Napoléon for all: Abel Gance’s epic film goes digital

What if all your silent cinema dreams came true? What if they found those missing reels of Greed, or a pristine print of 4 Devils, and you had to admit you were disappointed? Say it isn’t so. But consider this: if 80% of silent films are lost, does that mean that silent cinephiles, by definition, are hooked on the chase, the thrill of forbidden fruit? There are so many films we will never get to see, and others that we see only rarely or in incomplete versions – perhaps we’re all addicted to the legend.

It’s worth thinking about at least, and it was at the forefront of my mind as I sat down early this morning to watch a preview of the digital restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon. Yes, that Napoléon, the version heroically pieced together by Kevin Brownlow and magnificently scored by Carl Davis. I have been lucky enough to see it once before, at the Royal Festival Hall in 2013 – before that, I was too skint to stump up for a ticket. It was amazing, and I will never forget the frisson I felt as the film began and I thought: “Finally, finally I am going to watch this thing!”

Napoléon (1927) Photograph: BFI
Napoléon (1927) Photograph: BFI
Now, something wonderful has happened. The film has been digitised, and the score has been recorded, so soon a digital, shareable, streamable Blu-rayable version of Napoléon will be out there – to play in a cinema, living room or desktop near you. So if you’ve never had the opportunity to see the gala presentation of this epic movie, with the full orchestra, glistening in 35mm, this digital version means that your luck could be about to turn.

However, if sitting down to watch Napoléon were just as simple as sitting down to watch Coronation Street – no dinner reservation, no train to London, no babysitter, no £40 ticket – would the thrill be the same? As I took my seat in NFT1 I began to worry that the sheen of Napoléon would have faded, but the truth is no, it has just shifted a little.

Napoléon (1927) Photograph: BFI
Napoléon (1927) Photograph: BFI
First things first, this is a spectacular presentation. We saw just Acts I and IV, taking us neatly from snowball fight to Polyvision finale in a brisk three hours, and despite the variety of film sources involved in the print, Napoléon looked magnificent – sharp and bright and stable. The tints are rich, and the detail in the crowd scenes was a pleasure to linger on. And the score. The score is L. O. U. D. This is not the sound of sitting in the pricey seats, it’s more like being at the heart of the orchestra pit, with the music assailing you on all sides. And such magestic, heroic music, you could close your eyes and be swept along on a tide of French patriotism, were it not a crying shame to miss out on Gance’s multifaceted vision. At full pelt, this film still feels modern and pioneering: like it is trying out a new kind of cinema to see if it fits.

When I saw Napoléon last, I was hyper-alert, aware that I was trying to “fix” each image in my mind before it disappeared for good, knowing that it might be (would be) years before I saw it again. This time, I could relax, knowing that Napoléon and I will meet again soon. I could enjoy it, and I could be more critical. For example, knowing that this film is no longer verging on “holy grail” territory, its maddening habit of telling you in advance how important, how epic this story will be, can begin to grate. Yes, Napoléon is grand, but it is also grandiose.

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Kevin Brownlow introduces the Napoléon preview at BFI Southbank
I was concerned too, how the triptych finale would work on just one screen. This was a pleasant surprise I must admit. When the screen opens up to widescreen, obviously you lose as much scale as you gain. The Italian scenes are big, but they are not three times as big as what we were watching before. However, presented digitally on one screen, the image is seamless and somehow it is easier for your eye to travel from one corner of the landscape to the other. Second time around I could see the “joins” and tricks a little easier too. But that’s fascinating in itself. The first question you ask when you see Napoléon is “How DID they do that?” after all.

This is the rub though – how will that finale look at your local cinema. Or on your laptop or TV? Or your tablet or phone? The film will be available to stream from BFI Player, you know. I guess any detail you might otherwise miss you could freeze-frame to explore. Though that is hardly in the spirit. It’s inevitably going to be diminished, but you have to put your faith in the preceding four-and-a-bit hours of cinematic experimentation expanding your imagination before it arrives.

Napoléon (1927) Photograph: BFI
Napoléon (1927) Photograph: BFI
Pompous even when it is precious, seriously single-minded when it could be universal, Napoléon takes its cue from its dour, celebrated hero. It’s a monument as much as a film, impressive but often unwelcoming. The moments when it makes you swoon make up for its occasional clunkiness, but now lots more people are going to be able to see it, and they may well not rave about it in the way that people who have invested in a trip to the concert hall do. The risk now is that audiences can watch it shrunk down to a size that makes its epic intentions slightly ridiculous – like Napoléon himself during the French revolution, glimpsing ‘fragments of a great event from a tiny room’. The benefit, though, is that film-makers and scholars and fans can get closer to the movie, to learn how it weaves its magic, when it soars and why it falls.

Abel Gance thought he was inventing a new kind of cinema when he made Napoléon back in 1927, and he was disappointed that other people didn’t follow suit. Now generations of people have the chance to be inspired by his work. By shrinking Napoléon down to a digital file, the BFI may have increased its sphere of influence.

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7 thoughts on “Napoléon for all: Abel Gance’s epic film goes digital”

  1. Reblogged this on Patrimonio Audiovisual and commented:
    La cuestión que se pregunta es si pierde emoción el cine mudo en casa… para él no, pero claro… que edición estamos viendo? y, realmente es tan impresionante en la pequeña pantalla y altavoces del ordenador?
    Ahí lo dejo…

  2. Do you know if there is a way to find out which locations in the UK this is showing ? Can’t find the info anywhere

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