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!”
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.
So we already know that the Archive Gala will be the Irish-set thriller The Informer. And we already know that it is on the same day as Robin Hood. So that’s your first now-traditional schedule clash.* It’s also something of a shame that the Archive Gala will be at BFi Southbank, not the festival’s specially built 780-seat pop-up cinema in Victoria Embankment Gardens, where all the other galas will be held, although I assume that is to do with finding space for the band. Designers of these new-fangled cinemas always forget the orchestra pit.
However, here’s what the rest of the 60th London Film Festival has got planned for you, silents-wise. Erm, not quite as much as I would have hoped …
In a very welcome turn of events, the BFI releases two archive DVDs this week, both with plenty to offer the early film enthusiast. The first is the dual-format edition of Play On!, an anthology of silent Shakespeare films with newly recorded music, of which more elsewhere. The second is Around China With a Movie Camera, a disc full of surprises.
Around China With A Movie Camera is a compilation of archive film shot between 1900 and 1948, with shimmering, groovy music composed by Ruth Chan. I’ve never been to China, so I don’t bring any geographical expertise to this disc, but these are among the most bewitching early films I’ve ever seen. There are travelogues in the mix, but also newsreels, home movies, actualities, documentaries and footage shot by missionaries. Each frame is brimful of life and activity – the familiar and the unfamiliar mingled together. We begin in Beijing in 1910, with footage shot by an unknown cameraman on behalf of Charles Urban. The streets are thronged with people: workers, families, traders, drawing carts, alpacas, horses or rickshaws, carrying water or bundles of straw. The film is vividly tinted and between the blazing sunlight and the dusty road, the heat of the day burns up the screen. The locals smoke pipes, and shave each other’s heads.
A cut, and we see the same streets in 1925, the same crowds and rickshaws and market stalls. More industry here, if not quite high technology. Then, cut again, and it’s 1933. On and on, until we have travelled the country, and sped forward to 1948 and back again.
Hold on to your three-cornered hats. This may well be the news you have been waiting for since … ooh 1980 or thereabouts. BFI and the Photoplay have announced jointly that Napoléon, Abel Gance’s silent masterpiece, is coming to a screen near you – whether that is a concert hall, cinema, TV or computer. We all have three-screen TVs right?
So you can see Napoléon (1927) with the Philharmonia orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall this autumn – and many of us know what a treat that can be – but it will also be available to buy on DVD/Blu-ray, to stream on the BFIplayer and theatrically released in cinemas too. And make no mistake, this is the Kevin Brownlow restoration with Carl Davis’s epic score – the definitive five-and-a-half hour version of Napoléon that you really need in your life.
And while the live and cinema screenings will be magical experiences, I am getting a little thrill from the idea of being able to rewind sequences from the film and look at them again, and more closely. The snowball fight, for example! As that occurs at the the beginning of the movie, it could take me some time to get right to the end …
I won’t say too much more now, as we will no doubt be talking about Napoléon all year, which I am hugely looking forward to. But I do want to share some details about the restoration, and the people who made it possible. For example, we have been told that the digital process of restoration has cleaned up some damage in the 35mm print and allowed for greater capacity to recapture the tinting and toning of the original film.
This project has been achieved thanks to major work undertaken by the experts of the BFI National Archive and Photoplay Productions working with Dragon DI post-production in Wales, and to the generosity of Carl Davis and Jean Boht, who have made possible the recording of the score by the Philharmonia. The original restoration of the 35mm film elements in 2000 was funded by the generous support of the Eric Anker-Petersen charity, with the support of many archives around the world but especially the Cinémathèque Française and the Centre Nationale de la Cinématographie in Paris.
The film has been entirely re-graded and received extensive digital clean-up throughout, all of which offers significant improvements in overall picture quality. This is the most complete version of the film available, compiled by Academy Award™-winning film-maker, archivist and historian Kevin Brownlow who spent over 50 years tracking down surviving prints from archives around the world since he first saw a 9.5mm version as a schoolboy in 1954. Brownlow and his colleagues at Photoplay, initially the late David Gill, and then Patrick Stanbury, worked with the BFI National Archive on a series of restorations. The film version has been screened only 4 times in the UK since the year 2000 at memorable events with full orchestra performing the original score by composer Carl Davis.
Silents-wise, this screening is surely the highlight of the BFI Love season: Frank Borzage’s gorgeously romantic Seventh Heaven (1927), with a brand new score by KT Tunstall, Mara Carlyle and Max de Wardener.
Seventh Heaven is a classic from the golden years of Hollywood silent cinema, with unforgettable performances by Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell as star-crossed lovers in a gritty, but somehow still beautiful Paris. Back in 1927 Mordaunt Hall was moved to laughter and tears by this film, saying: “It is obvious that this subject was admirably suited to the screen, but it should also be said that Frank Borzage in directing this production has given to it all that he could put through the medium of the camera.”
It’s true. There is more emotion in 10 minutes of this weepie than most entire films, so this live music event should be unforgettably immersive. Here’s what the BFI has to say about the event:
Sonic Cinema has teamed up with the formidable talents of British musical powerhouses KT Tunstall, Mara Carlyle and composer Max de Wardener to present a brand new BFI-commissioned score to Borzage’s classic. Perhaps the most sublimely lyrical of all the silent-era romances, this tale of transformational love sees Charles Farrell’s sewage worker and Janet Gaynor’s street waif rise above poverty and war to be together. Martin Scorsese’s observation that Borzage’s films unfold in ‘lover’s time’ was never more apt, and the tender emotions Borzage captures build to an unforgettable, transcendental climax.
Make more noise! More than a silent film? More noise than an Edwardian lady? No, more noise than the patriarchy.
Make More Noise! is the title of boisterous new compilation from the BFI, an anthology of films related to the British campaign for women’s suffrage. It contains newsreels of protests and personal appearances by the leaders of the movement, as well as short fiction and actuality films that reveal the changing role of women in British society. In the second category, you’ll spot Tilly films, and footage of women working in munitions factories and field hospitals. It’s a fascinating mix, beautifully programmed by Bryony Dixon and Margaret Deriaz and superbly scored by Lillian Henley.
This anthology pretty much had me at hello – the combination of early cinema and feminism is right up my street. But I’d like to think that Make More Noise! holds an appeal for people who aren’t pre-sold on the content that way. If you enjoyed Sarah Gavin’s very moving Suffragette, this programme gives you a more complete picture of the world of the characters in that movie – these are the films they would have seen at the cinema, the ideas they would have discussed at the dinner table, and just possibly, a glimpse of their future.
Remind me which one that is? Oh come on. Nosferatu is a classic – FW Murnau’s free-floating Dracula adaptation is one of scariest films of all time, and one of the most beautiful too.
Is that the one with hunchbacked shadow lurching up the stairs? Bingo.
Surely it’s not still hanging around?Nosferatu is back baby, and now it’s on Blu-ray too, courtesy of a new release from the BFI.
Oh, Nosferatu on Blu-ray? I got that already. Really?
Well, no. I saw that Masters of Cinema brought it out two years ago but I hadn’t got around to buying it yet. Ah I thought so. Well you could buy this version instead.
I might. Both releases are Blu-ray updates of each label’s previous DVD release of the film.
I’m all about Blu-ray. What’s the difference between the two packages though? The extras are different, and the score. MoC used the original theatrical score, and the BFI has used a more modern, but also orchestral, score by James Bernard. And yes, both are available in stereo and 5.1.
Attention amateur historians and nostalgic souls. The BFI has launched its Britain on Film project on the BFIPlayer, comprising around 2,5000 pieces of archive footage. It’s an incredibly easy way to lose an entire afternoon, or more of your life. But fascinating too. Simply type in a location, a decade or a subject, and the BFIplayer will throw some digitised (and contextualised) film right back at you.
So what of “Silent London”? At this link, you can find all the footage labelled “London” from 1890-1930 in the Britain on Film archive. That comes to 232 films, ranging in length from a few seconds up, but still more than a mouthful, even for someone as greedy as me.
But I did have a poke around, and I do already have a few favourites. Here are ten to try:
London teems with cycles and cyclists. And though the sight of a pedal bike overtaking a double-decker always makes me chew my nails, this has got to be a good thing. While most of us are too sedentary, and too reliant on fossil fuels, cycling looks like a miracle cure for the whole human race. Heck, I have even been to a silent movie screening powered by stationary bikes hooked up to a generator. There may be something magical about these contraptions.
Which brings me to On Yer Bike, the BFI’s new archive compilation DVD of cycling throughout the years. Despite the exertions of Bradley Wiggins and co on their sleek carbon frames, cycling is decidedly retro. You couldn’t reach for a more solidly Edwardian image than a lady in a shirtwaist perched on a bone-shaker or a moustachioed gent atop a penny-farthing. And who doesn’t associate biking with their childhood? The pride when you lose your stabilisers; the terror when your parent lets go of the back of your tiny bike for the first time; a gleaming new cycle on your 11th birthday; or roaming around the local lanes with your best friends and a bag of sweaty sandwiches?