A monumental reckoning: how Abel Gance’s Napoleon was restored to full glory

The epic saga of Gance’s 1927 masterwork – both its original production and the painstaking, decades-long efforts to reconstruct it from surviving prints – displays some of the fearless single-mindedness and megalomaniac ambition of the emperor himself. From our December 2016 issue.

22 November 2023

By Paul Cuff

Sight and Sound
Napoleon (1927)

Abel Gance’s silent masterpiece Napoleon (1927) exceeds the parameters of virtually every aspect of film culture. In the 1920s, its temporal gigantism horrified producers and its aesthetic invention flustered critics; today, the film’s dimensions pose monumental challenges for restoration and exhibition – let alone evaluation. Napoleon sealed Gance’s reputation, yet its fate haunted the rest of his career. The film’s production attracted extensive press coverage, as well as generating a mountain of documentation. Through this material, it is possible to follow the extraordinary efforts that went into its creation, and the problems that led to its destruction.

September 1923. Flushed with the critical and financial success of J’accuse! (1919) and La Roue (1922), Gance writes a proposal for a six-film series covering the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. Each episode is to contain 1,700 metres of celluloid – 75 minutes of screen time. Gance wants to take the commercial model of serial distribution and use his films to expand the artistic horizons of cinema.

November 1923. Gance contacts Napoleon’s descendants to tell them he senses the “shadow of the Emperor” stirring in response to the genesis of his project. (He may also be hoping for money.) His film series shall be a form of “miracle” and Gance calls himself an “architect of the Resurrection”. The pretenders to France’s throne offer no reply to his letters.

Abel Gance

January-February 1924. Émigré Russian businessman Vladimir Wengeroff persuades German industrialist Hugo Stinnes to join him to form Westi, a company that buys a 70 per cent stake in Gance’s Napoleonic series.

March-July 1924. Gance creates the first of his six projected screenplays. He is permitted to work in Napoleon’s rooms in the palace of Fontainebleau. In a preface addressed to his cast and crew, Gance writes that they must “reincarnate” history’s population. The director demands absolute faith in their collective mission, which is nothing less than the spiritual resuscitation of the French Revolution. Visitors to Gance’s candle-lit workroom have the impression that he is conducting a séance.

May 1924. After courting backers from across Europe, the final 30 per cent of the production money is raised. Gance signs a contract with Westi to complete his first film by December 1924, and all six by March 1926.

August-September 1924. Gance is still hunting for a man to play Napoleon. His friend Albert Dieudonné is dieting on green beans to regain the body of a younger man. One evening he arrives in costume at Fontainebleau, where a stunned elderly attendant mistakes him for the Emperor’s ghost. Marching inside, he recites one of Napoleon’s speeches to an equally startled Gance. Dieudonné is given the role.

October-November 1924. Gance reworks the screenplay, which has grown to the size of a substantial novel. History “must have a plot”, he notes in a margin.

January 1925. A month after the contracted completion deadline, the first scenes are filmed at Billancourt Studios in Paris. Cameras are attached to the chest of operators so they can walk; wheeled on tricycles so they can track, or on rails so they can slide down stairs; made to capture multiple scenes on the same strip of celluloid so that they seem to possess polyphonic vision. More cameras record the filming process. Gance encourages his actors with every means necessary: whispered instructions, mimed gestures, smiles, pistol shots.

February 1925. Gance receives a telegram: “SNOW HAS FALLEN.” The production heads to Briançon to film Napoleon’s school snow-fight. Cameras are hurled into action: attached to guillotines mounted on sleds so they can swoop; stuck on rotating tripods so they can turn 360 degrees.

April 1925. The production arrives in Corsica. A mayoral election is imminent in Ajaccio, where the past seems uncannily close to the present. One of Gance’s extras turns out to be the grandson of a man who helped Napoleon evade arrest on Corsica in 1792. Many locals are acting as if Dieudonné is Napoleon. Officials in Ajaccio beg the actor not to wear his hat in public, lest he excites too many tempers. During filming, crowds still loyal to Corsica’s most famous son refuse to shout “Death to Napoleon Bonaparte!” At the end of location shooting, the Bonapartist candidate is elected mayor of Ajaccio. Dieudonné is made an honorary citizen.

Abel Gance during the production of Napoleon (1927)

June 1925. While Gance is in Corsica, Stinnes dies. Westi withdraws support for Napoleon. The film piles up debts.

July-August 1925. Back in Paris, Gance is desperately looking for another backer. Somehow he persuades cast and crew to keep shooting. Behind the scenes, technicians from America and Germany help prepare special effects for the spectacular storm sequence. On set, Dieudonné stands in a small boat, flanked by four giant water chutes. Eight barrels stand at the top. The actor forlornly asks the crew to “make sure the water is warm”. Gance wishes to overwhelm the audience as well as Dieudonné, so he mounts his camera on a gyroscopic tripod head to sway and swoop with the movement of waves.

December 1925. After a month of diplomacy, Société Générale des Films (SGF) agrees to support the completion of Napoleon. The film is saved but Gance must surrender control over its distribution. He agrees to produce a cut of no more than 3,000m by October 1926. He writes in his diary: “I have a sword of Damocles above my head. Now let’s get to work!”

February-March 1926. At Billancourt, Gance is re-enacting the night-time climax of the Siege of Toulon in 1793. Many extras are from the nearby Renault factory, which is on strike. Conditions are realistically grim, but Gance inspires the cast. Rain is provided by the fire brigade, wind by aircraft propellers, gunfire by packs of magnesium. A box of ammunition catches light, triggering a huge explosion. Gance and eight others are engulfed by flames. The victims are rushed to hospital with severe burns. A week later – covered in bandages – the director resumes work.

Napoleon (1927)

March 1926. Gance is directing a scene in which a crowd is taught ‘La Marseillaise’. He is observed exciting his extras into a state of frenzy by making them sing the national anthem 12 times “in crescendo”. The critic Emile Vuillermoz thinks they are “possessed” and frets that Gance might use this wild mob to storm parliament and proclaim himself dictator. Another journalist calls the director a god-like magician presiding “over this birth of Christ”. In live exhibition, a singer will synchronise his voice with that of Rouget de Lisle on screen – and Gance encourages theatres to distribute printed copies of ‘La Marseillaise’ so that the audience can join in.

April-May 1926. For the riot in the National Convention, Gance tells a reporter that he is going “to bring the Mediterranean into the studio”. This scene is to be intercut with Napoleon at sea, forming a “Double Tempest”. Cameras are mounted on huge pendulums to swoop over the heads of extras; Gance wants spectators to become “a wave in the ocean”. Below, cameramen are stumbling in the seething crowd and dodging punches. Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer is on set, watching with alarm as the two parties of extras inflict blows that are more than just historically accurate. Several people are taken away on stretchers. Gance seems delighted.

July 1926. The population of La Garde in south-east France watches a column of troops march into town. One local presumes they have arrived to invade Italy and fight Mussolini. When informed the man in charge is not Marshal Foch but General Bonaparte, the man shrugs and mutters, “Bah, Parisians…” as he retires indoors.

August 1926. Gance is filming the last scenes of Napoleon in colour and in 3D, but he is more excited by an invention of his own design. Three cameras are mounted on top of one another – each covering one third of a massive panorama: a revolutionary concept that will require cinemas to install a screen three times the normal width together with three synchronised projectors.

Napoleon (1927)

September 1926. The production is over. Gance’s assistant Jean Arroy is forced to face reality. He feels as though he has been “jettisoned in an alien century”: modern Paris seems “dull” and “lugubrious” compared to the 1790s.

October 1926. SGF celebrates a deal with Gaumont-Metro-Goldwyn (GMG) to release Napoleon across Europe and America. Yet Gance has spent the budget for all six films without reaching the end of his first screenplay, and has already passed his second contracted completion date. He and his chief editor Marguerite Beaugé are in a studio overflowing with celluloid. Napoleon has consumed 400,000m of film stock, providing 290 hours of raw material. Their Herculean labour lasts day and night, week after week, month after month. Gance’s retina is impaired for life. Beaugé has a nervous breakdown.

March 1927. Arthur Honegger and his assistant Arthur Hoerée are working at breakneck speed to prepare a score for Napoleon. Honegger writes a small amount of original music and supports it with work by other composers. As each section is assembled, they find they must start again because Gance keeps changing the editing. Honegger is furious and close to walking out.

March-April 1927. Gance screens preview prints of Napoleon. His closest friends are ecstatic but troubled. The film is a masterpiece, but of what kind? It is too long. There are too many details – too many incidents, too many subplots, too many images. Writers Albert t’Sterstevens and Blaise Cendrars worry audiences will fail Gance’s endurance test. Jean Arroy and art historian Elie Faure offer advice for cuts. Executives from GMG are horrified. How can they possibly release this sprawling epic?

Napoleon (1927)

April 1927. The premiere is set to take place at the Paris Opéra. Beaugé has not slept for a week. She and Gance have prepared a copy of 5,200m – a “short” edition of four hours, yet nearly twice the film’s contracted length. The premiere is attended by a host of French celebrities, generals and politicians. The performance of Honegger’s music is a disaster. Critics call it a cacophony. But the film receives a 15-minute standing ovation. The two triptych sequences – the ‘Double Tempest’ and ‘Entry into Italy’ – are a revelation. Vuillermoz describes being shown a “magical world” and experiences a sensation of “miraculous liberation”. Other reviewers report feelings of rapture and seasickness. Nine more screenings follow at the Opéra.

May 1927. Trade screenings of Napoleon at the Apollo in Paris. Gance has finished editing his definitive cut of 13,200m (but without triptychs). It lasts nine hours, 40 minutes and must be projected over several days. Witnesses say it has greater coherence than the Opéra cut, but complain anew of its defects. Film critics say Napoleon is bad history. Historians proclaim it a masterpiece.

June 1927. MGM’s spectacular Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) has arrived in Paris and is being shown at the Cinéma Madeleine. This is the venue which had been reserved for Napoleon, but GMG has more invested in Ben-Hur. The latter breaks all records and remains at the Madeleine until October 1928.

October 1927. The German premiere of Napoleon in Berlin, where it is shown in a reduced version of three hours. Critics say Gance has “destroyed all the traditional forms of film”. Napoleon is distributed by UFA through more European territories, yet in France the film still has no general release.

November-December 1927. A revised print of the Opéra edition appears in Paris at the Marivaux theatre. A longer edition of Napoleon is prepared for release in provincial France, where it will be trimmed and reordered by exhibitors to fit their local requirements. Meanwhile, SGF ships a 9,600m print (and negative) of Napoleon to MGM for distribution in America.

Napoleon (1927)

January-February 1928. In California, MGM editors dismantle Gance’s print and rewrite the intertitles. Horrified by the scale of work required, studio head Louis B. Mayer wires his New York office: “GOD HELP US”.

March 1928. Another edition of Napoleon is shown at the Gaumont-Palace. It lasts three hours, but it has been entirely recut by GMG without Gance’s consent. Outraged, he takes his distributors to court.

June 1928. Napoleon premieres in the UK. The gala opening at London’s Albert Hall has been cancelled, so the film appears without fanfare at the Tivoli theatre. This version is 3,500m, edited without Gance’s approval. The triptych is shown on a single narrow “sheet” that is lowered in front of the regular screen. Viewers leave the cinema with “a migraine and a squint”.

August 1928. After protracted legal arguments, Gance is forced to abandon all control over the international distribution of Napoleon.

January 1929. Napoleon is shown in America in a version running to 2,400m, 100 minutes of screen time. It has been recut and systematically emasculated. Reviewers say the French should be ashamed to export so bad a film.

Architects of the resurrection

But the story doesn’t end there. After the coming of sound, Gance reused sequences from his silent film alongside new material to form Napoleon Bonaparte (1935). In the 1950s, he returned to Napoleon Bonaparte and added the final triptych from 1927. A few years later, Gance imposed more new material on to his Napoleonic palimpsest to produce Bonaparte and the Revolution (1971). The result of this successive tampering was archival chaos. ‘Opéra’ and ‘Apollo’ negatives were irretrievably mixed, and surviving prints existed in various states of textual incompletion or material erosion.

Into this situation stepped Kevin Brownlow, who began his project of reconstructing Napoleon in 1969. Working with – and sometimes without – the aid of the Cinémathèque française and the British Film Institute, he rebuilt Gance’s film from innumerable fragments and proceeded to revitalise the art of live cinema. The following timeline cannot begin to do justice to the extraordinary scale of the work undertaken, or the complexity of the issues involved, but should suggest the significance of Napoleon’s commercial release this November.

August 1979. At Telluride, Colorado, Gance attends a screening of Brownlow’s first major reconstruction of Napoleon. The director watches from his hotel window, standing during the final triptych sequence. Despite the lack of music and the piercing cold of the outdoor screening, the event is a revelation for its audience. Francis Ford Coppola plans to present Napoleon with live orchestra, under the auspices of his company American Zoetrope and Robert A. Harris’s Images Film Archive. He commissions his father, Carmine Coppola, to write the music.

Napoleon (1927)

August 1980. The BFI and Thames Television agree to present Napoleon with orchestral accompaniment in the UK. Composer Carl Davis is given three-and-a-half months to write a score for the film, which then runs nearly five hours.

November 1980. Napoleon is shown with live orchestra at the Empire, Leicester Square, as part of the London Film Festival, prompting sensational reviews for Gance’s film and Davis’s score. Based on its success, Thames agrees sponsorship of a series of silent film restorations for live screenings and recorded broadcast.

March 1981. Radio City Music Hall, New York, hosts the US premiere of Napoleon with Carmine Coppola’s score. To avoid crippling overtime bills, Brownlow’s restoration must be reduced to less than four hours, in part by cutting material but mainly by showing the film at a faster speed. Napoleon is a triumph in New York and elsewhere in the US, but Coppola’s music is poorly received. Coppola and Harris acquire world rights outside France.

November 1981. Death of Gance.

November 1982. After collaborating with the Cinémathèque française to incorporate newly discovered material into Napoleon, the French premiere of Brownlow’s now expanded restoration takes place in Le Havre with Davis conducting an extended version of his score.

July 1983. The Parisian premiere of Brownlow’s restoration at the Palais des Congrès with Davis’s music. Surviving members of Gance’s cast take to the stage to receive an ovation. In the next decade, numerous live performances of Napoleon take place. (But the version distributed by Zoetrope remains the one Coppola premiered in 1981.)

Napoleon (1927)

July 1989. Napoleon screens in Paris for the bicentenary of the French Revolution. Brownlow and Davis are each made a Chevalier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

April 1991. Death of Carmine Coppola.

August 1992. Using Brownlow’s version as a template, the Cinémathèque française presents a revised edition of Napoleon by Bambi Ballard. Composer Marius Constant compiles a score based on the work of Honegger. There are two screenings at the Grande Arche de La Défense in Paris. French press reports imply the music puts audiences to sleep. (The event costs $600,000.)

June 2000. The London premiere of a new version of Brownlow’s restoration, produced as a collaboration between Photoplay Productions (Brownlow’s company, in which he is partnered by Patrick Stanbury) and the BFI. Now five-and-a-half hours long, the source material is substantially improved, the title artwork remade in authentic design, and for the first time the print has original colour tinting and toning. Again Davis extends his score.

October 2001. The 2000 restoration is presented at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Udine, Italy. American rights-holders are reluctant to grant permission because it will not feature Carmine Coppola’s score, which they wish to extend to fit the 2000 restoration.

Napoleon (1927)

May 2004. Death of Constant.

December 2004. Two screenings of the 2000 restoration take place in London. American rights-holders threaten legal action, challenging the right to perform Napoleon in the UK.

May 2008. Press reports announce the resolution of the longstanding legal battle over the film’s different editions.

March-April 2012. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival hosts the US premiere of Brownlow’s 2000 restoration and Davis’s score. (The total cost of these four performances is $720,000.)

April 2012. The Cinémathèque française announces a new restoration of Napoleon, based on recently discovered material in their archives.

November 2013. The 2000 restoration of Napoleon is shown in London.

June 2014. Napoleon is shown in Amsterdam. The triptych is on a screen 40m wide.

February 2015. The Cinémathèque française announces its restoration of Napoleon will be released in 2017. Music will be by the late Carmine Coppola, arranged by Francis Ford Coppola. (The history of Napoleon in the Cinémathèque’s press release mentions neither Brownlow nor Davis.)

January 2016. The BFI, in collaboration with Photoplay, announces a DVD/Blu-ray release, and theatrical distribution, of a new digital transfer of the 2000 restoration of Napoleon, complete with a recording of Davis’s score.

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