FILM by Shane “Dusty Archives” Hnetka

In the last couple of issues I’ve talked about British film historian Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of French director Abel Gance’s 1927 silent classic Napoleon. Time to wrap up this special three-part Hnetflix series, but to do that we’ll have to talk about Francis Ford Coppola.

All The Pieces In Their Places

Francis Ford Coppola has had  the American rights to Napoleon since the 1980s when he recruited his father, Carmine Coppola, to compose a score for a re-edited (with help from legendary film preservationist Robert A. Harris) four-hour cut. This version screened in limited showings across the U.S., with Carmine conducting a live orchestra.

Carmine Coppola passed away in 1991. Kevin Brownlow, meanwhile, continued his restoration efforts, releasing a five-and-a-half-hour Napoleon in 2000. Then things got weird. Brownlow complained that Coppola was blocking his new cut’s U.S. release, possibly in retribution for Brownlow not including the elder Coppola’s score (which wasn’t long enough anyway).

But Coppola and Brownlow came to an agreement. In 2012 there were four U.S. screenings at which Coppola allowed Brownlow to show the five-and-a-half-hour version with a live orchestra playing a newer Carl Davis score.

Still, the general public hasn’t had a chance to see the current restoration, which has not been released to home video. But now the British Film Institute has announced it has completed a digital restoration of Napoleon, which will screen in London this year (again with a live orchestra).

And in the fall, they plan to release Napoleon on Blu-ray in the U.K.

This is fantastic news. When I heard the BFI’s announcement, the thing that got my attention — other than the chance to finally see this movie — was its description of Brownlow, Indiana Jonesing his way through dusty archives to find scraps of a lost masterpiece. Most people get bored doing something for an hour — but here, someone dedicated their life to their obsession.

But Wait, There’s More

Brownlow never had the rights to Napoleon, and sadly, for all his efforts, he was really just creating a fan edit. But now the rightful film owners, La Cinémathèque française, have discovered a fairly intact print of Napoleon in their archives, along with Abel Gance’s notes on which scenes belong in what order and cut. Coppola, Harris and Greek-Irish director Costa-Gavras are currently working on a six-and-a-half-hour restoration that will be released next year with Coppola’s father’s score. The print apparently looks better than the BFI/Brownlow’s, and will supposedly be more accurate to Gance’s original version.

Brownlow and Coppola fought over Napoleon for 20 years, which shows the passion both men have for this seldom-seen film. Now, one way or another, authoritative versions of Abel Gance’s masterpiece will finally be available to the general public.

And that’s great. At the end of the day, films need to be watched — especially a film hailed as a lost classic.

Shane Hnetka is a professional film and comic book nerd.