Napoleon Blu-ray review

Abel Gance's mammoth silent masterpiece receives a Blu-ray decades in the making

Following the critical and commercial success of his films J'accuse! (1919) and La Roue (1922), French filmmaker Abel Gance concocted an audacious plan to shoot a series of six films following the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. However, unable to drum up the funds needed to make all six, Gance was forced to stop shooting after a couple of years and instead contented himself with the creation of one epic movie culminating with Boney's invasion of Italy.

What followed was a convoluted series of trade screenings, previews and premieres, each seemingly debuting a different cut (one lasting four hours, another the best part of ten, and so on). When Napoleon eventually found its way to international audiences, it did so in several severely truncated and unsatisfying edits. Incredibly, the 1929 US release clocked in at just 100 minutes.

The hints of cinematic greatness these versions still teased were enough to pique the interest of film historians, leading to an ongoing search for the missing footage. The subsequent series of restorations (which started in the late '60s) resulted in 2000 with a five-and-a-half hour cut that returned Napoleon to the astonishing, innovative masterpiece it was always meant to be. Following additional digital restoration work, that version has now made its way to Blu-ray. Better late than never.

Picture: The end result of those decades of photochemical and digital restoration is a simply spectacular image for a 90-year-old film. The variety of sources employed in piecing Napoleon together results in occasional fluctuations in definition, yet the overall stability of the image makes it feel more cohesive. Colour tinting is also wonderful.

Spread across three Blu-ray discs, Napoleon is predominantly presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. However, the final 20 minutes were shot with three cameras and are now presented as a 4.00:1 Triptych of the three full-frame images side-by-side.
Picture rating: 4/5

Audio: The BFI offers DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 and LPCM 2.0 presentations of Carl Davis' orchestral score. Both sound excellent, with the 7.1 mix not afraid to spread the music far and wide.
Audio rating: 4.5/5

Extras: Highlights of this three-disc set include a 1968 BBC TV documentary on Gance, an audio commentary by film historian Paul Cuff that runs across all five-and-a-half hours, and inclusion of the separate left/centre/right Triptych panels across the three discs. This allows those with a trio of displays (!) and BD decks to recreate the original viewing experience in full at home. Go on, we dare you.
Extras: 5/5

We say: Sacre bleu! Without doubt one of the year's best and most painstaking Blu-ray releases.

Napoleon, BFI, Region B BD, £35