Napoleon at the Royal Festival Hall
5th December 2004
Is Napoleon is finest film ever made? Leaving the RFH in a state of total elation after eight hours of Abel Gance's 1927 masterpiece I realised yet again why it had made such a profound impression when I first saw it at the Barbican back in 1988. Then as now we had the full resources of the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Carl Davis conducting his own wonderful score. But this time the screen was bigger, the triptych sections seemed to link with even greater security and, to crown it all, we had the full weight of the RFH organ for the closing sections - in this case the last half hour or so.
We almost didn't get Carl Davis. A recent operation on his foot meant that he had to be brought on in a wheel chair and helped into a seat on the podium for each act. One would not have know, however, that there was any difficulty even if he was in discomfort for the combination of visual and aural images sweeps all before it.
There is a possibility that this might have been the last time we had a chance to see the film in this way, given the rumblings behind the scenes over copyright. I hope they can be successfully concluded as a masterpiece like this needs not only to be seen live but to be more widely available. It would be nice to have it on DVD but realistically the final scenes have to be experienced in the theatre - I doubt if even our wide-screen TVs could do justice to it. Kevin Brownlow has dedicated his life to recreating the film and I am delighted that Photoplay have reissued his book on the detective work which ran over years to bring it to life again. He deserves our unending thanks.
To coincide with the two public screenings of Napoleon I was delighted to note that Photoplay have reissued Kevin Brownlow's book on the film with his graphic account of the continuing detective job - which has become a lifetime's undertaking - to restore the masterpiece to as near its original state as possible. This is more than a labour of love - without Kevin Brownlow's devotion to silent movies we would be without not only this but many other masterpieces which so nearly slipped away unrecognised.
The book is fully illustrated and also includes a free CD of almost an hour of the score from the Wren Orchestra under Carl Davis. All we need now is the DVD! Surely that is not asking too much given the number of films currently on the market?
Napoleon, by Kevin Brownlow, is published by:
Photoplay Productions Ltd
21 Princess Road
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