Kevin Brownlow’s Napoléon to Make Long-Awaited Début on Home Video

by Brent Reid

It’s true: noted film historian Kevin Brownlow’s magnum opus, his 60-year long restoration of Napoléon (dir. Abel Gance, 1927), is set to finally see official release

The epic French film Napoléon has been largely unseen, outside of a few screenings with full orchestra, for years and film lovers have been denied the opportunity to witness its spectacle for themselves. It’s been unjustly tied up in complicated rights issues for decades, but they’ve all now been cleared and the wider public can see just why it’s hailed as such a classic.

Napoléon (1927) UK BFI poster

Now all at once, in what will likely be the biggest silent film news of the year, the British Film Institute and Photoplay productions have announced multiple UK screenings, commencing with a première at the Royal Festival Hall. These will be followed by its release on Blu-ray, DVDAmazon Video and BFI Player. It has already been confirmed that the BFI/Photoplay version will only be released in the UK – there’s never been a better time to go region free!

Kevin Brownlow’s latest restoration runs over 5½ hours, with a majestic score by Carl Davis, silent film composer extraordinaire. Previously, director Francis Ford Coppola added his father Carmine’s score to his edited and sped-up version (235 min at 24fps; 20fps is correct) of Brownlow’s interim 1980 restoration. It was released on US VHS and LaserDisc (1986) and German, Japanese and Australian DVDs, as well as being much-pirated. Last year the Cinémathèque Française announced the commencement of their own restoration in association with Coppola, which is optimistically ‘due’ in 2017. That’s extremely doubtful but whenever it does finally appear, it’s almost certain to be accompanied by an extended version of Coppola Snr’s inferior score. Make no mistake, Kevin Brownlow’s is the definitive version: his lifelong obsession with Napoléon means he’s almost single-handedly responsible for its resurrection. Before his intervention all those years ago, Napoléon was a fragmented, forgotten film. Indeed, its very existence owes almost as much to him as to its writer/producer/director, Abel Gance. Both men have penned their own fascinating accounts of the creation, loss and eventual rediscovery of this forgotten epic: Napoléon (1990, w/Brownlow introduction) and Napoléon: Abel Gance’s Classic Film (1983, 2004).

Amazon | It | Fr

Here’s the full BFI press release:

BFI National Archive and Photoplay Productions Present Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927)

Entering the Digital Era for UK-Wide Theatrical and Blu-ray/DVD Release

The BFI today announces a new chapter in the epic history of one of the world’s greatest films: Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927). In the culmination of a 50-year project, Academy Award™-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow and the BFI National Archive have completed a new digitally restored version of Abel Gance’s cinematic triumph. From Autumn 2016, for the first time ever, audiences across the UK will be able to experience this extraordinary cinematic masterpiece with Davis magnificent score when the film goes on theatrical release in UK cinemas and is available on BFI DVD/Blu-ray and BFI Player.

This legendary 5½ hour film was first presented, partially restored, at the BFI London Film Festival in 1980. The latest digital restoration of Napoleon will have its première screening with a live performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra of the score by Carl Davis (the longest ever composed for a silent film) in early November 2016 at the Royal Festival Hall.

Napoléon (1927) triptych finale at Paramount Theatre, Oakland, during 2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Triptych finale at Paramount Theatre, Oakland, during 2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival


This project has been achieved thanks to major work undertaken by the experts of the BFI National Archive and Photoplay Productions working with Dragon DI post-production in Wales, and to the generosity of Carl Davis and Jean Boht, who have made possible the recording of the score by the Philharmonia. The original restoration of the 35mm film elements in 2000 was funded by the generous support of the Eric Anker-Petersen charity, with the support of many archives around the world but especially the Cinémathèque Française and the Centre Nationale de la Cinématographie in Paris.

Heather Stewart, Creative Director, BFI said, “Several generations of staff at the BFI have worked on this project. Napoléon is a landmark in the history of cinema and we are grateful to all of the great talents who have helped us along the way but especially, of course, Kevin Brownlow for his indefatigable championing of the film and Carl Davis for his amazing score.”

Kevin Brownlow, Photoplay Productions said, “’This is a tremendous step forward for film history.’

Carl Davis, composer said, “Thanks to the BFI we have this splendid DVD (Blu-ray). In the words of Napoléon, ‘At last!’”

Napoléon (1927) triptych scene

Napoléon (1927) triptych scene

This new version of Napoléon will allow audiences to see the film’s original tinting and toning, including colour combinations which could not be achieved in the existing 35mm print. Integration of sections sourced from a wide range of elements have also been improved by detailed digital image repair and alignment.

The film has been entirely re-graded and received extensive digital clean-up throughout, all of which offers significant improvements in overall picture quality. This is the most complete version of the film available, compiled by Academy Award™-winning film-maker, archivist and historian Kevin Brownlow who spent over 50 years tracking down surviving prints from archives around the world since he first saw a 9.5mm version as a schoolboy in 1954. Brownlow and his colleagues at Photoplay, initially the late David Gill, and then Patrick Stanbury, worked with the BFI National Archive on a series of restorations. The film version has been screened only four times in the UK since the year 2000 at memorable events with full orchestra performing the original score by composer Carl Davis.

Running at over 5½ hours on screen, the film demands a huge investment of resources, from projectionists, musicians, conductor and audiences; in a live performance with intervals the experience adds up to over 8 hours from start to finish. Napoléon 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, with full scale historical recreations of episodes from the personal and political life of Napoléon from the French Revolution to the heroic arrival of French troops in Italy marking the beginning of the First Italian campaign of 1796.

Following the première of the digital restoration of Napoléon it will be released in cinemas UK-wide in its music-synched version. The simultaneous BFI Blu-ray/DVD release of the film’s full version is the first anywhere in the world and will include a featurette on the recording of the score and a significant package of extras. Napoléon will also be available to view on BFI Player.

Albert Dieudonné as Napoléon (1927)

Albert Dieudonné as Napoléon (image courtesy of the British Film Institute)

28 July 2016 Press Release:

Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927) – BFI Blu-ray and DVD release on 21 November

The BFI has now confirmed the date for the Blu-ray and DVD releases of Abel Gance’s epic silent film Napoléon (1927), newly digitally restored by Photoplay Productions and the BFI National Archive, as 21 November 2016.

The film will have its première screening on 6 November at the Royal Festival Hall, London. In a very special performance, Carl Davis will conduct his score – the longest ever composed for a silent film – with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Napoléon will also be released in cinemas nationwide by the BFI from 11 November.

Abel Gance’s heroic depiction of the rise of Napoléon Bonaparte has long been hailed as a landmark in cinema history. Reconstructed after decades of painstaking work by film historian Kevin Brownlow, the film has developed a legendary status. Featuring ground-breaking technical innovations – including its famous triptych finale – and an epic running time of 5½ hours, the film’s exclusive availability on 35mm has limited it to a rare number of (highly popular) screenings.

This definitive restoration (with music recorded in 7.1 surround) presents Gance’s masterpiece in all its glory and is a must-see on either the big screen or small screen this autumn.

Napoléon (1927) UK BFI Blu-ray set

Napoléon will be released in various comprehensive permutations, led off by a limited edition 3-BD set:

Special features

  • New 2K restoration
  • Feature-length audio commentary by Gance and silent film expert, Paul Cuff
  • Abel Gance: Charm of Dynamite (Kevin Brownlow, 1968, 51 min): BBC documentary on Abel Gance’s silent films, narrated by director Lindsay Anderson (If…, This Sporting Life)
  • Composing Napoléon: An Interview with Carl Davis (2016, 45 min)
  • Alternative single-screen ending
  • Individual triptych panel presentations
  • Napoléon digital restoration featurette (2016, 5 min)
  • Stills and Special Collections gallery
  • Illustrated 60-page book with writing by Paul Cuff, Kevin Brownlow and Hervé Dumont, an extensive interview with Carl Davis and full film, music and restoration credits
    The triptych ending for this film is made up of 3 separate 1.33:1 images, resulting in a presentation ratio of approx. 4:1
  • France | 1927 | black & white, tinted and toned | silent with English intertitles | 332 min | original aspect ratios 1.33:1 + 4.1 (triptych) | BD50 x 3/DVD9 x 4 | 1080p | 24fps | 7.1 DTS-HD (48kHz/24-bit) and PCM 2.0 stereo (48kHz/24-bit) | Cert PG (mild battle violence) | Region B/2

Note the initial limited edition BD has fold-out packaging with a slipcase and 60-page book, while the standard issue comes in a regular plastic keep case with a slimmed-down 36-page booklet. The disc content is the same on all versions. The film is also available in a 4-DVD set and via Amazon Video (UK) and BFI Player.

See if it will play on your equipment: Blu-ray and DVD Region Codes and Video Standards.

2-CD set of highlights (157 min, also on digital) of the newly recorded Carl Davis score is also being released to coincide.

Additionally, a CD of the 1983 recording is still available, also on digital: US | Ca | UK | It | Ge | Fr | Sp | Jap

BD/DVD booklet essay and audio commentary contributor Paul Cuff is the author of A Revolution for the Screen: Abel Gance’s Napoléon (2015) and Abel Gance and the End of Silent Cinema: Sounding out Utopia (2016). Additionally, he supplied an excellent essay and commentary for the BFI BD and DVD of Abel Gance’s anti-war classic J’accuse (1938).

Valerio Greco of the Silent Valerio Facebook page has penned a mammoth essay on the history and many versions of Napoléon:

Le molte vite del Napoléon vu par Abel Gance (1927) – una riscoperta lunga 60 anni e il nuovo restauro 2K

Napoléon (1927) French poster

French poster

You might also like

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
31st January 2016 00:55

Looking forward to this! Will definitely be buying the Blu-ray. Hopefully I might get the chance to see it on the big screen too.

Bill Cassara
Bill Cassara
13th February 2016 01:13

I saw this masterpiece in the cinema in Monterey, just stunning. I went by myself and watched in awe. So glad this film will be made available to the public for a rediscovery.

Andrew Holliday
Andrew Holliday
4th August 2016 23:35

Saw the Coppola version in the early 1980s – and was blown away (the cinema was packed and there was a standing ovation. Each of the 7 times I went!). Then in the early 1990s saw that era’s Brownlow version (screened in Australia by the ABC on Bastille Day 1992 or 93) – and was blown away. Been watching both ever since (haven’t seen this version). An incredible film, and an incredible release. But isn’t there supposed to be a better restored version, over an hour longer than this one, due out in 2017 via Cinémathèque Française and Coppola? Has… Read more »

David Nelson
David Nelson
31st August 2016 13:41

Thats what i call a labour of love

Like Brenton Film on Facebook

This will close in 10 seconds

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x