Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927)

Carl Davis on Napoléon: ‘This is fun, this is extraordinary!’

There are silent movies and then there is Napoléon (1927). Abel Gance’s legendary biopic is ambitious in scope, style, technique, length and even breadth. And while there are competing scores and restorations, for us only the Napoléon recreated by Kevin and Brownlow and Carl Davis will do. You can see this version of Napoléon at the Royal Festival Hall this November, with the Philharmonia orchestra playing Davis’s monumental music, and in a cinema (probably) near you too. Plus, you will be able to take the film home too. This wonderful film is finally coming to DVD and Blu-ray this year – a release from the BFI, which promises to come laden with lots of tempting extras.

Ahead of the Napoléon-fest that awaits us, I wanted to share something rather special with you. Last time Napoléon played in London, I interviewed Brownlow and Davis for the Guardian. Necessarily, the conversation was truncated and edited for publication, but I still have the transcripts. So here, only a little tidied-up, is Davis and Brownlow on Napoléon, full-width.

Today, I am publishing Carl Davis’s account of his Napoléon experience – come back tomorrow for Kevin Brownlow’s story.

Carl Davis
Carl Davis

The film flies by, when I am conducting. Conducting the score requires a lot of concentration, so you forget the time. It is very long but I’m getting better at it, because when this was proposed and we did it in 1980, no one was doing this, this was something that was dead by about 1929. It was all over, so there was no one to turn to say: “How do you do it? How do you organise yourself to do it? How do you create a score that’s going to run for five hours? What should its structure be?” I had to reinvent the process for myself and Napoléon was the first. Fortunately, a whole career and a whole library followed, so now I have a very defined technique for how to create the score, which I did not have in 1980. The difficulties stop when you know how to do it, and then I didn’t know how to do it at all. I just threw things together.

There is a prehistory to Napoléon and a very important collaboration with Kevin Brownlow before Napoléon: a Thames television series called Hollywood, which was based on a book of Kevin’s called The Parade’s Gone By. My relationship with him and the whole question of silent film started in the mid 1970s, around 1976. I then had the opportunity to meet survivors of the silent period. There still were people, y’know, very old then, but who were young at the time. The two really key people I met were still working. They were still playing for silent film but mostly on the big organ in LA and the most interesting person was a lovely little woman who lived in a house just behind the Hollywood sign. And I asked her: “How do you build up a long score for a film, for your own performances on the organ?” Her name was Ann Leaf and she was known as the last organist of the Paramount Theater in New York, the last cinema organist.

Anyway, she still did shows, you see, so she went to a big cupboard she had, which was full of music, and she would start pulling pieces out. She would say: “You know this is very good for chase sequences, and here’s this piece by Grieg, this is very scary music and this is a very, very nice piece to play for a love scene and this is Roman orgies.” I remember the Roman orgy moment! They felt that world music was absolutely at their disposal. You went very, very far. And the film companies established music publishers who would provide mood music, There’s a vast amount of rather anonymous pieces written specifically for different moods you see. And every cinema musician of that period would have a big library to draw on, depending on what kind of film it was.

So that conversation was really very, very critical. One could be very broad in one’s thinking. And then we came to Napoléon, Kevin and I and a man named David Gill. When we came to the end of the series and the series was broadcast in 1980 and was a very successful and well-thought-of and sold like mad around the world, I said very loudly at a celebration party: “Now that I’ve written about 300 clips, why don’t we try to do a whole film?” And then Kevin and David came up with Napoléon – probably the longest film ever made and that ever will be made, and that was never finished anyway. It keeps growing as more of it keeps being found. The original performance, which I think was just under five, is now five and a half hours, it’s grown by half an hour. And you have to revise the score, open out the score. Because it wasn’t as if, “Oh, we’ve found this one scene,” it was “Well we’ve found this little bit and that little bit.” And that shot and that whatever. So I’m in terror, you know, that as archives open, y’know, and as people find things in attics, forgotten drawers that suddenly …

The idea was this: I had three-and-a-half months from the thumbs-up to the performance. I could only really start working on it in mid-August 1980, and I thought well, this is rather similar, they would be putting things together in a week! And the original score, which was created and compiled by Arthur Honegger, was lost, so we don’t really know, except by hearsay what it was like. He published seven pieces from Napoléon, but that wouldn’t get anywhere near the overall length. So, you could choose to integrate it into something else, but I didn’t know at the time that they were even available at all. I knew that one had to start with a concept. And I thought, borrowing a Leaf from Ann’s book, do what they did, the silent era film composers. They’d obviously integrate the great pieces of classical music into the score (and in fact that’s what Honegger did as well).

What I thought would be really interesting is not to say, “anything goes”, but actually to say: could one not then almost have a counter-performance, which is a portrait of the music of the time? So that you are telling a parallel story. But it’s not only those sort of things, there are also certain given musical elements within the film, that one had to observe. The underlying theme of the whole thing is the French Revolution and for that there is a very important historical song: the Marseillaise itself, the national anthem of France is created at that time. But there are lots of others as well.

There is a long sequence and a very important aspect of Napoléon, which is Corsica and I found three fabulous Coriscan folk melodies, which I integrated in, and especially because there is a forty-minute sequence in the first part where Napoléon returns to Corsica. Napoléon and his family are treated as if they’re in a nativity scene: backlit and very akin to Renaissance religious paintings.

Then, my problems were that you can have the wigs-and-corsets music, period music and that will take you to a point, except where Gance himself editorialises on history. And then I thought: “Ah, this is film music now.” Napoléon is treated as a holy symbol, and associated with him is the eagle, starting in his childhood at the military academy. This is true: his uncle gave him a baby eagle. So there’s always the eagle, which is emblematic of every regime, whether totalitarian or democratic and it represents his sense of destiny. I had to write that. I felt that the Eroica theme was not enough. It’s actually almost a variation on the Eroica theme, but it’s a longer tune, a longer melody.

I knew there were certain things that one just had to write oneself. But I’ve got some good colleagues: I mean Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, they were terrific. They wrote very dramatic music. If you look at a classical symphony, which is always based on contrasts, and accents and transitions ad so on, it can offer quite a match for the drama. You feel inside the period. There are places that get more surreal and I instructed my assistant: “Well I want you to orchestrate this variant of Beethoven, but can you pretend that you are Schoenberg doing it? Can you make it really sound like a very strange piece of contemporary music?” But it’s still Beethoven. That’s where there’s a play on the image. Because Gance was a great innovator in terms of montage and rapid-cutting and superimpositions and marvellous visual things. And that’s where we can, I won’t say improve, but we can amplify, pervert and do all sorts of things to the classical pieces.

Napoléon (1927)


Yes we used an anvil in the score. Danton is in a smithy, a blacksmith is creating a horseshoe and Danton makes a speech in which he says “we are forging the revolution”. There are lots of strong shots, close-ups of an anvil, hitting metal. We integrated it into Beethoven, it’s very effective!

For the finale, the idea is that the “cineramic” effect is made by three projectors. So that the screen, your image, grows three times at that point. The funny thing is that I was working using a normal television screen of the 1980 vintage, which is just an ordinary shape. They were square, but now you get oblong ones, so you could actually see the triptych shape on one of these modern widescreen televisions. So I had no idea at that first performance of the effect when suddenly the thing just spreads out and is three times larger. And so I did some big chord and it opens out on Napoléon inspecting his troops and riding across the screen from screen to screen and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger, because Gance would not only have one image across the three, which would be interlocking, but he did three-screen montage. Suddenly there would be three films going on! I thought as it was happening, “I don’t have enough here,” but it was the only time I saw it, when we did it.

So at subsequent performances, I think in March 1981 it was revived, I brought a big organ in, so that it had an amplified effect. Well that was the 47th player I think. We make as big a noise as I could conjure up, there. It’s quite good [for the November 2013 performance] that enough of the Festival Hall organ is going to be there. It has had a long gestation: the repairs and updating of the festival hall organ.

Napoléon (1927)
Napoléon (1927)

This is up-to-date, the most up-to-date version we have. We are putting on screen everything we have so far. As far as we know, we have incorporated all but three or four seconds, which I am being threatened with, in the schoolroom scene, when Napoléon dissolves into the waves. There is a script that was published at the time, so it’s very easy to know what’s missing. There is one scene I wish they would do. The little bits of it we have I think Kevin has incorporated into other scenes, so you don’t recognise it. It’s a scene called La Fusillade, which is the firing squad, where Napoléon is told to execute the people in Toulon who are collaborating with the British. And that’s the sequence that’s missing.

The end of the second part ends with the destruction of the French fleet, we see them burning in the harbour in Toulon. That actually happened and then there was this extraordinary thing that Churchill, when Germany invaded France, ordered the destruction of the French fleet, in 1940. He was worried that they would incorporate them into the German Navy. So for the second time the British burned the French fleet.

I have now done it in many countries, including France. One story which I just adore is that there is one spot when you know you are in France as opposed to anywhere else, particularly Britain. That’s a scene in which Napoléon is in charge of some cannons at the top of the hill and he has been tricked by the Brits and they approach at the wrong direction. The cannons are pointing at the sea and they [the Brits] approach from the land. So he order his men to “Tournez les cannons”, turn the cannons (this is on a card) and they reply: “Impossible!” And the next card comes up and he says: “Impossible, n’est pas Francais!” Impossible is not French. At that point in England and at the premiere, the audience shrieks with laughter, a wonderful, wonderful laugh. In France it stops the show. Cheers! Everyone rises to their feet, It’s stunning! I know what I am going to get at the Festival Hall.

When it was proposed, there were people who said “oh well maybe you’ll get 200 people who’ll turn up. I think the Empire Leicester Square seated about 1,000. The legend is that it was sold out in 45 minutes, but it took a while. The number of people who say they were in that hall in 1980 … I say: “Really? Not the following March?” “No, definitely the first one!” The London screenings that followed were always full. When you start moving around the world you have to proselytise, you have to talk about it. Though there is nothing that matches actually going to see it. You can talk until you’re blue in the face, nothing gives you that stunning thing of live orchestra and the film. It’s really I think, an incredible experience. You find that the word has gotten round: this is fun, this is extraordinary!

The situation we’re in is that whereas before you’d get a crowd going to the NFT and so on, but people’s thinking never went much further than that, and now it’s the Philharmonia’s hottest ticket. Never have they sold so fast. So now we can fill a 2,600-seater – we’re now moving into exhibition halls and sports stadiums.

In 1980 I felt we had made a stab at it and we thought: “Well that’s it, we’ve done it.” But there was this marvellous moment, when we did that performance [the first screening], because Channel 4 was just in the planning stages. The first chief executive was Jeremy Isaacs, whom we had all worked with. I had worked with him on a series called The World at War, which was broadcast in 1972. And he decided as a result of the enormously positive response to that performance that he would commission a series of reconstructions and restorations of silent film classics, the best of all the various categories: the best comedies, the best war films, romances, epics, etc for Channel 4 from Thames Television. That then, over a 20-year period, enabled me to become a kind of one-man opera company, a ballet company with a growing repertoire, because every year from that point, mostly me, not only me, created a new score. In its heyday, in the first years we were producing three a year. And we always tried to do the commissions in one of two ways: either, that we could do it live, or we would do a video version, we would record it for television. It goes on, and we’re creating more scores. The major collections and rights holders are coming through, and we have the whole glorious past, all the films that followed Napoléon as part of the Thames Television/Channel 4 commissions.

And I’m still doing it. The Freshman is my latest score. It’s already been done in Birmingham. It was created specifically for Birmingham, for the CBSO, and I’ve done it at a silent film festival in Italy, in Pordenone. Ah, you were there! Gosh, isn’t that lucky. So you know the buzz.

3 thoughts on “Carl Davis on Napoléon: ‘This is fun, this is extraordinary!’”

  1. I remember seeing a 5-hour version of the 1927 silent film Napoleon mostly accompanied by theater organ. I thought it was in 1959 in Los Angeles, but I’m not sure. Does anyone remember this?

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