Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927)

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Napoléon (Abel Gance, 1927)

#1 Post by denti alligator » Sat Feb 12, 2005 9:21 pm

A reviewer at imdb.com writes:
I was lucky enough to see the very latest restoration of Napoleon by silent film expert Kevin Brownlow at the Royal Festival Hall in London earlier this month (December 2004). Carl Davis was there in person to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a live performance of his own brilliant score. It was the most moving and overwhelming cinematic experience of my life and I doubt whether it can ever be bettered. The film is decades ahead of its time, the bravura editing and inspired direction reveal Gance as the true genius that he was.

However...

The very performance I attended was under legal threats from Coppola, who wished to ban its screening. Back in 1980-81, he and his Zoetrope Studio helped fund a restoration and he got his father to compose a score. He helped get the US audiences to recognise what a remarkable work of genius Napoleon really is, and all credit to him for trying to do so. This would all seem very well and good, but even in 1981 Coppola wasn't showing the best version of the restored film that he could have. He had cut it down from Brownlow's (then) latest version to fit the score his father had written. He also showed it at 24 fps instead of the intended (and more realistic - the movements are at a normal rate, not unnaturally sped-up) 20 fps. Throughout the 1980s, Brownlow and others in Europe kept finding better elements and more footage. Yet, Coppola's version was still being called "THE restoration" and not altered at all. Brownlow also found prints with more authentic editing, giving a much better idea of the order and number of cuts in many sequences (so many versions/reels of Napoleon have had inferior takes/editing put in by people other than Gance that it took time to discover the best and most authentic). It was becoming increasingly clear that Coppola's version was very much flawed and out-of-date with the new discoveries. In 2000, the latest and most complete version available (including the authentic tints, near-definitive editing in line with Gance's intentions, and the best print so far etc.) was screened in London. Carl Davis had altered and lengthened his magnificent score to match the latest version. Even after this showing in 2000, elements were still being improved to make the film as close as possible to Gance's intentions. The 2004 screening which I attended had a print that ran for nearly 5 and a half hours. Coppola's version runs for less than 4 hours and it hasn't been touched to include any improvements in print quality or more authentic tinting or editing.

The Coppola version of Napoleon, with a run time of 223 minutes (3 hours and 43 minutes) is out on DVD in Australia. I do not know when or even if it will come out on DVD in the US. Rest assured, it will NOT be the best version of this great film, or anything close to it. Coppola and Zoetrope sold rights to their version of the film to Universal in the 1980s and so now the issue of rights has become entangled with a major studio (Universal Studios, incidentally, destroyed all their silent film negatives in 1947 - a very (in)appropriate choice of distributor for a film whose failure and subsequent neglect was mainly due to a horrendous re-editing by studios (MGM) in 1927).

The Australian DVD, released by Universal, is filled with faults. Apart from inferior image quality (unlike the 2004 print, which was superb and scarcely a speck of dirt was visible any time during the whole 5 and a half hours), the final triptych sequence is horrendously cropped from 3.99:1 to 2.55:1 and isn't even adjusted for widescreen televisions. It's also exactly the same version from 1981 which, even back then, wasn't the best there was available. The music, admirable though it is, cannot compare to Davis' score (he has worked on many other silent film scores with great acclaim) - especially now that Davis has reworked the score for the latest version.

Coppola's efforts to suppress the latest restoration are a dreadful example of precisely the kind of money-driven censorship and selfishness that Napoleon has been dogged by for eighty years. Not just the 90+ minutes of extra footage, but the score and print quality itself, makes the latest print by the BFI/BFA/Brownlow indispensable. Anyone who claims to have rescued this film (as Coppola did in 1981, even though Brownlow had been working for decades before then, alongside Gance himself, to remaster the film) and yet tries to ban a closer version to the original film is monstrously hypocritical. As much as I welcome any hope of seeing Napoleon on DVD, I recoil at the thought of thousands of people being forced to watch a terribly flawed and inferior version of this masterpiece. Even as I type, there are rumours of even more lost footage from Napoleon being found in Denmark - with any luck this will lead to an even better restoration than the 2004 one.

This ongoing saga of restoration (and much credit is due to the person who seems to have the least legal rights out of the whole cast of those involved in the restored film: Kevin Brownlow) means that a DVD release of the Coppola version, with its many flaws, seems absurd and remarkably selfish and damaging. This film desperately needs to be released on DVD, but only in as close a form as possible to Gance's original masterpiece of 1927, seen by far too few people. That US rights-holders are trying to ban better versions with over 90 minutes extra in them is just another sad chapter in the story of this much-abused wonder of cinema. This is a magnificent film and deserves better than the shoddy and selfish treatment it has been given in America.
Can anyone add any details to this? Who exactly owns the rights to the most recent Brownlow restoration? BFI?

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#2 Post by Donald Trampoline » Sat Feb 12, 2005 11:51 pm

Here's some info from www.silentera.com:
"At present, there are no plans known to present the expanded Napoleon in the United States. Coppola�s exclusive contract protecting his 1981 version prevents Brownlow from showing his 1980 version in American theaters or from releasing that edition on home video in the US. We do not know whether Coppola�s contract will either limit or totally prevent any presentations of the 2000 restoration in the United States. But we, here and now, begin lobbying for someone to make this restoration available to American audiences (on a roadshow basis?), with the Carl Davis music score accompanying the film and the three-panel triptych finale shown as intended."
Here's a report (from 2000) I found from Film&VIdeo Magazine. (as the IMDb reviewer notes, further work has been done since that article.)

There's so much Photoplay stuff out there, why can't we get that all out here in the U.S.? It would be great to see all those fully restored prints. (Turner Classic Movies screens some of them, but I mean on DVD of course.)

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#3 Post by unclehulot » Sun Feb 13, 2005 1:41 am

The Australian DVD, released by Universal, is filled with faults. Apart from inferior image quality (unlike the 2004 print, which was superb and scarcely a speck of dirt was visible any time during the whole 5 and a half hours), the final triptych sequence is horrendously cropped from 3.99:1 to 2.55:1 and isn't even adjusted for widescreen televisions.
I think this guy doesn't understand that 90% of the film would need to be encoded in 16:9 enhanced mode with the image in the center at reduced resolution just to accommodate the final sequence being in enhanced mode. It can't just switch midstream. Interestingly the DVD release of Martin Scorsese's survey of Italian cinema(can't remember the exact title) DOES present the whole thing 16:9 for just such an effect, but this means if you're in 16:9 mode on a 4:3 set the 4:3 material will be severly "windowboxed" into the center of the set.

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#4 Post by denti alligator » Sun Feb 13, 2005 1:52 am

a) You could encode just the final sequence for 16x9, couldn't you? I don't see why this would be technically impossible.

b) For a film this old (now in public domaine, I assume) how can one guy (Francis Ford C) own the rights to it (in the US at least)? I thought you could only own the rights to a particular print or restoration.

c) Even if the rights were blocked in the US, wouldn't that only mean that we couldn't hope for a R1 Universal-liscenced Criterion edition, but might expect a R2 BFI DVD. What's the delay?

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#5 Post by unclehulot » Sun Feb 13, 2005 11:25 am

denti alligator wrote:a) You could encode just the final sequence for 16x9, couldn't you? I don't see why this would be technically impossible.
You could, but it would be very tricky for playback; you would have to change your playback mode at the exact moment it goes to widescreen, unless the whole movie were in 16:9 with bars at the sides for the 4:3 material. Until the whole world is watching on 16:9 it's just not practical. Perhaps the solution is to have the final sequence seperately encoded as a supplement, but since they crammed it on one disc...

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#6 Post by denti alligator » Sun Feb 13, 2005 12:13 pm

I don't see why encoding 90% of the film as non-anamorphic 4x3 and the final sequence as 16x9 would require one to switch one's settings for proper display.

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#7 Post by Gordon » Sun Feb 13, 2005 7:08 pm

Using auto-mode on my monitor, an image encoded as 1.33 which suddenly switches to a 16x9 anamorphic ratio would be flagged and presented properly. Most 16x9 sets have this function.

Gance's film is the Gone With the Wind of Silent Cinema and the new 330-minute restoration badly needs a lavish 3-4 disc set - just as Warner did with GWTW!

But it will never happen through Universal Home Video. I can see the BFI doing it or a French distributor, but unless Universal lincenses it to Criterion, I really can't see it coming out in the U.S. - with or without Coppola's consent.

BTW: Coppola is a bit of a fool, if you ask me.

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#8 Post by unclehulot » Sun Feb 13, 2005 9:45 pm

denti alligator wrote:I don't see why encoding 90% of the film as non-anamorphic 4x3 and the final sequence as 16x9 would require one to switch one's settings for proper display.
The problem is not all players have an auto detect mode (some disable it in progressive mode), and not all monitors can do this automatically either, and you simply can't sell something that will cause problems on a good number of discs. Can you point to a disc that does this? The same problem exists for "The Mystery of Picasso". If a 4:3 monitor doesn't recognize the flag it will keep displaying in 4:3 without the correct "squeeze" no matter how the player is setup. Just as an example, Sony monitors (even XBR) will change the raster to 16:9 when set to interlaced automatically, but NOT in progressive.

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#9 Post by pzman84 » Thu Feb 17, 2005 3:30 pm

This is not the best solution, but couldn't you just put the widescreen parts on a separate disc? It is a six hour movie, and since the ending is where you have the widescreen parts, just put the end on a separate disc. It's not the greatest solution, but it would have to be a multidisc set anyway.

BTW: When did Coppola become so evil? First it was this masterpiece, then he forced 80% of "Hammett" to be reshot. I lost respect for the guy.

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#10 Post by denti alligator » Thu Feb 17, 2005 3:44 pm

This is not the best solution, but couldn't you just put the widescreen parts on a separate disc
This is actually a brilliant solution! Two discs for a proper transfer of the first 90% of the film and a third DVD for two versions of the final 10% of the film (one for widescreen TVs, one for 4x3 TVs) plus extras. They'd probably need three discs anyway, so why not make the cut right before the triptych sequence instead of trying to compress the whole thing onto two discs.

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#11 Post by zedz » Thu Feb 17, 2005 9:43 pm

Uh, I'm sort of enjoying this discussion, why is this thread in DVD News and not Old Films? Unless imaginary releases are now included here. . .

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#12 Post by Richard » Sun Feb 20, 2005 10:00 am

zedz wrote:Uh, I'm sort of enjoying this discussion, why is this thread in DVD News and not Old Films? Unless imaginary releases are now included here. . .
There IS a dvd of this movie. In Australia. :wink:

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#13 Post by zedz » Sun Feb 20, 2005 11:38 pm

Richard wrote:
zedz wrote:Uh, I'm sort of enjoying this discussion, why is this thread in DVD News and not Old Films? Unless imaginary releases are now included here. . .
There IS a dvd of this movie. In Australia.
. . . which has been mentioned once, in passing. Me, I'd rather buy the imaginary version. :wink:

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#14 Post by La Clé du Ciel » Tue Jul 18, 2006 9:07 pm

This thread has lain dormant for too long. To this end, I thought I'd add a fresh comment (opening the windows, removing dust-covers, sweeping and dusting, and so forth).

To clarify this origins of the rival versions:

Francis Ford Coppola had been so impressed with NAPOLEON when he saw it at Telluride that he decided to fund a restoration and get his father to compose music to accompany the film. Meanwhile, Thames Television sponsored Carl Davis to write a score for the UK version of the same restoration. The new restoration was screened with Davis' score in London in 1980. This same version was then given to Coppola and his Zoetrope Studio. In October 1981, audiences at Radio City saw the film with Carmine Coppola's score. However, the US version of the film was not the same as the UK version. Coppola not only removed sections of the film to decrease the run-time, but also showed the film at 24 frames-per-second, instead of the correct 18-20 fps.

That the 2004 screenings DID go ahead in spite of threats was an encouraging sign, but any hope of further screenings or a DVD emerging has been set back indefinitely.
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#15 Post by david hare » Tue Jul 18, 2006 9:39 pm

Great post Cle!

The appalling notion of resurrecting Honneger's music in some sort of revamped score could have only emanated from the bowels of some constipated French bureaucrat. (Does ANYONE ever play or program this crashing musical bore at all now?) But of course HE falls within the 50 year copyright rule if there's any vocal music, thus forcing another regional rights/royalties stranglehold, as you rightly point out.

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#16 Post by HerrSchreck » Wed Jul 19, 2006 3:25 pm

Bravo on a worthy post...

One thing, I may have skimmed too quick, so just confirm-- did you say that Coppola was planning to release the 04 resto (this whole situation has been driving me nuts for the past 2 yrs) on disc, but w his father's score?

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#17 Post by La Clé du Ciel » Wed Jul 19, 2006 6:42 pm

Hullo!

Herr Schreck, I believe that Zoetrope's proposal is to expand Carmine Coppola's score to fit the extended 330+ minute version. Given that Coppola's current version and thus his current amount of music amounts to only 225 minutes, this leaves him over 100 minutes short of music. The composer of his music is also deceased.
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#18 Post by HerrSchreck » Fri Jul 21, 2006 10:32 am

Your knowledge of the subject is beyond impressve.. and the intelligence & clarity of your writing leads me to suspect that you're somewhere beyond the merest periphery of this situation, i e in orbit of the Brownlow team.

Needless to say, that's the side that has the moral high ground here. From the moment I learned of Coppolas lunacy vis a vis the integrity of this film, my opinion of him dropped even further. Is this guy so desperate of cash that he will not negotiate a rights-dipensation with a group which has done a great service to the world in investing a goodly sum of money in ressurecting a settled masterpiece? I mean I know he's practically useless as a director nowadays, but to stomp on Gance is just irritating. On one hand I understand-- yeah he acquired the rights for the film and therefore should want to maximize the benefit of what it is that he paid for. But for this whole project to come to a screeching halt without any home vid releases outside of Australia is just absurd (and there of course, deprived, as is the rest of the world, of the 04 resto). He should at the very least be dispensing rights for a fee, or sharing them, or coming to some kind of cooperative agreement with the Brownlow team, because this project is bigger than both parties. I always thought this film would have been a no-brainer Criterion release, as it has the kind of polished, global masterpiece-cache that they look for when investing in silents. If they're investing in CABIRIA, fricking NAPOLEAN is a no brainer.

A disgrace, and a damnable, frustrating shame.

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#19 Post by evillights » Fri Jul 21, 2006 3:13 pm

HerrSchreck wrote:I always thought this film would have been a no-brainer Criterion release, as it has the kind of polished, global masterpiece-cache that they look for when investing in silents. If they're investing in CABIRIA, fricking NAPOLEAN is a no brainer.
Well, they invested in Dreyer's 'Passion' and 'A Story of Floating Weeds,' -- two silents which don't possess that kind of "polished, global masterpiece" (read as: tradition of quality / le cinéma de papa) sheen that 'King of Kings' and 'Cabiria' have. Have you seen the latter? It's no better than the former. Coldly beautiful as an art-design spectacle and roadshow, and not much else. (cf. 'Metropolis' and 'The Last Days of Pompeii') As a historical document it should of course be preserved, but it's the kind of film which could be canonically filed away in, say, something like "Treasures from [Italian] Film Archives." It's going to be one of the minor Criterion releases of the forthcoming slate. Of course every film of note should have a Criterion edition, so this isn't really a complaint.

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#20 Post by HerrSchreck » Sat Jul 22, 2006 11:02 am

Dreyer's PASSION, you may be fascinated to know, is the highest grossing silent film on the arthouse-silent circuit. So you're way off on that one. With the restored, newly ressurrected version of CABIRIA being introduced by Martin Scorcese as an Official Selection at Cannes this past year and generally being discussed "in the air" nowadays in awed tones, it is a no-brainer. CABIRIA is generally regarded as laying the seed for every painterly, massive, hyperartistic, attention-to-every-detail-sweeping-epic in the history of the cinema, being given credit for Griffiths, Lang's, Lean's, etc etc biggest, sprawling masterpieces. And is generally regarded as the crown jewel of the Italian cinema of the teens, for which POMPEII is considered a side note. Yes I've seen it, owned it on dvd for years.

And STORY/WEEDS was not a dedicated silent release, a distinction I think it's always important to make. KING OF KINGS, now that was a strange choice for them. Sure it's a nice piece of polished filmmaking, but I don't understand why they went with this film-- it's their last purely silent release-- over so so many others to choose from.

As for what anybody considers a minor release-- that's pure subjectivity. Maybe KOKO is, since it's interlaced, which for them, says something.

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#21 Post by La Clé du Ciel » Sat Jul 22, 2006 1:57 pm

I'd better briefly show my support for Dreyer's film here – an astonishing, powerful film and, as you rightly point out, a high earning one. And, as I usher my paragraph back towards Gance with as much ease as I can muster, Dreyer was hired for LA PASSION DE JEANNE D'ARC by the Société Générale des Films, who wanted another large scale (French) historical film as they had with NAPOLEON. Behind NAPOLEON, as Richard Abel reminds us, Dreyer's was “the most expensive experimental French film of the decadeâ€
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#22 Post by HerrSchreck » Sat Jul 22, 2006 2:08 pm

Jesus, your posts just keep better/more dismaying (if all true).

Fame/entre to the mass-media has become such a feindishly coveted thing nowadays, populated by so many--so many more, owing to so many more films, bands, tv channels, blogs, etc-- mindless, baseless nincompoops living the very highest of the high life; thus, regular folks who can't have fame & importance but desperately want it, because they see so many other worthless regular folks living it, bitterly dig their fingernails in refusing to surrender whatever tiny little stake and claim they have to Importance in the world. And thus material like NAPOLEAN sinks while the douche bags mudwrestle their egos into the sludge.... Fucking disgrace.

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#23 Post by evillights » Sun Jul 23, 2006 2:12 am

davidhare wrote:Craig - yes I figured. I think your posts on the Gance have opened up what probably needs to be half a dozen separate threads of their own. One of them is surely Gance's own reputation.
That's a good issue for discussion. I'll admit I know almost nothing of Gance's other films besides the pieces of 'Napoleon' I've seen on either Sundance or IFC or TCM a few years ago, and which I don't really remember well enough to come forward with any kind of personal evaluation on. Much of what I know about him stems from things I've read, and his whole story seems to me by turns exciting and sad. As we're all aware, his work has been pretty ill-served on the DVD format and in repertory screenings, much like Pabst's -- another filmmaker large in legend whose work I'm really looking forward to finally being able to experience. To throw one recent outside opinion into the conversation, I mentioned this thread and the Gance/Coppola conundrum the other day to Tag Gallagher, whose own opinion is that AG's work is maybe not so great. I'm looking forward to 'Napoleon' coming together so I can finally get a look for myself, in any event.
davidhare wrote:One great moment in the cesspool of the 30s French movie industry was Renoir's virulent attack on Carne and Prevert after the prem of Quai des Brumes, in essence because of the movie's perceived "Decadence" (and by very direct inference, Renoir's probable homophobia towards Carne.) Renoir was of course toeing the Parti line.
Interesting. I didn't know about Renoir's coming out against 'Quai des brûmes' -- it's not a film I care for much at all after only one viewing, but I'm always up for Simon, and beautiful shots of fog, which is why I have it in my collection. I'll have to watch it again one of these days.
davidhare wrote:Renoir himself is perhaps the subject most in need of revaluation by French and other critics, in particular his post war French movies which - to my old eyes now badly need revaluing downwards, from the lofty heights probably all of used to hold them in.
Well, there's a lot of post-war Renoir that isn't regarded quite so highly, but I would count 'The River,' 'The Golden Coach,' 'French Cancan,' and 'Eléna' as among my favorite Renoirs. Especially 'The Golden Coach' which I think is insanely profound, and in which Magnani gives one of the earthiest, most human and exuberant performances in all of cinema. It's not even a performance, she just -is- -- but all under the auspices of Renoir. I would call the film a Mozartian symphony of life, with all that living entails, including "the horror" -- there's maybe no greater articulation of Renoir's film than the scene in 'Out 1' when Bulle Ogier wanders through the rooms in the top-floor of the house, then comes to stand in front of that mirror.

(PS - I also really, really love 'The Southerner.')

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#24 Post by HerrSchreck » Sun Jul 23, 2006 2:16 am

Well I'd hate to see this film, if an HD digital transfer would (and should, which is why I always hoped a top-tier co like CC would handle this since, as a silent, this film has-- ahem cough-- that extra bit of myth & incredible legend attached to it) finally be done to the 04 resto, relegated exclusively to the world of HD/Blu-Ray. So much of the mass market is so heavily invested in DVDs, still, with no ebb of product foreseeable, that, for an HD transfer of a film this size to be justified costwise, a dvd release is almost required at present. So many hours of telecine, at hi-def/progressive, to be justified cost wise would require the kind of sales where the package would almost have to go to dvd at present; to be broken out into perhaps a 3-4 disc CC set w booklet... would do me right. In the HD world at present, I just don't know that enough sales could be foreseen to justify the kind of budget to create the kind of overall package that would do justice to the scope of presentation necessary, and probably put a release even further off until the HiDef medium takes hold. That said, qualitatively I would kill for us all to be in a place where HD is the norm, whereby getting NAPOLEAN in this medium in a full blown, all whistles & bells jangling, edition was possible. But we're just not there now, and the situation with the 04 resto is too absurd.


And JOAN is on just about every Top 10 list from Cinemateques to Sight & Sound, etc. It is an ex post facto public and critical list-topper. And again, I too listen to it silent, though every here & there for variety I'll throw the weepy Einhorn on.

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#25 Post by La Clé du Ciel » Thu Jul 27, 2006 1:50 pm

Ye gods! [surveys confused, reconstituted thread] What… happened here? So much ill-feeling! So much… digression!

Well…

In reply to something Herr Schreck said (now a while ago!), I wish my information were incorrect. I fear that it is painfully true.

As for any talk of Gance's other films and reputation as a whole, I would say such thoughts as anyone may have should be poured into this thread: viewtopic.php?p=78738&highlight=#78738

This may avoid the type of discursive digressions on this thread that seem to have broken out. I shall try and post something there myself to spark some kind of discussion – beginning with an overview of why people haven't been able to see most of Gance's films…

In the meantime, I'm pleased to announce that a friend of mine has found some space for my image-captures of NAPOLEON and AUTOUR DE NAPOLEON…

I thought I'd illustrate my points about the rival versions. All with the aid of a copy of the 1981 Coppola version, a rare copy of the 1980s UK broadcast version, a quick glance at Brownlow's THE CHARM OF DYNAMITE (1968), and a copy of Brownlow's CINEMA EUROPE (from episode 4)…

OK. So, first of all, a couple of glimpses of the snow-fight. This is from CINEMA EUROPE and is to show just how crisp and detailed the image quality of the (then) latest version:

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The pillow-fight. First, a glimpse of the Coppola dvd (R4 in this case). Note how the tinting is far too strong. Then look at the black-and-white stills from Brownlow's documentary on Gance, THE CHARM OF DYNAMITE… Just a quick idea of how hideously inappropriate some of Coppola's tinting is…

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Now the finale of the Brienne section. Firstly, an image from the Coppola dvd. Compare this to the untinted UK broadcast version. Note the slight cropping and the very noticeable stretching with the Coppola image. I apologise for the inadequate capture from the 1980s UK version, but my copy is rather worn and does no justice to the detail it should have…

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What next, then? Well, we go now to Pozzo di Borgo et al. chasing Napoleon on Corsica. Some images from CINEMA EUROPE, first of all (the third image is one from the horse-mounted camera designed and built by Simon Feldman for Gance):

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Now the Coppola version. This is what one of my favourite shots in the film looks here:

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Now see at what it looks like in the UK broadcast version:

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And now in CINEMA EUROPE:

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Coppola has horrible damage and a very worn out piece of filmstock. It looks as though it may well be a section of 17.5mm blow-up. Better elements have clearly replaced it by the time of the UK broadcast version. The image in CINEMA EUROPE (dating to 1995, btw) is from an even better print and shows a slightly different composition (note the level of the foreground).

So, let us stop by at Toulon. First, an image from the Coppola dvd:

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I apologise for having only the single image from Coppola, but most of Toulon is missing in his print. Here are some captures from CINEMA EUROPE (note the superior tinting – not the pinky red of Coppola):

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“After the victoryâ€

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