Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) [Re-UP]

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Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) [Re-UP]

Napoleon (1927)
DVD9 | ISO+MDS | PAL 4:3 | 03:42:42 | 7,57 Gb
Musical Score AC3 2.0 @ 224 Kbps with English intertitles
Genre: Drama

Director: Abel Gance
Stars: Albert Dieudonné, Vladimir Roudenko, Edmond Van

This original silent masterpiece is a must-see for anyone interested in classic world cinema. Originally planned as a quartet of 4 hour epics covering the life of the Little Emperor, only this first section was completed and takes us from his snowball fights in the schoolyard to his invasion of Italy. Long thought lost, this fully restored presentation is available thanks to the efforts of the british Film Institute, Images Film Archive and Francis Ford Coppola's Zeotrope Studios.


Kevin Brownlow's restoration of the 1927 Abel Gance Napoléon should be more widely available in its current up-dated and expanded version. Napoléon is an authentic cinematic masterpiece. Its restoration has been perhaps the single most important film restoration project so far undertaken. Film-making can offer few more poignant cameos than that of Gance as a very old man watching from his hotel room window an outdoor screening of Brownlow's work-in-progress print at the Telluride Film Festival in 1979.

Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) [Re-UP]

Thanks largely to the vision and enthusiasm of Frances Ford Coppola and the Zoetrope Studio, screenings in London and New York in the early nineteen-eighties enabled Napoléon to receive the public acclaim it so richly merited. Coppola also had a laserdisc edition of the film in a shortened form - four hours as opposed to the five hours and thirteen minutes of footage than available - produced. Twenty and more years later, it is an injustice to both Gance and Brownlow that most of the world's film lovers have no opportunity to see Napoléon in the more extended and closely reflective of Gance's intentions version which has now been retrieved.

Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) [Re-UP]

Gance originally intended to cover the life of Napoleon in a series of six ninety-minute films. What eventuated was a single film of six hours and twenty-eight minutes, taking Napoleon to the opening of his Italian campaign. Technologically, Napoléon was before its time, at key points anticipating the introduction of Cinemascope thirty years later through the use of three projectors to produce a composite triptych image. Moments such as when Rouget de l'Isle teaches the "Marseillaise" to the crowd gathered in the Club des Cordeliers, when the ghosts of the leaders of the Revolution confront Napoleon in the deserted Assembly Hall prior to his departure to take over the army in Italy or when Napoleon's eagle hovers over the army in the final triptych are unforgettable. Gance's inspired cutting drives the action forward at an often blistering pace. He has even been lucky with his composers. Each of the three scores - the original by Honegger, the Carl Davis version used in London and, perhaps most of all, the version by Carmine Coppola used for the world tour - has been closely attuned to the imagery.

Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) [Re-UP]

The feel of the film - its pulsating energy - cannot be better conveyed than by the final paragraphs of the scenario. The passage reads: "'While the Beggars of Glory, their stomachs empty, but their heads filled with songs, leave history to pass into legend' … The ragged troops are interrupted in their rhythm by the sight of a shadow on the road before them. The eagle! It stretches its wings across all three screens, and the great advance picks up its impetus. As the images become faster and faster the triptych becomes one gigantic tricolour flag, and the Chant du depart is succeeded by the Marseillaise. 'A maelstrom fills all three screens. The whole Revolution, swept on at a delirious speed towards the heart of Europe, is now one huge tricolour, quivering with all that has been inscribed upon it, and it takes on the appearance of an Apocalyptic, tricolour torrent, inundating, enflaming and transfiguring, all at one and the same time'".

Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) [Re-UP]

So eloquent a passage cannot be experienced without emotion, or fail to recall the no less moving evocation of Napoleon at a very different point in his life which concludes Hilaire Belloc's masterly biography of Danton, and which Gance may well have read. Belloc wrote: "There is a legend among the peasants in Russia of a certain sombre, mounted figure, unreal, only an outline and a cloud, that passed away to Asia, to the east and to the north. They saw him move along their snows through the long mysterious twilights of the northern autumn in silence, with head bent and the reins in the left hand loose, following some enduring purpose, reaching towards an ancient solitude and repose. They say it was Napoleon. After him there trailed for days the shadows of soldiery, vague mists bearing faintly the forms of companies of men.

Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) [Re-UP]

It was as though the cannon-smoke of Waterloo, borne on the light west wind of that June day, had received the spirits of twenty years of combat, and had drifted farther and farther during the fall of the year over the endless plains. But there was no voice and no order. The terrible tramp of the Guard and the sound that Heine loved, the dance of the French drums, was extinguished; there was no echo of their songs, for the army was of ghosts and was defeated. They passed in the silence which we can never pierce, and somewhere remote from men they sleep in bivouac round the most splendid of human swords".

Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) [Re-UP]

In the event, the distributors in some cases forced Gance to make shortened versions of the film, or in others shortened it themselves without reference to him. The versions exhibited in particular in Britain and the United States were travesties of what he intended, mutilated to the point of being incomprehensible. A perplexed cinema-going public stayed away in droves, the picture was a financial flop, and the sequels Gance had envisaged were never made. Had it not been for the accident which introduced the young Kevin Brownlow to some random footage, and so triggered the restoration in which he continues to be engaged, the world would never have known how great a treasure had been allowed to go missing. Brownlow writes in his introduction to the first English-language edition of the script of Napoléon in 1990 that a yet more impressive version of the film over and above the version of twenty years ago is now needed "not only to restore it to even greater glory on the screen but to make sure it is shown, at least once a year, for ever".
Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927) [Re-UP]

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