by Allan Fish
We’ve all read the stories of the ox-car knot at Gordium, the one that Alexander the Great came across in 333BC and, seeing the knotty problem at hand, proceeded to split the knot in two with his sword. Simples, as those confounded Compare the Market meerkats might say. Then again, it was, for back then lawyers didn’t really exist, not in the leech, lowest of the low status we know today.
Other Alexanders came and went, from Hannibal to Julius, from Charlemagne to Genghis Khan, and Napoleon Boneparte. The most egotistical Frenchman to have ever lived, Boneparte was the dictator’s dictator, and the sort of man who has inspired many movies; good, bad and downright indifferent. Kubrick wanted to do it, he gave up. Maybe if he’d been able to see Abel Gance’s version from 1927, he’d never have tried, but that was presumed lost in the early seventies. And it was, except that one Englishman, film director and historian Kevin Brownlow, had been on a mission to resurrect this cinematic phoenix from the ashes since his teens. He was nearing the end of his journey, and doubtless thought he was on to a good thing when enlisting the help of Francis Ford Coppola in promoting his baby to a generation of film fans who were to be blown away by the film. Two versions were prepared; one running just under four hours and speeded up from 20 to 24 fps, would be issued in the US and have a score by Coppola’s dad, Carmine. The other, proper version, running five hours, would be accompanied by a score by Carl Davis, incorporating not only portions of Arthur Honegger’s original score, but snippets of Mozart’s 25th Symphony, Beethoven’s 7th and numerous other classical mainstays. The film was a hit around the world in the early eighties, and Gance himself lived long enough to see his baby reborn again. It’s perhaps thankful that the ugly post-script that has since ensued happened too late to send him destraught to his grave.Everything seemed OK; two versions, everyone happy. Then Carmine Coppola died and, in the tradition of Roman emperors and all good devoted Italian families, son Francis deified him. His father’s music was all that mattered; screw this classic film, what did that matter, so long as daddy’s beautiful (read synonym for blatantly inferior) music could be heard over it and they could cut an hour out of it. Directors have been protective of work before; Kubrick denied UK audiences the full version of The Shining right up to his death and A Clockwork Orange in any version at all. But it call came to a head when the BFI and Kevin Brownlow, wanting to stage a showing of the full version, were presented with a request from Coppola’s lawyers not to show the film in any form other than that approved by Coppola – ie, with his dad’s music. Not unless he has a Madame Arcati of his own communicating with his old man in olive oil and pizza heaven (or where ever paradise is for the family who gave us The Godfather, though I would imagine that it’s not Berlin’s ‘Always’ that is the cue card but ‘Every Time I Look in Your Eyes’), asking him to provide music for the rest of the film. Imagine him telling his father “that little Limey prick Brownlow has only gone and found more of Napoleon and I need some more music. Can you get special dispensation from the almighty to come back down to Earth just long enough for you to write the missing hour or so – do you think the Lord would go for that, Francis? – sure he will, I’ll tell him Marty’s searching for a previously unseen six hour version of Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told with a scene where Max Von Sydow’s Christ challenges Satan to a game of chess.” He’s a sucker for movies about his son.
In layman’s terms, imagine that Leonardo da Vinci painted two Last Suppers. Imagine that Coppola held the rights to both, but one only survived minus a couple of the apostles but, because his dad worked on its restoration, that was the only one to be seen, the other, worked on by others – and British others at that, mamma mia! – was to be locked up in a darkened pit to make the Black Hole of Calcutta seem like an exploding supernova. Horrendous to think on, isn’t it, but that’s what we’re faced with.
It’s not the first time directors have filled us with a sense of admiration and hurt. We love Griffith’s work as a film-maker, but despise his politics. The same could be said of Walt Disney. Claude Autant-Lara found his entire film career wiped from many film histories because of his later political extremist views. And then Robert Wise, I’m sure a very nice man, betrayed Orson Welles’ trust when agreeing to butcher Welles’s masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons. Sadly, loyalty doesn’t always cut ice. Remember Erich Von Stroheim tearfully bringing his uncut masterpiece Greed to his closest friend in Hollywood Rex Ingram, to ask him to cut it down to please the studio heads. Ingram did as he wished, and sat down one week with editor collaborator Grant Whytock, but stopped when the film was down to four hours as he considered that even then it was an act of butchery, and told MGM chiefs as much. It probably lost him the job directing Ben Hur, and he was shipped off to an MGM sub-studio in Marseilles before retiring from film altogether to return to painting.
In 2000, following further footage findings courtesy of the Cinématheque Française, Brownlow again showed a new restoration, now running 5½ hours and with the added footage restored and given new added music by Davis. Coppola threatened to sue. I mean, how dare he? Impudent English guttersnipe. So he spent decades restoring it himself, my dad spent literally hours writing this score in between regaling us with countless rehashes of Nino Rota’s Godfather score.
So where does that leave Napoleon? In the worst kind of cinematic limbo. As long as there are Coppolas on the earth, it will never be released. I often think what Martin Scorsese would think of his friend Coppola committing an act that goes against evertything he himself feels about film restoration and preservataion. Come on Marty, if anyone can persuade Francis that he’s being a fascist – Kevin Brownlow even said at the last public showing his actions were worthy of Joseph Goebbels, though I think perhaps Il Duce might be more apt, especially considering how Coppola’s not made a film worth a crap since Apocalypse Now. Imagine, however, Francis, that someone stopped you from producing the Redux version of that film because they had the rights, not you. We’d be left with the flawed original.
OK, all this fuss over an 83 year old film, why bother? We bother because so long as this goes unchallenged nothing will be done. We shouldn’t have to wait for FFC to appear in an obituary column to hope Napoleon will be released. We wouldn’t wish anyone dead, but we could quite easily wish him in the dungeon where he seems determined to leave Napoleon. And to take a recent example, let’s have another scenario, Suppose it wasn’t Napoleon that Coppola was associated with the restoration of but, say, Metropolis. Say Carmine Coppola provided music for a 1983 showing of Metropolis instead of Giorgio Moroder. Suppose then that the footage of the 145m version of Lang’s classic had been found, as they indeed have, and Coppola refused to allow them to be shown because his dad had only written music for the under 90m version and it could only be shown with that music. Imagine the outcry, especially in Germany. Remember, this was a country for whom war was for a long time a national sport, much as subterfuge and corruption is in Italy and whinging in the UK. They’ve declared war for less reasons. Mind you, so have the US of A – Weapons of Mass Destraction, anyone? Or worse, still, imagine if Carmine had written music for Greed and, following the biggest miracle since turning H2O into vino at Canaan, the uncut version was then found, only for Coppola to declare; “no, not having that. Carmine only wrote music for 140 minutes. Take your 320m version and flush it down the fuckin’ john!” Only last night a friend attended an evening with Kevin Brownlow, and he told me of how the business seemed to have soured Kevin, and quite understandably. Jesus, no-one will even finance his cherished plan to do a documentary about Douglas Fairbanks. The man more than any other responsible for bringing prestige, recognition and a sense of preservation to silent cinema, reduced to the status of begging panhandler trying to raise money for documentaries that no studio or TV company were interested in. One finds oneself in near tears at the savage irony, for wasn’t Gance reduced to much the same thing in later years?
If this seems cruel to some, it isn’t meant to be. Doubtless Francis is, in many ways, am amiable man who has his reasons for doing everything he does, as we all do. He’s a great film-maker, but that doesn’t make what he’s doing for his father not something to protect his memory but bring shame to it. He’s honouring no-one by his actions, least of all himself. Napoleon is, put simply, the greatest epic of the silent screen, coming fourth in my recent silent countdown, and surely would have been higher in the poll if everyone surveyed had the opportunity to see the proper version. It is being denied by one man’s family pride. The 234m version is available on DVD in the Far East and has been in Australia, but unless you’re lucky enough to have the uncut version of the film on DVDR through shady channels (nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no mo-wer! – suffice it to say that the site who did offer it no longer do, nor could be mentioned here for legal reasons, as it’s safe to assume Coppola had his killjoy mouthpieces onto the upstarts immediately threatening them with heaven knows what if they didn’t comply), you’re never going to see it as it should be seen. Quite frankly, this is cinematic treason. Coppola must allow the release of a full scale digital DVD and Blu Ray release – why not of all three versions, 234m, 300m, 330m, preferably a joint effort from the BFI and Criterion, much like their The Leopard collaboration. Putting it realistically, however, there’s more chance of that uncut Greed turning up in Sam’s cellar – why the hell not, anything could be down there, there’s probably another portal into John Malkovich’s brain under the air hockey table. If only we could find a way into Coppola’s brain. We’d need more than 15 minutes, though. And certainly more than Alexander of Macedon’s trusty sword. When’s that fellow Christ due again? Might need to have a word with him.