[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]
by Ken Eisler
The National Health, adapted by Peter Nichols from his own stage play, remains pure farce, but the form has undergone a marvelous cinematic sea-change. The characters, governed as before by Humours and idéesfixes, enter, exit; doors slam on them—the doors, in this case, of death. The antics of these six quirky patients and their harried medical caretakers on the decaying Sir Stafford Cripps Ward, seen, let’s say, from the first balcony, must have struck audiences as grimly hilarious, though just a touch cold and detached, perhaps. But watching these hapless six on the big screen up there is another matter. You just try to distance yourself from them now.
If all you know of Abel Gance’s 1927 masterpiece Napoleon is the version presented by Francis Ford Coppola in the U.S. in 1983 (and subsequently released on VHS tape and laserdisc), you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.
Coppola invited his father, Carmine Coppola, to compose an original score for the American release, which was cut down so the presentations with live orchestral accompaniment would be under four hours. Completeness aside, that score pales next to the muscular score that Carl Davis compiled and conducted for Kevin Brownlow’s full restoration. That score has only been heard in live presentations in Europe.
Carl Davis, a longtime composer for TV and film, was brought to silent movies by Brownlow when he commissioned Davis to score his epic 13-part documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film, and was so impressed with the expressiveness of his music accompanying the clips that he invited him to score a complete silent feature. When he began presenting restored silent films in British television, Brownlow turned to Davis to provide the scores. In his book “Napoleon: Abel Gance’s Silent Film,” Brownlow wrote: “I had been startled when King Vidor told us, in an interview, ‘Probably 50 per cent of the emotion came from the music.’ After listening to Carl Davis’s music and watching its effect with the films, I realized what he meant.”
The American premiere of Kevin Brownlow’s complete restoration in Oakland on Saturday, March 24, 2012, also marks the premiere of the Davis score, which draws upon music composed during the period of Napoleon’s influence (“I gave myself the date 1810 as a boundary beyond which I would not draw on any music”) with special attention to Beethoven, who (according to Davis) initially dedicated the “Eroica” Symphony to Napoleon.
Davis discusses the score in the two video clips below.
On Sunday, October 20, 2001, on the final day of the 20th Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (the greatest, grandest silent film festival in the known universe), I boarded a vintage steam engine with a few hundred other silent movie-loving patrons, traveled from Sacile to Udine, filed into the Udine Opera House, took my nearly-front row seat (the Camerata Labacensis, Ljubljana, a 35-or-so-piece orchestra, was practically under my feet) and was, for the next 5 ½ hours (divided up by two intermissions and a dinner break), entranced by Kevin Brownlow’s 2000 restoration of Able Gance’s Napoleon. It was the most transporting, invigorating, exiting cinematic experience of my life to date. Mr. Brownlow did not lie when he stepped on to the stage and made his introduction: “If all you’ve seen is the cut American version, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
His introduction ironically but endearingly twists the words that heralded the sound film era and sounded the death knell of silent cinema. When the movies first learned to talk, the camera became a slave to the primitive sound technology. Abel Gance’s Napoleon premiered in 1927, the year of The Jazz Singer, and is as fluid and adventuresome and cinematically thrilling as The Jazz Singer and hackneyed and mawkish and, in its sound scenes, static and stiff. The future was sound but Napoleon, the most expensive film made in France to that time, remains the glorious lifeblood of cinema. Like Birth Of A Nation before it and Citizen Kane to come, Napoleon uses practically every technique developed at the time of its production, refining and in some cases redefining them in the process, and creating a visionary work of film.
On Saturday, March 24, 2012, Kevin Brownlow’s full restoration of Able Gance’s Napoleon makes its long-awaited American premiere in Oakland at the Paramount Theatre, presented by Brownlow and accompanied by a full orchestra under the baton of Carl Davis, who conducts his score. There are only four shows of this all-day event: March 24, 25, 31, and April 1, and there are no further American screenings planned. If you love the cinema and have any opportunity to see one of these shows, by all means make every effort to do so. Yes, it is an event. It is also a transporting cinematic experience like no other.