I let out a little squeal of excitement when I saw that the BFI had announced a DVD/Blu Ray release of Abel Gance’s legendary (how many things so justify that word?) 1927 film Napoleon. It has popped up occasionally at the Royal Festival Hall, accompanied by a compilation score by Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Legal wrangling caused many film buffs to gloomily predict it would never be seen on DVD, but here it comes, this November.
The film’s epic proportions don’t stop at its duration. The 5 ½ hour running time is not its most startling dimension; rather, an incredible three-screen panoramic section makes it a very unusual visual spectacle. The extravagant demands imposed by the film on cinemas made it a real rarity for half a century, until film historian and restorer Kevin Brownlow brought it back to life, only to be faced with complicated legal issues that meant his version was not seen in the US until 2012. Brownlow’s version has been coupled with a score compiled from popular classics, replacing the original music by Arthur Honegger (there is a suite), which seems to have been lost in the 90 years since the film’s production.