Moviegoers who think today’s blockbusters have gotten long-winded have it easy compared to the commitment expected by French silent movie maestro Abel Gance. When the director’s landmark “La Roue” first unspooled in 1923, Gance divided his 32-reel, 7½–hour romantic tragedy over three separate nights. Audiences had never seen anything like it: The extended running time encouraged deeper connections with the characters that earlier silents, while brisk editing and inventive visual tricks suggested new possibilities for storytelling. An international sensation, the film influenced directors as far-flung as Sergei Eisenstein and Akira Kurosawa, but never received a proper U.S. release until now.
Running nearly 270 minutes in its restored form, Flicker Alley’s DVD version of “La Roue” represents the most complete print of the film seen in nearly 80 years. One can only wonder how directors such as D.W. Griffith (an avid fan of Gance’s earlier anti-war drama “J’Accuse!”) might have responded, if given the chance to see it so many decades ago. Today, with an energetic new score by composer Robert Israel, the package serves as a wake-up call to 21st-century viewers who think of silent film in stodgy, prehistoric terms.
From the dynamic train wreck that opens the film to “La Roue’s” poignant finale (in which the wheels of another ghostly train convey the soul of its weary hero to heaven while his love interest dances a symbolic rondolet below), this masterpiece of early cinema illustrates the full range of Gance’s experimental spirit. The director’s technique stuns even by contemporary standards, as Gance shows his determination to push the boundaries of the medium, orchestrating his railyard romance among active train tracks and daring his cameramen to shoot onboard, alongside or beneath moving locomotives.
“La Roue” will only seem tame to those familiar with Gance’s more aggressive “Napoleon,” and even then, the film dazzles in its sheer variety of sophisticated tactics, including stylized iris shots, parallel action, vivid color tinting and in-camera dissolves. If anything feels out of place today it is the story, which concerns an ace engineer who behaves heroically during a ghastly train wreck, rescuing a helpless girl from the fiery pile-up. The honorable Sisif raises the orphan as his own, never informing young Norma or his own son Elie of their separate origins.
As young Norma blossoms into a woman, everyone becomes infatuated with the beautiful “rose of the rail” (as Sisif nicknames her). As the suitors clash, the resulting feud is very much a product of its time and culture, as three equally unappealing paramours vie for Norma’s affections: her adoptive father, non-biological brother and a dastardly rich playboy.
Overwhelmed by the situation, Norma chooses the latter, sending her family into despair. Elie (her closest match, according to age and interests) is a wreck, while Sisif quite literally attempts to wreck his own locomotive (with Norma aboard, no less) in a grand suicidal gesture. While such torments recall Greek mythology (no coincidence, considering Sisif’s name), they operate within a grand portrait of early 20th-century industrial life.
The title itself, “La Roue,” refers to the wheel of fate and progress that defined the Industrial Revolution, making man subservient to machine — in this case, the great steam engine. “I know that Creation is a Great Wheel that cannot move without crushing someone!,” Gance quotes at the head of the film, referencing one of his literary role models, Victor Hugo. At a time when cinema was considered a second-class medium, Gance hoped to achieve a feat worthy of comparison to the great novels of the time.
His grand tragedy was headed into ever-darker territory when Gance’s fiancee fell sick, precipitating an unexpected turn in the story. The director moved the production from Nice to the French Alps, and though he wasn’t able to save the health of his betrothed, he did rescue the film in the process (one could also argue that he forced it off the rails, abandoning his congested modern setting for a rustic tangent). Either way, the tone of “La Roue” changes radically in its second half, largely for the better, as Sisif emerges a sympathetic character.
Demoted to operating a small funicular train, Sisif retreats from the claustrophobic grip of the big city to a lonely mountain cabin. His vision slowly fades, giving Gance license to play with subjective techniques for blindness and hallucination (as when he looks out the window to see Norma’s face superimposed on the mountains). Throughout the film, Gance uses double-, triple- and even quadruple-exposure tricks to suggest the characters’ various psychological states, creating effects both surprising and intuitive.
Dialogue frequently feels awkward in silent films, as people mutely flap their mouths, only to be followed by a card that spells out their words. Though “La Roue” shares this problem, when the characters aren’t speaking, Gance finds incredibly effective ways to delve into their heads. Watching “La Roue,” there’s a sense that cinema may have actually lost something over the years — today’s adherence to strict realism comes at the expense of more impressionistic forms of representation.
Music makes all the difference in a film like this, and it’s easy to imagine how the experience might be rendered tedious if not for Israel’s score. With funding from Turner Classic Movies (which aired the restored film in late April), the assignment called for roughly 4½ hours of musical accompaniment, a particularly challenging task considering that Israel had nothing more than the brief prelude composer Arthur Honegger wrote for the film’s original release to illuminate Gance’s artistic intentions. The rest of the score, like nearly three hours of the film itself, has been lost to the ages.
Building upon earlier compositions of his own to evoke the energy of Gance’s work, Israel delivers far more than background music. His score begins with the bombastic energy of the opening train wreck, but mellows out as the film progresses. When Gance shifts gears to the mountains, the music helps smooth the transition, echoing each character’s theme in a softer, more romantic context. It’s important to remember that silent films were never silent. Without a score of this caliber, contemporary audiences would find it virtually impossible to appreciate Gance’s achievement.