Napoléon (1927)

Kevin Brownlow on Napoléon: ‘What I thought the cinema ought to be, but never was’

Ahead of the orchestral screening, cinema release and Blu-ray/DVD of Napoléon I am revisiting some old interviews I did at the time of the 2013 event at the Royal Festival Hall. Yesterday I published the edited transcript of my chat with Carl Davis about Roman orgies, perverting Beethoven and the pitfalls of watching Napoléon on a 1980s TV. Today, we have restorer Kevin Brownlow on his own epic Napoléon journey:

Kevin Brownlow (
Kevin Brownlow (
It began with my 9.5mm film collection when I was a teenager. I had a film, another French silent film, funnily enough, by one of the pets of the French intellectuals at the time, Jean Epstein, which I thought was awful. And when I’ve got an awful film I can’t bear to have it around so I rang the library I got it from, which was in Bromley in Kent, and asked them if they had got anything else, and they said they had two reels of a thing called Napoléon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. So I said very knowledgeably: “Oh that will just be a classroom film, full of engravings and titles and all very static.” They said: “Well, it’s all we’ve got.” So I said “All right I’ll send this back if you’ll send that”, and meanwhile I rang up the British Film Institute and asked them for a review. And they said: “Well the only film that comes close is this 1927 French film but do you want me to read the review?” and I said “yes, go ahead” and I can still remember that it said: “The man playing plating Napoléon struts around with all the futile bombast of a turkey cock.” So I thought: “Oh my god, I’ve got another dud.”

I was at home, and suffering from flu or something. I wasn’t at school. And this parcel arrived and I made a miraculous recovery. I got my parents in the front room and we ran it on the wall, and I had never seen cinema like this. This is what I thought the cinema ought to be, but it never was. I realised that what I had got was two reels of a six-reel version put out for home cinema use in the 20s. My mother said: “ That’s the most beautiful film you’ve got.” And so I started advertising in the Exchange and Mart until, I got the rest of it. And then people started coming to see it. I remember David Robinson was brought by Derek Hill, who was the assistant editor of Amateur Cine World, and he’s coming again 60 years later on the 30th [the 2013 screening]. He now runs the Pordenone Silent Film Festival [Robinson actually stepped down this year, and the new artistic director is Jay Weissberg].

Abel Gance
At the very latest I saw it in 1954, but I think it was 1953. I can’t remember precisely but it is 60 years ago, since I first saw it, virtually 60 years ago since I saw it on the screen on my projector. And then I wrote a letter to Gance. I couldn’t believe what I’d seen. I wrote a letter, it must have been care of the Cinématheque Francaise and he actually got it, and even answered it, which was very, very unusual for celebrities. And I started asking people about him and the reaction was not very strong or even interested, except one journalist, Francis Koval, and he was very enthusiastic, remembered the picture and had actually interviewed Gance, in the 50s, just before I met him I think.

He lent me a photograph, a signed photograph of the man and I showed it to this great friend of mine, Liam O’Leary who was deputy curator at the National Film Archive and not very long afterwards, he was looking through the glass door of his office at the BFI and there was the man from the photograph. The reason he was over here was to look at Cinerama, which had just opened at what was then the Casino Theatre, it’s now the Prince Edward, at the corner of I think Old Compton Street and Greek Street. He came out of that show and walked down Old Compton Street, crossed over on to Shaftesbury Avenue and saw, he didn’t speak English but he could read “British Film Institute”, and he just walked in. That was when Liam saw him, and told, I think it was James Quinn who was in charge of the BFI. He said, “well let’s arrange a reception for him”, which they did at the new National Film Theatre, and Liam then had the brainwave of ringing my mother. My mother was one of those people who did the right thing and she telephoned the school. I was in the middle of a mock school certificate exam in German, but when parents ring a school like that they don’t ask questions because they think there’s a death in the family. And they just let me go. It would have been impossible in normal circumstances, so that was a miracle in itself.

For me to meet the man himself and see him climbing out of a taxi … he was, let’s see, 10 years younger than I am now! And he looked absolutely what one hoped he would be. The only drawback to him was this awful lack of English. I had to have interpreters, I remember Basil Wright was there and quite a number of cinema celebrities. But do you know what the BFI ran for this man, who had made a huge epic about the railways called La Roue? They ran him London to Brighton in Four Minutes! Which was exactly that. His La Roue was I think longer even than Napoléon!

None of them knew much about the man. They’d obviously read history books and knew him as a figure from history but I had him, as I recall, mostly to myself with an interpreter – although really enthusiasm doesn’t need translation. I think we were on our own for a lot of the time and just making contact through some kind of osmosis. He was so warm and so friendly and so surprised I think to find this kid who was completely besotted with his work. He invited me to come to Paris at any point, which didn’t happen until 1958, and then again, he was extremely generous. It couldn’t have been better. I imagine if I had done the same with somebody like Fritz Lang, I’d still be nursing the wounds!

The trouble is that one forgets that Gance had reissued Napoléon in 1935, I think it was, and he had used a lot of the same footage but it was completely reworked and the film didn’t work nearly as well as a sound film. He was to do it again as a result of my sending him all the raves that the cutting copy of the restoration was getting, he did it again in 1970 and that didn’t work either. It’s strange but there are some directors who were brilliant in the silent era, and it’s like a sculptor forced to take up painting, sound film is a different medium, and they weren’t at home in it. I remember him saying that he felt he’d made all of his sound films with his eyes shut, with the exception of Beethoven (1936) I think and maybe J’Accuse (1938), but otherwise they just weren’t the work of the man who made these incredible epics in the silent era.

Abel Gance and Kevin Brownlow in 1967
Abel Gance and Kevin Brownlow in 1967
[In 1963] the NFT showed a print of Napoléon from the Cinématheque, which was completely out of order and missing essential sequences and was so awful that I remember walking out of it. Then, some years later, they brought over the Cinématheque’s best version, which was absolutely beautiful, the original print, but again it was missing vital elements and titles were in the wrong place, that again needed an awful lot of work. The irony was that it was put together from several other prints from no other than Jean Epstein’s sister, Marie who had been a film-maker in her own right and who was working as an old woman for Henri Langlois, who used to gather round him all the names he could get from the old days. Anyway, she did as good a job as she could, but it was far, far, from the film that I knew it to be, having seen other version on 9.5mm, on 17.5mm etc.

What made me begin the restoration, more than anything else, was George Dunning, the fellow who made The Yellow Submarine, and Richard Arnell, got together to stage a widescreen festival at the Odeon Leicester Square in 1968, and they brought over the triptychs of Napoléon, the last scene, and they just showed that, I seem to remember it had no music and the projectors weren’t correctly aligned so there was a line between each screen. Even so, it was astonishing! Absolutely astonishing and then they told me, when the festival was over: “We’ve sent it back.” And I thought: “Damn, I’ve lost my opportunity: that would have made all the difference if I’d been able to copy that, secretly.” And then he said: “But we did copy it! And I think you ought to look after it.” So, think how much money that cost him, and he just gave it to me as a present. That began the restoration, proper, on 35mm.

I was known at the Cinématheque as “Le voleur”. Incidently, 60 years later they have announced that are going to restore Napoléon. I think it would be wonderful, if they’ve really got the material, but if they’ve had the material all this time, they’ve got a lot of explaining to do. I have no doubt the Cinématheque are genuine in saying they have additional material but I haven’t yet had a report of what it is. I think it’s new scenes, but to make an alteration to the restoration is unbelievably expensive, because think, the score alone, to photocopy the score costs a fortune, and so you don’t do it until you have a substantial amount to make it worthwhile.

Napoléon (1927) Photograph: BFI
Napoléon (1927) Photograph: BFI
[The version that was shown at the Paris Opéra premiere in 1927] had to fit neatly into one evening and it had to have all the essential elements in it. But you can imagine the poor composer, Arthur Honegger, trying to keep up while Gance was still editing. Although Carl Davis did it incredibly quickly too.

They say Napoléon was originally nine hours long, and shown over two days. I still find it hard to believe that figure, because if there was that much material, where are the stills? They say La Roue was that length, but nobody threw it away or destroyed it, and yet they’ve never managed to put that together [at] anything longer than what’s now on DVD in America [270 minutes]. How could you double the length of a film like that? It just doesn’t make any sense. It’s like Greed. We did a version. Carl Davis did the regular release version, which is two hours 10 minutes or something of Greed. And while we were doing it we heard this rumour that somebody had seen the whole thing. Nine hours of it. And sure enough, that film, the very first cut, did run to something like that and people staggered out after spending the entire day and most of the night watching it. But what it turned out to be in the 80s was that people had gone to see the silent release, the regular 1924 release, shown very slowly. It was probably shot around 20fps, and they were showing it 16fps and it just felt like nine hours.

Anyway, Napoléon is now about five and a half hours, but it seems much less! And if you think about it, a lot of people watch that much television per day, or per night! It’s half the length of The Ring!

[How many sources went into the restoration?]

Do you know, nobody’s ever asked me that question before. I’ve never thought about it! There were so many coming in, once Jacques Ledoux got the Fiaf people sending me stuff, I had prints from all over the world piled up in the BFI viewing room, and I honestly never counted them. Every one of them had something. The merciful thing was, and you won’t believe this, but in 1927 they thought it was going to be a smash hit, and so the scenario was printed – in French, but I could go to French bookshop in Regent Street called Hachette and buy a copy over the counter. They still had copies left. And that was a wonderful guide, although there’s a lot in there that wasn’t photographed, according to Gance. At least you’ve got the right order, and later on, going through Cinématheque documents, I came across the definitive order of sequences and we had to do some last-minute adjustments in the 1983 version. The Death of Marat keeps going in odd places. But I think it’s in the right place now.

Napoléon (1927) Photograph: BFI
Napoléon (1927) Photograph: BFI
There’s something about the way that film was shot that’s like no other. I remember looking at the very first still, that I was ever given. And I thought there’s something very fascinating about this still, and then I saw it moving, in Napoléon. I’ve always thought that Gance panicked as he neared the end of the film and he realised that the audience was going to expect Waterloo, at the very least Austerlitz. And so he felt he had to come up with… I mean he never said this, but this is my interpretation. He had to come up with an idea that would leave them stunned and they would come out of the theatre feeling completely satisfied. And that was the triptych. And it’s perfectly true: nobody who’s ever seen that film has ever said: “Where’s Austerlitz and Waterloo?” Because its ending is so brilliant, it just takes your breath away.

Sxity years later I am still bringing people to see Napoléon, that’s quite true. And also bringing people back to the cinema because this is the age where they watch Lawrence of Arabia on their mobile phones, for God’s sake. The cinema was designed for sharing, and that is sharing the reactions to the film. It’s not just being in the same room as a lot of other people. It’s much more emotional than that. This one particularly has that effect. It is pure cinema. And Gance wanted to create huge pavilions where films would be shown to vast numbers of people., because he realised that sharing was so precious, and that’s what we’ve lost in multiplexes and DVDs and things. People are watching them in small groups or even alone.

Somebody from the office of the French Consul General said after the Oakland screening: “I am speechless in both languages.” I can’t tell you how many people said: “That was the greatest experience I have ever had in a motion picture theatre.” And the publicity was so incredible, done by Bruce Goldstein of Film Forum in New York, that when I was travelling on the underground from San Francisco to Oakland, and I looked up at the direction finder to see which direction the train was going in it said “ Don’t miss Napoléon at the Oakland Paramount!” I thought a great slogan would be: “Napoléon returns to Waterloo!” they’ve used that in the programme, but I foresaw double-crown posters all over the underground, like we had in 2004, with Napoléon’s face in a big closeup. However, you can’t argue with a sold-out theatre.

Take Bologna, or first of all take Pordenone. That started with a tribute to Max Linder, 32 years ago, which is 1980s, isn’t it and 30 people turned up. And now they practically fill the theatre for every performance. Hundreds and hundreds of them. I think Bologna had 2,000 but that’s half-sound and half-silent. But Pordenone is completely silent and there were hundreds and hundreds of them, from all over, from America, Australia and God knows where else. The interesting thing is: that festival has never duplicated, never repeated a title. I often feel like backing out because I’ve never heard of any of them. And then I go along and discover there are so many great masterpieces from the silent era that we haven’t even heard of.



10 thoughts on “Kevin Brownlow on Napoléon: ‘What I thought the cinema ought to be, but never was’”

  1. KB: It began with my 9.5mm film collection when I was a teenager. I had a film, another French silent film, funnily enough, by one of the pets of the French intellectuals at the time, Jean Epstein, which I thought was awful. And when I’ve got an awful film I can’t bear to have it around so I rang the library I got it from, which was in Bromley in Kent, and asked them if they had got anything else…..

    JEAN Epstein, awful? Would Mr Brownlow like to elaborate before
    the outrage begins?

  2. “It’s strange but there are some directors who were brilliant in the silent era”

    Aleksei German said that the biggest problem with cinema was that sound was invented a hundred years too soon and colour two hundred years too soon.

Leave a Reply to Roger Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s