The Rebirth of Napoléon

Since 2021, the Cannes Film Festival has devoted the afternoon slot of its opening day to the inaugural screening of the Cannes Classics sidebar, focusing on restored film and documentaries about cinema. In 2024, that slot was given to (the first half of) the most highly anticipated re-release of the year: Napoléon. Or, to use its full title, Napoléon vu par Abel Gance. Napoleon, as seen by Abel Gance. 

The distinction is necessary, because Gance’s intended version of the film, first screened in 1927, was never seen after that year. Two elements in particular gave exhibitors pause: at seven hours, the so-called Apollo cut (named after the theater where it first screened) was prohibitively long; and the use of Polyvision – three separate strips of film projected onto three adjacent screens to convey a larger sense of scope – for the final battle scene was a technical complication not all cinemas could implement (it is also why Cannes only showed the first half of the movie; the second will premiere in Paris in early July, after an additional screening of the first part at the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, Italy at the end of June). 

Thus, the film was cut down severely, and circulated in this truncated form for decades. But even in its mutilated state, the movie’s cinematic grandeur was evident (it was noteworthy, among other things, for its extensive use of fluid camera movements, still a rarity at the time). Among those who fell under its spell without seeing the full version was a British boy named Kevin Brownlow, who purchased two 9.5 mm reels from a street vendor. Those reels ignited a lifelong passion for Gance’s work, prompting Brownlow to become a film historian specializing in the silent era. 

Befriending Gance as part of his research on the silent age, Brownlow began championing a restoration of Napoléon in the early 1960s, and spent about two decades tracking down the missing elements and supervising a painstaking reconstruction of the film. In 1979, the first result of this undertaking – 4 hours and 55 minutes, projected at 20 frames per second – was shown at the Telluride Film Festival, in a specially built open air theater that could accommodate the triptych screen required for the finale. Gance, aged 89, attended the screening (although he didn’t remain for the duration of the event, because of the cold), and was able to witness the newfound appreciation for his work before he passed away in 1981. 

Brownlow’s version became the new gold standard for screenings of Napoléon, pending further restoration work, although at least one alternate print was derived from his: this re-edited version, with a runtime of 4 hours at 24 frames per second and lacking the Polyvision climax, was released in the US by Universal and supervised by Francis Ford Coppola, who replaced the existing score (written by prominent UK composer Carl Davis) with a new one conducted by his father, Carmine Coppola. That version was last screened in 2007, and most other showings of the film have used the Davis score. 

Brownlow kept working on the movie throughout the years, owing to new footage discovered by archives such as the Cinémathèque Française, with a five-and-a-half-hour edit assembled in the early 2000s. This is the version most cinephiles have been able to watch outside of attending screenings, as it was released on disc in 2016. On the same occasion, Brownlow gave an interview on BBC Radio 4 where he explained he had spent five decades trying to bring back Napoléon in its full glory. 

In the end, that goal was achieved, but without his involvement. As Brownlow did not actively participate in the new reconstruction, he’s not mentioned in the credits. Nonetheless, Costa-Gavras – the President of the Cinémathèque Française – went out of his way to acknowledge Brownlow’s work at the Cannes screening, as does the archive’s catalogue detailing the film’s release history. However, poorly worded social media posts referring to previous restorations as being “more or less of poor quality” generated some outcry as disrespectful towards all the work done to make Napoléon as complete as possible. 

Amusingly, though, another name does show up in the 2024 credits: as part of its commitment to supporting productions in countries where it operates, Netflix is among the financiers of the new reconstruction. Needless to say, given the Cannes crowd’s habit of routinely booing the giant red N, that detail was a great source of conflicting feelings at the screening. Although those feelings did quickly evaporate as soon as the title showed up, prompting loud applause: Napoléon vu par Abel Gance. At long last.

Back to top