- Film Chronicle
I am writing this Chronicle in the midst of a stay in London, a good place to see films and a good place to study them, thanks to the library, viewing rooms, and Screenonline website of the British Film Institute (BFI). London also was and is a good place to shoot films, including a few that in plot have nothing whatsoever to do with the British capital, such as Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which was made partly in a disused gas works in the East End suburb of Beckton, with two hundred palm trees brought onto the set for the Vietnam scenes. I learned this fact while visiting the Imperial War Museum’s exhibition, “Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies,” one sign of a healthy ongoing interest in the cinema and cinematic history here. Another sign is an extraordinary number of film screenings accompanied by scores performed live by major London orchestras. In the concert hall this season audiences have been treated to such films as Psycho with Bernard Herrmann’s music, Alan Bennett’s comedy The Lady in the Van with George Fenton’s, and Brief Encounter with the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto. I will miss, alas, a coming world premiere, the performance of Shostakovitch’s up-to-now lost solo piano score for Kozintsev and Trauberg’s Soviet silent New Babylon, from 1929, but I have had the chance to see two other silent classics accompanied by scores newly composed for them. In the autumn, in a world premiere, the BBC Symphony played Neil Brand’s music for the 1922 Robin Hood with Douglas Fairbanks, while the Philharmonia Orchestra played Carl Davis’s music for Abel Gance’s great 1927 epic Napoleon, with the eighty-year-old Davis stoutly conducting.
Both these films, swashbucklers in different ways, are strongly recommended. A DVD of the Brand-accompanied Robin Hood is said to be in the [End Page 462] works, while right now you can order a Blu-ray DVD of Napoleon. Fair warning, though: it will need to be a British, Region 2, DVD, namely the four-disc box set from the BFI which offers, in addition to the Davis score and many extras, Kevin Brownlow’s superb restoration of the film itself. To watch the discs in this set (and a few other British DVDs I will be recommending in this Chronicle) you will need to get hold of an all-region player or a computer program like VLC. One more fair warning: seeing Napoleon on DVD, even in the BFI’s splendid edition, will not replicate the experience which I was lucky enough to have, watching it on a big screen, in the midst of a packed and noisily appreciative audience in the Royal Festival Hall. At the conclusion, when Napoleon achieves victory in Italy and Gance uses his Polyvision process to expand his perspective on the triumph to three side-by-side screens, simultaneously tinting them in a patriotic bleu-blanc-rouge, the hall’s grand organ joined the Philharmonia to produce a truly overwhelming sound. In the audience we would have cried out Vive l’Empéreur! if we thought voices could be heard in the din.
What about screen work set in London, portraying London? Here I am not thinking of studio-shot historical works like Olivier’s Henry V (Shakespeare’s Southwark) or Hytner’s The Madness of George III (periwigged Westminster), nor of cliché depictions of the city, plentiful as these are onscreen, and sometimes witty, as for example in Trainspotting. There the...