Kevin Brownlow has made a career of drawing attention to the work of past cinematic masters, but his own achievements are no less deserving of appreciation. He has spent more than four decades championing filmmakers who might otherwise have been forgotten and introducing once-lost gems to new generations of moviegoers.
Born in Sussex, England, on the eve of World War II, Brownlow was fascinated with film from an early age. At 18 he channeled his interest in World War II into the making of the feature film “It Happened Here,” which depicted a Britain occupied by the Nazis. Co-directed by Andrew Mollo, who was two years younger, the film was ultimately released in 1966 with the help of director Tony Richardson. Despite a minuscule budget, “It Happened Here” was so convincingly realized that it sparked controversy and discussion and is now considered a masterpiece of independent filmmaking.
After a brief career as an editor, Brownlow found his true calling as a film historian and preservationist. The first of his many meticulously researched books, 1968’s The Parade’s Gone By…, swiftly became the definitive source on silent film and a fixture on film scholars’ bookshelves.
In the mid-1970s, Brownlow began a long and fruitful partnership with producer-director David Gill, restoring more than 25 silent films, including classics such as “Intolerance,” “The Thief of Bagdad,” “Ben-Hur” and “The Crowd.”
As filmmakers, Brownlow and Gill produced and directed a series of documentaries that found fresh insights into three pioneers of cinematic comedy, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, as well as many other intriguing personalities from film history. In 1980 the pair’s 13-part television series “Hollywood” set a modern standard for film studies in its thorough treatment of the silent era.
Soon thereafter, Brownlow’s reconstruction of Abel Gance’s five-hour epic “Napoléon” (1927) was released in U.S. theaters to great acclaim. For Brownlow, this was the culmination of 20 years of effort.
Brownlow, with Gill, restored and introduced to new audiences films including F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise” (1927), “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1921), starring Rudolph Valentino, and “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925), with Lon Chaney. With restorations undertaken by Photoplay Productions, a company founded by Brownlow, Gill and Patrick Stanbury, these and many other films aired on Britain’s Channel 4 Television.
Few film historians have received Oscar® recognition – but then again, few have done as much for film history as Kevin Brownlow.
Did You Know?
At age 15, Brownlow discovered a 9.5mm roll of film at a Parisian market that contained two reels of Abel Gance’s silent masterpiece “Napoléon” (1927). Brownlow would ultimately spend decades restoring the film to its former glory.
The eight-year production schedule for his first feature film, “It Happened Here” (1966), was dubbed the longest ever by the Guinness Book of Movie Facts and Feats.
To help Brownlow toward the completion of “It Happened Here,” Stanley Kubrick donated short-ends from “Dr. Strangelove.”
Brownlow was an editor on director Tony Richardson’s big-budget 1968 war epic “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
Kenneth Branagh has served as narrator on five of Brownlow’s documentaries and television series.
He is one of the world’s leading authorities on the screen career of Greta Garbo.
Whenever possible, he utilizes firsthand accounts in his documentaries, letting his subjects tell their stories in their own words.
He once said, “The silent film was not only a vigorous popular art, it was a universal language – Esperanto for the eyes.”
“Abel Gance’s Napoléon” (1927, restored 1981)
“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1921, restored 1993)
“Sunrise” (1927, restored 1995)
“The Phantom of the Opera” (1925, restored 1996)
“I’m King Kong!: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper”(2005, director)
“Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic” (2004, director)
“Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces” (2000, director)
“Universal Horror” (1998, director)
“Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood” (1995, director)
“D.W. Griffith: Father of Film” (1993, director)
“Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow” (1987, director)
“Hollywood” (1980, director)
“Unknown Chaplin” (1986, producer)
“Abel Gance: The Charm of Dynamite” (1968, director)
In Search of Charlie Chaplin (2005, author)
Mary Pickford Rediscovered (1999, author)
David Lean (1996, author)
Behind the Mask of Innocence (1990, author)
Hollywood: The Pioneers (1979, author)
The War, the West, and the Wilderness (1978, author)
The Parade’s Gone By… (1968, author)