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  • Writer's pictureSouth West Silents

The Transformation of Napoleon: From 35mm to 9.5mm to Digital

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) is still making it’s impact throughout the country. We just can’t get enough of it. So you will forgive us to be excited to say that Gance’s epic will be returning to the south west at the Curzon Cinema & Arts, Clevedon in September 2017. Sunday 10th September, 11:00am to be exact!  Not only will this give everyone a chance to experience one of the most incredible cinematic experiences available but to also experience it in a cinema which has a longer history than the film itself. The Curzon Cinema in Clevedon is an incredible venue, perfect to see this incredible film!

On top of the UK Cinema Release we also knew that the release of Napoleon on Blu-ray and DVD was going to have a big effect on the international silent film community! But the impact was far greater than we could possibly imagine. As the release date dawned, copies of Gance’s great epic invaded more countries than even the Emperor ever achieved in his life time. Many of our friends throughout Europe, America and Asia all posted pictures of the shiny new addition to their silent film libraries. In fact, so many copies were bought up within the course of the first few weeks the BFI ran out! The same happened with both online and high street retailers! So popular was the Blu-ray editions that at this very moment the first editions are incredibly hard to get hold of. Don’t worry however, new stock has already arrived at the BFI and are already on the way to the retailers.

But are we really that surprised?! Kevin Brownlow’s triumphant restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (a restoration which has taken more than 50 years to put together) has been the one title which many of us have been praying to see released on commercial DVD and Blu-ray (even VHS) for years let along see in our local cinema. It has been an incredibly long road for many of us (far more for Kevin of course) since we first saw it in 1980. To be honest, some of us weren’t even born while others were around but didn’t get the chance to see it in 1980. One such person was our regular contributor and good friend Mark Fuller. Mark has however made up for not seeing it in 1980 by seeing it more than any of us from then on. Whether it was being screened in the UK or in San Francisco, Mark has been there. So who better than Mark to tell us about the story of how this incredible restoration has developed since Napoleon was first conceived by Gance so many years ago.


Napoleon started big, though never as big as originally intended. It was planned to have been a six-film biographical series stretching over the course of the man’s life. Yet by all accounts, when the production was complete on Abel Gance’s first film in the series, the money was already gone. So we have Napoleon the boy and young man, the young General about to break into European history with his invasion of North Italy in 1797. And that’s it. But that was something; at the famous ‘Apollo’ screening in 1927 it ran close to nine hours in total. Kevin Brownlow in his book on the film and his restoration of it, refers to this as essentially a rough cut. According to production paperwork the finished article – the definitive version – ran about 6 1/2 hours once Gance’s fine-tuning had taken place. But already in 1927 there were multiple versions: a shorter 4 hour cut, though panned by critics, had already been screened to the trade and industry at the Paris Opera. Thus we have the very distinct Opera and Apollo cuts of Napoleon.

But the film never caught the public interest, and it struggled commercially. The sheer length of it, the technical issues with screening the two triptych sequences all conspired to make the film a tricky and risky prospect for exhibitors. So the process of cutting it down began. This was still underway when, inevitably, sound arrived. Gance started to prepare a sound reissue, with some dubbing, including newly shot sound sequences. What began as death by a thousand cuts, eventually became a right old mess of film sequences from different decades. Gance’s attempts to give his beloved film new life instead disfigured and all but killed it.


It does read rather like a benign horror story, a disfigured entity gradually coming back to life and health through its own energy and unwillingness to die, with the assistance of an acolyte willing to toil and sacrifice so much on its behalf. This story has been told repeatedly in the media recently, how thanks to Liam O’Leary at the BFI, and a mother willing to hoick Kevin out of a school exam, Kevin got to meet Gance, establishing a friendship, and as time progressed, got introductions to the archives that held what remained of the 35mm elements of the original film. Do read the book for a full run-down of the visits, the hurdles jumped and the hoops leapt through, just to gain access, let alone use of the film clips. Film archives have changed drastically in their approach to collaboration over the decades. Back then, it was a “What we have, we hold” culture. Kevin was breaking new ground with every step, figuratively breaking doors down. While there were many setbacks along the way, progress was still made, with work-in-progress screenings held at the NFT from time to time. That is until 1980, when there was a coherent if incomplete film, lasting 4h 50m at 20 frames per second, suitable for a more general public. As the Thames Silents series had paved the way and built an audience for spectacular orchestrally accompanied silent films, the time was right.


The Brownlow/Davis version also screened in France to rave reviews, but there was more to come. Further research in the French archives found another five minutes of material. A French titled version of the restoration incorporating this extra material was made by Bambi Ballard, and a score using elements of Honegger’s original 1920’s was commissioned to go with it; but it was screened to a lukewarm response, with blame being focussed on the new score. More footage emerged from Corsica following a screening there. So a new restoration incorporating all of these new discoveries was needed. Financing was found and a revision/restoration began. Firstly Kevin re-edited some of his previous restoration to correct what he calls mistakes – but these were simply best guesses that didn’t quite match those of Gance’s when vintage prints eventually emerged. The titles – previously created piecemeal – were created in the original 18th C typeface used by Gance, and with new translations into English. Tinting and toning, missing from the prior restorations, was recreated in the labs using those vintage prints as guides. It was recognised that the opening Brienne sequence, shot by a different cameraman to the rest of the film, was playing too fast at 20fps, so was to be projected at 18fps instead. And to match all this of course, Carl Davis had to modify his score; instead of 4hr 50m, we had a Napoleon running at over 5hr 30m. It was ready to be screened at the Royal Festival Hall for the FIAF conference in 2000. Which was where I first got to see it. It didn’t ever feel like a long film, it had too much energy, cinematically and musically. And when the triptych is revealed, after five hours plus watching a film, in darkness, in academy ratio, suddenly having the picture expand to triple the width has the effect of pressing you back in your seat, like in an aircraft at take-off. If I hadn’t been totally captured by silent film by that point, I was then.



If you think that might be a little mad, you’re not the first to say so. I was in the queue outside the Oakland Paramount when Kevin Brownlow walked past. He spotted me, retraced his steps and said “Are you mad? ” A reasonable question – I had blown a month’s wages on a long weekend in San Francisco, flying from Bristol, to see a film (twice) I had already seen twice in London. A trip of a lifetime. But this coming from the man who had dedicated a huge chunk of his adult life – it is now 62 years since he first projected those 9.5mm cassettes for his parents – in bringing this undoubted masterpiece back into being so it can finally be seen by the numbers of people Gance once envisaged. While Kevin is by no means a fan of digital projection, he is also a pragmatist, and this latest digital restoration (I won’t say last – who knows what may yet emerge) is probably the biggest step, in realising Gance’s and his own dream. Whereas previously, only the relatively well-off or the utterly obsessed could justify the outlay to see it, it will now be seen by as many as want to, and can find the price of a normal cinema ticket. Vive La Revolution!

See Napoleon on the big screen at the beautiful Curzon Cinema & Arts, Clevedon on Sunday 10th September, 11:00am.

Recommended reading; Napoleon, Abel Gance’s Classic Film by Kevin Brownlow, 1983, Revised edition, 2004.

Napoleon by Nelly Kaplan, BFI Film Classics series, 1994

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