Monday 5 January 2015

A Christmas special - Gance's Napoleon on DVD

At Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato last year, sitting at a table with Neil McGlone and no doubt discussing the availability or otherwise on DVD of various titles essential to the cinephile’s lifetime goal of seeing every film deemed important, we were joined by the 75+ year old Kevin Brownlow. Conversation quickly turned to some of the matters that I suspect Kevin ponders quite frequently. One of them was the information that none of the goons lined up in perfect rows at Hitler’s Nuremberg rally, recorded in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (Germany, 1935), were allowed to slip off to the toilet for the entire six hours or so of the occasion. The perfect lines had to be and were maintained throughout. It was suggested that it would be impossible for every single man there to hold it in for the duration so alternatives would have been improvised on the spot, including simply pissing oneself.

Things moved on and somehow the conversation turned to Abel Gance’s Napoleon (France, 1926), a film for which Brownlow himself is credited for the reconstructions which have been offered since 1979.  Brownlow apparently worked on the reconstruction for twenty years. He has continued to work on it ever since. Back in 1979, When the first reconstruction was screened at the Telluride Film Festival, the version presented there ran for 4 hours 55 mins at 20 frames per second. A year or so later Francis Ford Coppola presented a version prepared/edited by him,so it is claimed although only on an extensive table included on the film's Wikipedia entry. This version was listed as four hours long at 20 frames per second and had a music score by Coppola’s father Carmine. It was this version which was presented by the showbiz entrepreneur Malcolm Cooke in Australia in 1982 to considerable success. (In Melbourne in screened at the Palais in the same fortnight as the 1982 Melbourne Film Festival!) Since Coppola did that edit, Brownlow has continued to revisit the film and since 2003 a version lasting 5 hours 32 minutes has played at a number of venues in Europe and the USA along with live accompaniment of music composed and frequently conducted by Carl Davis.  A short version of Brownlow’s lifelong obsession with the film was published in the Guardian a year or so ago before a recent London screening. The piece also has some recollections by composer Carl Davis as well.

Brownlow mentioned to Neil and I that it looked likely that the film, his full 5.32 version with the Davis score, would be released on DVD in 2015. Legal wrangles which had been going for decades had finally been sorted out. When I said, but it’s been out on DVD already, I was informed that this edition was known as ‘the Australian DVD’ and is the only DVD of the film ever issued. (I’m not sure whether this means that there are none in un-subtitled French editions or not.)

This information bobbled around in the back of my mind for months until, just yesterday, it caused me to get out my copy of the Coppola edit and look at it again. It’s the only version of the film I’ve ever seen so what can I say? Well...The disc runs 3 hours and 42 minutes according to my Sony Blu-ray player. Carmine Coppola’s score cobbles together what I would have thought as the standard silent film tropes of the day when the film was made. Much dipping into La Marseillaise occurs and there is a credit for organ music which borrows heavily from a handful of classical composers from earlier centuries. What’s missing I don’t know. What the near two hours longer most recent Brownlow versions contain I also don’t know. But maybe with the film once again reasonably fresh in the mind, if indeed there is a new DVD release it should, sometime in 2015, be possible to sort it out and, for the first time, hear the Carl Davis score.

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