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Napoleon
SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.33:1 Standard
  • English DTS-HD 2.0 Surround
  • English DTS-HD 7.1 Surround
  • English subtitles
  • 3 Discs
FEATURES
  • The Charm of Dynamite (Kevin Brownlow, 1968, 51 mins): BBC Documentary on Gance's silent films narrated by Lindsay Anderson.
  • Composing Napoleon - An Interview with Carl Davis (2016, 45 mins)
  • Feature length commentary by Paul Cuff
  • Napoleon digital restoration featurette (2016, 5 mins)
  • Stills and Special Collections Gallery
  • Alternative single-screen ending
  • Individual triptych panel presentations
  • Illustrated 60-page booklet with writing by Paul Cuff, Kevin Brownlow and Herve Dumont; an extensive interview with Carl Davis; and full film, music and restoration credits

Napoleon

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Abel Gance
1927 | 332 Minutes

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: £34.99 | Series: BFI
BFI Video

Release Date: November 21, 2016
Review Date: November 20, 2016

Purchase From:
amazon.co.uk

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SYNOPSIS

Marking a new chapter in the history of one of the world’s greatest films, the release of Abel Gance’s Napoleon is the culmination of a project spanning 50 years. Academy Award-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow and the BFI National Archive have completed a new digitally restored version of this cinematic triumph, and audiences will be able to experience this extraordinary film complete with Carl Davis’s magnificent score on DVD & Blu-ray.

Originally conceived by its director as the first of 6 films about Napoleon, this five and a half hour epic features full scale historical recreations of episodes from his personal and political life, from the French Revolution to the heroic arrival of French troops in Italy that marked the beginning of the First Italian campaign of 1796. Utilizing a number of groundbreaking camera and editing techniques, Abel Gance’s Napoleon offers one of the most richly rewarding and thrilling experiences in the history of cinema, a brilliant pairing of music and film, comparable to grand opera in its intensity, offering dazzling scenes of unparalleled brilliance.


PICTURE

Long due for a new home video release, BFI presents Kevin Brownlow’s 5-and-a-half hour reconstruction of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, the film delivered in 1080p/24hz high-definition over three dual-layer discs. Most of the film is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1, while the last 21-minutes or so—thanks to the Triptych tri-panel presentation—is shown in the aspect ratio of about 4.00:1. The release is also a Region B release and North American viewers will require a region B capable player to playback the disc.

The history to the reconstruction is fairly complicated and admittedly I’m still a bit lost on it. Brownlow had initially completed the reconstruction back in the 80s, where it was picked up by Francis Ford Coppola and American Zoetrope, and screened with a score by Coppola’s father, Carmine (a version similar to this was eventually released on LaserDisc by Universal). Since then Brownlow had continued searching for footage and in 2000 he had an even longer version, bringing it to the current length. Since then screenings appear to have been severely limited and there were rumblings of possible legal trouble with the film, making it seem as though a home video release was never going to happen. The issue, by most accounts, was the score: since the new version was longer it would require a new score and either Coppola didn’t want his father’s score replaced and created legal problems because of it or the cost for doing a full score for the film was just far too costly. Or it was a bit of both.

Whatever the reason may be it looks as though all issues have been resolved, at least in the UK: Brownlow’s latest version, accompanied by a score by Carl Davis, has been given a full digital restoration, made its way to Blu-ray, and it looks amazing. A lot of work has gone into this and I was pretty floored by the results. Fine scratches are the most obvious problem but this isn’t too surprising. They’re at least easy to ignore and overlook. Other larger blemishes also appear but what surprised me was that the larger blemishes are very few and very far between. The film opens with some noticeable splices and larger marks, but these dissipate after the opening and only pop up occasionally throughout the rest of the film. Other larger marks appear here and there, edges of the frame can look a bit faded, and there are some frames that are obviously missing (though this really should not be a surprise at all), but for a 332-minute film that’s over 90-years’ old these problems are really very few and very far between: for the majority of its running time it looks incredibly clean.

The digital presentation is also stunning. BFI has thankfully spread the film over 3 discs: Act I, running under 2-hours, is on disc 1, Acts II and III, running under 3-hours, are on disc 2, and Act IV, running about 40-minutes, is on disc 3. The image manages to deliver an incredible amount of detail, and very rarely does the quality of the materials impede this aspect of the image. Close-ups certainly look stunning, but even the long-shots for the battle scenes or various interiors look sharp (again there are times materials may limit the amount of detail present). Film grain is also rendered beautifully and gives the film a projected film quality

The film makes use of various tints and the tinted portions deliver some spectacular colours, the red sequences looking especially good with no problems with blocking or smearing. Both tinted and black and white sequences also deliver nice tonal shifts and smooth gradients that look natural, and contrast looks spot on, with decent blacks and details still popping out in the shadows.

What’s most impressive about the presentation here on Blu-ray, though, is the handling of the final Triptych segment of the film. Gance experimented with a number of techniques to give the film a grand feeling, make it more of an event, even playing with colour and 3D. The Triptych technique (or as he called it in this case, Polyvision) he went decided to go with was created by having, for the most part, three cameras filming together side-by-side and then having the film from each camera projected on three separate screens lined up, one next to the other. Occasionally completely different scenes are also projected on each screen to convey multiple perspectives at once, or to create an unorthodox montage. The side frames will even occasionally frame the center screen. At any rate, no matter what’s going on, whether it’s one large image or multiple smaller images being projected, what’s created is rather impressive widescreen effect that I can only imagine looks amazing in a theatrical setting.

My big fear was that the considerably slimmer image would look small and lose detail, but this isn’t the case. The details are still there and the image is still incredibly sharp, so my fear of losing information wasn’t really a problem: it looks clear and distinct. There are some technical limitations because three different cameras were used to film the same sequence. For the big widescreen shots the three images don’t perfectly align all of the time and this is most noticeable when objects move between the screens, where the object distorts or disappears and then reappears. Another source problem is that there are a few instances where frames are missing on the left side, so what happens a few times is that the left panel will go black for a second or so while the other two panels continue on. I bring these things up just to make viewers aware and this should not be taken as a criticism on how this portion of the film is presented: these are problems that are either a side effect from filming or a problem with the source. In the case of the frames those frames are gone and for the sequence to stay in synch with the other panels they had no choice but to add black frames for the missing ones. It’s a really impressive effort and the final effect looks amazing.

The presentation for the whole film, in fact, looks amazing. I was really wowed by the work that has gone into this. It still has some source issues but they’re really minimal, especially for such a lengthy film, and the overall effort is incredible. It looks stunning.

(As a note, title cards appear to explain scenes that are missing. Also, only English language intertitles are available for the film.)

8/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

BFI includes two audio tracks presenting Carl Davis’ score, both in DTS-HD MA: A 7.1 track and a 2.0 track. I’m currently not set-up for 7.1 and was only able to listen to that track in 5.1.

Both tracks sound very good: lively and robust, it sounds like the orchestra is right there. Range and fidelity are both phenomenal, and both are crisp and very detailed. Both also deliver plenty of surround activity but the 7.1 track, as one would hope, makes better use of its discrete channels, presenting obvious direction and splits, even with just two speakers in the rear. Bass is also nicely managed offering a few nice booms when called for.

Of the two I prefer the 7.1 but both sound good. They both envelope the viewer and just both sound terrific.

8/10

SUPPLEMENTS

BFI’s special edition loads on some excellent supplementary material, but the biggest surprise is the feature-length audio commentary by Paul Cuff. And yes, it covers the entire feature, all five-and-a-half hours of it. And no, it doesn’t have a lot of dead space, just a few quick pauses here and there. On the whole it’s a really good academic track but it can feel a bit repetitive even if it doesn’t necessarily repeat specific facts. A lot of the time he does talk about the shots, the edits, the framing and positioning of characters, and even deconstructs some of the more playful sequences that took advantage of the fact this is a silent film (he also points out jokes I missed, like misspellings and so on). These observations are good but they do eventually feel the same as we go. But where the track shines is when he talks about the history of the project, which was supposed to be six films (Gance blew the budget on just this one) and the numerous production problems that arose throughout. He also offers some historical context to the film’s subject matter, trying to dig through some of the myth and point out areas in the film that are questionable. I also enjoyed the technical observations (like when he talks about the Triptych portion of the film) and where he points out scenes that are missing, either because they weren’t filmed or because they’ve been lost (I learned here, for instance, that there was actually another Triptych sequence that has disappeared, and apparently there was a sequence that was supposed to feature Conrad Veidt). Cuff also offers up details about silent cinema in general, even covering tinting and what the various colours are supposed to represent. The length is a bit of a hindrance at times, and I don’t recommend listening to it one sitting, but I still found it to a be a very strong addition to this release.

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The coolest feature, though, are separate presentations for each panel of the Triptych sequence in full high-definition: Disc 1 presents the left hand side, Disc 2 presented the center, and Disc 3 presents the right-hand side. Each is presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. While the center frame is presented in a standard way with the image aligned horizontally to the center of the screen, the left panel is aligned to the right side of the screen and the right panel is aligned to the left side of the screen. I’m not sure if this is why they put each panel on each disc, but if you had the equipment (three television screens and three Blu-ray players) you could play the full Triptych sequence across three screens. Even if you can’t do that it’s great just getting the full blown frame and it’s fairly fun to watch each panel on its own.

Disc 3 presents the rest of the remaining features. On this disc BFI first includes the single-panel ending for the film, which I assume was made for theaters that couldn’t accomodate the three-panel presentation. Interestingly it’s shorter by about 5-minutes, though the narrative is basically the same. It makes use of different shots, is far more personal with more close-ups, and has certain characters more front and center. It appears some shots used for the Triptych ending have also been used here. Also missing is the French flag tinting, with a different colour scheme used instead. But despite all of this, the “gist” of it is the same. Also a nice option is that BFI allows you to watch this alternate sequence on its own or altogether with the rest of Act IV thanks to seamless branching. It also looks to have received the same care in terms of restoration.

To go over the score for the film BFI includes a new 45-minute interview with Carl Davis. Here Davis also talks a bit about Kevin Brownlow’s work on the restoration and how he came to be involved (even back in the 80s) with doing the score, along with the challenges that came with it, like the fact he’d have to keep reworking it when Brownlow added more footage. The biggest obstacle, of course, is how one creates a score for a film as lengthy as this one, and this calls for pulling in pieces from other composers since a completely original score at this length was pretty much out of the question. Intercut with footage from a recording session and some fun little asides about instruments in the film, like the hurdy-gurdy, it offers a great bit of insight into the work that goes into creating a new score for a silent film.

A short 5-minute restoration featurette is next, going over the restoration process of the film with a few before-and-after bits. This is then followed by a stills and special collections gallery, which is a video presentation of photos taken from the set of the film. Photos of the programs handed out at screenings are also provided. This video presentation lasts about 11-minutes.

One of the real gems to this release is the inclusion of The Charm of Dynamite, a 51-minute program about Abel Gance and his work, focusing fairly heavily on La roue and Napoleon (just a warning, but the whole story to La roue is basically given away). It also includes an interview with Gance, who recalls working on these films. That interview makes this a great inclusion to the set all on its own, but what I found even more incredible about this feature is that there is actual behind-the-scenes footage showing the cameras and rigs that had been put together to get some of the more incredible shots in Napoleon, with footage even showing how they put together the hand held camera shots. This footage is incredible in its own right, because not only am I surprised that Gance and crew actually filmed this stuff, but I’m also a bit shocked the footage still exists, and in such good condition as well! After the individual Triptych panel inclusion this is probably my favourite feature.

This release also comes with a 60-page booklet “with writing by Paul Cuff, Kevin Brownlow and Herve Dumont; an extensive interview with Carl Davis; and full film, music and restoration credits.” I received a screener copy of the release and did not receive a copy of the booklet, but considering BFI’s usual excellent booklets I have no doubt this booklet is packed with terrific material.

Overall, it’s an impressive special edition and a lot of thought has gone into it; just including the individual Triptych panels on their own, and in the manner that they do—one on each of the three discs—is such a great idea. The rest of the features also offer terrific insights into the making and restoration of this film. A superbly put together set of features.

9/10

CLOSING

It was a long time coming but the wait was worth it: BFI doesn’t disappoint and delivers one hell of an edition for the film. It’s easily one of my favourite releases this year and comes highly recommended.




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