December 22, 2016


How I rescued one of the greatest -- and longest -- films ever made : Kevin Brownlow on how he rediscovered Abel Gance's epic 1927 silent film Napoleon in a library in Bromley (Kevin Brownlow, 5 November 2016, The Spectator)

I shall never forget my first encounter with Abel Gance's Napoleon. I saw it under the most unpromising circumstances -- fragments of the great original, shown on a home projector, 25 years after its original release. Yet those fragments changed my life.

I was 15, still at school in Hampstead, and already obsessed by the cinema. My parents had given me a projector for my 11th birthday. Since the only films available to me were silent films, I found myself immersed in the rarefied atmosphere of a forgotten art.

As home movies were being abandoned in favour of television, I found a surprising number in London's junk shops. Among the best were the French silent films.

My admiration for them, however, was subject to the occasional shattering blow. When I was offered a print of Jean Epstein's Le Lion des Mogols (1924), it proved abysmal, the sort of silent film which parodies the whole period. Depressed, I phoned the film library in Bromley from which I had bought it and asked if they would exchange it. They agreed and suggested I chose an alternative.

I examined their list with care. There was nothing much of interest. One of the two-reelers was called Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution, but who wanted a classroom film, full of textbook titles and static engravings?

The moment the parcel arrived, I set up my projector and summoned my parents. On 18 January 1954, I saw scenes from Napoléon vu par Abel Gance for the first time. The first shot faded in to reveal the leaders of the French Revolution -- Marat, Danton, Robespierre. What struck me most were the superbly chosen faces. I had no idea that the legendary Artaud was playing Marat. I felt the film blaze into life, like a masterly newsreel of the 18th century. This was no educational film!

In the revolutionary Club des Cordeliers were more extraordinary, expectant faces -- all chosen with uncanny skill. I was exhilarated by the rapid cutting and the swirling camera movement. By the time Napoleon had been introduced, in no contrived, theatrical manner, but as an obscure artillery lieutenant on the edge of the crowd, I was in love with the picture.

When the action moved to Corsica, and Napoleon was forced to flee, the furious storm at sea intercut with a storm in the Convention made me realise I was watching something exceptional. 'That,' said my mother, 'is a beautiful film. It's the best one you've got.'

I had only two reels. I gathered that six had originally been released on 9.5mm in Britain. I determined to find the remainder. I placed advertisements in Exchange and Mart. I continued combing London for junk shops and photographic stores. Every so often, another reel would turn up -- to be pronounced by my parents as 'the
best yet'.

The last episode of Napoleon arrived soon afterwards. The film stopped as Bonaparte's legendary career began. It was to have included the Emperor's entire career, but Gance had run out of money. However, far from sloughing off the final scenes, he had presented them with astonishing spectacle and imagination across three screens.

With Abel Gance as the fountainhead of so much modern technique, it seemed criminal that he was so little known. I felt it was up to me to do what little I could to revive Gance's reputation and that of Napoléon.

Posted by at December 22, 2016 4:52 AM


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