La Roue

Note : this review is a contribution to The Silent Cinema blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Lauren Champkin.

La roue (Abel Gance, 1923)

Sisif, a railwayman, and his son Elie fall in love with the beautiful Norma (whom Sisif rescued from a train crash when a baby and raised as his daughter), with tragic results.

Despite being a manly man, writing this with a tongue in cheek attitude, I must admit being a fan of melodramas. This epic melodrama that director Abel Gance did after his success of J’accuse and a four month trip in Hollywood during the mourning of his recently deceased wife was edited following his encounters with master D.W. Griffith.

While at first edited in almost a nine hours version, Gance cut it down to a 144 minutes version. However, as many of the reviews and versions available this reviews concerns the 273 minutes version of La roue.

The techniques and the storytelling of Abel Gance was sure an evolution and his fast editing sure made those action sequences quite something. But four hour and a half to tell a melodrama is epic. The epicness of this epic is how it is almost unbearable to actually rank La roue higher than Gance’s Napoleon. Yes, exactly what I just wrote. La roue is a nice essay for the formation of Abel Gance to perfect his craft try new techniques and make the masterpiece that Napoleon really is four years later. It is difficult to not compare both films and sadly for every admirer of La roue but I find it incomplete, overly long and a bit as if Gance was on his own with a bite he couldn’t chew by himself. When compared to contemporary films of 1923, La roue is not as inventive as Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality or Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last.

On the other hand, the cinematography and the composition of the frames is almost poetic in its execution. Classical painting has obviously inspired Gance in his composition of images and I can understand how visually impressive La roue is.

Overall, La roue is part of the cinematic heritage but I’m not even sure it would make my top ten of 1923. As much as it is memorable, Gance’s Napoleon is a far superior film and it has left a bigger mark in the history of films.

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