, there are some great bits in it, but I think if you cut three-quarters of it, you might avoid having the audience leave in the middle to catch the last Métro.’ Napoléon had more footage shot for it than for any other feature in film history.

The film critic Jean Mitry, however, was dumbfounded. ‘I believed I had caught a glimpse of everything the cinema of the future would be.’

Paris-Midi hailed the première in April 1927 as ‘sensational’, but added that they would have to describe the last third some other time since at 12.30 a.m. the film was still going on. The distributors, Gaumont-Metro-Goldwyn, fearing its length, mutilated the film, shortening and re-editing it for England and America where it bombed and fell into obscurity.

Even as a schoolboy, even from the fragments I owned, it was quite apparent that Napoleon was a film of exceptional importance and so I set out, over the following decades, with the help of Gance, to restore the film.

The reaction to the reconstructed version at the NFT in October 1970 was far more intense than at any other show I had attended. As I wrote to Gance afterwards: ‘There was applause at the end of Part One, there was a deafening ovation at the end.’

Screenings in New York and on the West Coast, too, had a pulverising effect on the audience. ‘It seems only fitting that Napoleon, who dominated a continent for a whole generation, should have inspired three towering works of art: Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Beethoven’s Eroica and Abel Gance’s visionary Napoleon...’ wrote the Washington Post.

At another screening, in 1980 in New York before an enormous audience, I had the idea to place a call to Gance just before the finale so he could hear for himself, from his bed, the incredible ovation of 6,000 people. The 90-year-old Gance was extremely sleepy when the allotted time came round. The film ended and the audience rose to its feet in a thunderous ovation. We took the receiver right out on stage. The audience knew at once what was expected of them. They responded with everything they had.

Francis Ford Coppola came backstage. ‘Don’t you wish you could make a picture that would get a reaction like that?’ he said. A year later, Gance was dead at the age of 92.

If I admired Gance and his collaborators before, my research has increased that admiration a hundredfold. I never fully appreciated the scale of the enterprise, the machinery that had to be set in motion before the creative work would begin, nor the degree of responsibility Gance took upon himself.

Certainly Gance was extravagant. He spent far too much of other people’s wealth. And he paid for that extravagance with the rest of his career. He tried to make routine, commercial films but that was not his strength. He did not, therefore, like so many directors, end up in comfortable retirement. His old age was marked by anxiety and debt. But of course this is the classic fate of great artists. For pioneers make history, not money.

This is an edited extract from 'Napoleon; Abel Gance’s Classic Film' by Kevin Brownlow. Napoleon, newly restored by the BFI National Archive and Photoplay Productions, premières at the Royal Festival Hall, with live score performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Carl Davis, on 6 November. It will be screened in selected cinemas from 11 November followed by release on DVD/Blu-ray/BFI Player on 21 November.