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Does the greatest film ever made really exist?

There are certain cultural events that we use to define our life’s experience. Whether or not we have seen or attended them is often a matter of conjecture. Identifying with the mythology of a moment, in my case, the 1969 free concert in Hyde Park featuring The Rolling Stones in the company of an alleged audience of half a million fans, or witnessing Bob Dylan a month later on the Isle of Wight, (along with a truly amazing line-up of the world’s greatest rock stars), – yes, it dates me – remains a distant incoherent memory. And as for Woodstock which started a week later? Well I was never there but would I admit it?
In the world of cinema a similar experience frequently comes with much referencing to the viewer’s sense of personal credentials to be a proper film-lover. The work I am talking about is the Frenchman Abel Gance’s epic Napoleon, released in 1927. Not only epic in length, Napoleon has also undergone a truly epic journey back to our screens thanks to one man, the film historian Kevin Brownlow who, in my view wins first prize for having the longest-running obsession about just one film in the history of cinema!

My first experience of Napoleon was seeing clips of it at ‘Understanding the Language of Cinema’ sessions in the large theatre at the London Film School when I was a student there in the early seventies. I guess it must have been a very incomplete16mm print that our lecturer ran backwards and forwards through the projector so we could see, frame by frame the genius of Gance’s editing style and his brilliance as a technical innovator with the camera. I shall admit now, that until recently, that was the only time I ever saw the film. I might have eluded, in certain cineaste’s company, to having seen the summation of Brownlow’s first efforts to restore the film in the 4 hour and fifty minute version at the Empire Leicester Square in 1980, or perhaps it was the Channel Four screening a couple of years later, (use of much sage head-nodding and knowing looks)? No self-respecting enthusiast of a film, frequently claimed to be, ‘One of the Greatest Films Ever Made,’ would have admitted to liking or even watching the bastardised version with a score by Carmine Copolla that was shortened for US consumption and can still be found on DVD.
Restoration and screening of Napoleon continued for the next twenty years until in 2000 the version we know today was screened in London with the score, everyone thought was the best written, by Carl Davis. I have been reliably informed by a friend who claimed to have been at the first screening at London’s Royal Festival hall, that Carl Davis conducted a live orchestra, (although I think this only happened years later at the Paramount cinema in Oakland California). Such moments are how myths and memories are created. Perhaps my friend was in America but too stoned to realise! What I can confirm is that the new, sensationally tweaked and improved latest digital restoration simply must be on everyone’s bucket list.
I don’t subscribe to ‘The Greatest Film Ever Made’ label Napoleon has been given by many disciples, but it is a truly remarkable cinematic experience and really has to be seen on a very large screen. Watching at home on DVD is no substitute. There is a good background paper about the film here. Is it one of my desert island movies? Probably not, but would I watch it again? Definitely.
For the student of Film Culture, Napoleon is a deserved subject for study. Like Vertov after him, who in 1929 created in my opinion, ‘Probably the Greatest Film Ever Made’, The Man With a Movie Camera, which is referenced in the course, Gance was a true pioneer in the evolution of film language. An inventor, an experimenter and innovator, watching Napoleon today one can see just what a supreme master of film he was and what a truly great thing Brownlow has saved and restored for the world.

Posted by author: Adam
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4 thoughts on “Does the greatest film ever made really exist?

  • Having seen it at the Sheffield Showroom in December (Honest, there are photos on facebook to prove it!) I would agree that the BluRay experience on a TV must surely be second best.
    That said, there could be advantages. Even with two intervals I found sitting still for nearly seven hours hard going and my thoughts might have started to wander during the rather, er, extended Josephine section. Watching it at home does give you the possibility to break it up into chunks and to do the modern day equivalent of running the film backwards and forwards.
    So see it at the cinema if you can, but above all see it. Definitely worth the effort.

  • Very wary and sceptical of ‘the greatest’ anything, with very few exceptions, but I was captivated by the Channel 4 screening, however I don’t feel the need to have access to the film when the feeling takes me, unlike other films which became cultural way points in my life that I’m constantly, almost subconsciously, referring to, in terms of moods and feelings, when looking for creative solutions.
    By the way I was at the Stones in Hyde Park and I now only have the vaguest sense of what it felt like to be there, the film of it seems to have almost completely over written my actual memory fragments but what I do get from the film is that it didn’t feel like that to me to be there. I didn’t see Dylan but I saw Hendrix at the Isle of Wight and similar applies.
    Culturally, as experiences, they don’t mean as much to me as seeing Lost Horizon or The Halfway House or Hitchcock’s Rebecca on a dreary 50s Sunday afternoon on the sofa or seeing Performance in the 70s on Notting Hill Gate or Altman’s The Long Goodbye.
    There are strands of personal resonance in all those films which provide grist to my creative imagination.

  • I was at Hyde Park too and have exactly the same feelings about it in relation to the film. I suppose that it is experiences like this that give me some affinity with Baudrillards ideas. I suspect that this year we will be treated to quite a lot about the October revolution and the footage of the storming of the winter Palace will no doubt feature…the ‘newsreel’ footage is of course from Eisenstein and apparently bears little relationship to reality! (Great film though)

    • Yes Baudrillard came to mind with me too but I thought I’d rambled on enough! Hahaha
      Although I find the web useful for confirming whether I’ve seen bands or just imagined it, or indeed reminding me that I’ve seen bands that I forgot I had like the Doors

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