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.