director Abel Gance
After seeing Abel Gance’s mega-work Napoléon (1927) in all its epic epicness last year at the Paramount theater in Oakland, I queued up his earlier film, La Roue, curious about what other crazy advances and radical techniques he employed before his monster masterpiece.
Where Napoléon played at 5 1/2 hours, down from an even longer version, part of perhaps an even longer epic of multiple parts, La Roue clocks in at around four hours, again, no doubt with segments missing. It’s one of those things about these silent films, especially these eviscerated epics: the versions that we have are what they are, they are in various states of completion. Without the work of the film scholars and preservationists, we wouldn’t have even what we do of these films, but we still have some limitations to knowing how complete the film is. So to judge it, to write about it, is to acknowledge that it’s a partial thing and I couldn’t tell you how complete or partial.
My guess is that La Roue may be fairly complete, though interestingly, the section of the film with the most dramatic action seems to perhaps be missing some stuff. As much investment in time and narrative that the story builds, it seems like the water breaks rather quickly.
Really, La Roue is no Napoléon. But then again, what is?
It’s a bit more of a potboiler of a story, a melodrama that feels at times a little more D.W. Griffith. I mean, it even quite literally has a cliff-hanger, a guy hanging from a cliff. The film opens with a train crash in which an English girl baby is orphaned and taken in by a widowed engineer, who raises her as his own along side his son. Only as she grows into her tomboyish self, “the rose of the rails”, everybody falls in love with her: the evil rich guy, her brother, and her father. And they all scheme after her to tragic ends. I guess that’s where it all is a bit more French than Hollywood.
There is some really interesting camerawork. From framings to compositions, positioning of the camera, movement, and some pretty intense juxtapositions, the movie has a visual aesthetic and design that is most unique. It’s nowhere as radical as Napoléon, but it’s quite interesting, too. And some of the location shooting is really quite amazing, shots of Mont Blanc, in particular.
It took a few sittings to get through the whole film. I kept wondering if it couldn’t have been condensed somehow to tell what is in a lot of ways a fairly simple story. But then again, as the film comes to its closing, it achieves some quite emotionally moving effect. I found myself quite affected by the end.