Abel Gance’s epic ‘La Roue’ restored on Criterion Channel

For too long, Abel Gance was the forgotten master of silent cinema, a pioneering innovator whose experiments in cinematic storytelling and expressive techniques inspired filmmakers all over the world. Gance was a master conductor of the cinematic form, as influential and consequential as D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein in his impact.

After the worldwide success of his anti-war drama J’accuse! (1919), Gance was given the resources to tackle an even more project. An epic inspired by the novels of Victor Hugo and Emile Zola, La Roue (France, 1923) was shot over the course of three years on location at the train yards in Nice and in the French Alps.

The plot is simple: A compassionate railroad engineer, Sisif (Séverin-Mars), saves an orphaned girl, Norma, from a flaming train wreck and raises her alongside his young son Elie, only to slide into guilt and self-hatred when Norma grows into a young woman (played by Ivy Close) and he falls in love with her. When the adult Elie (Gabriel de Gravone), now a violin maker becoming a master in his field, learns the truth, he too falls in love with the woman he has for years thought of only as his dear sister.

The film, however, is a working-class melodrama with grand swathes of tragedy, intense scenes of destruction (the aftermath of a train wreck is an inferno suggested by bold silhouettes against burning orange tints), and devastating moments of loss and redemption directed with delicate grace. It’s not plot complications or narrative sweep that fills the epic length of the film. It is time itself, the texture of experience and the expression of inner lives and emotional colors expressed through the course of events. Like the best of silent cinema, his images are not simply about making narrative points; they are an entry in the world his characters live in. La Roue pushes that immersion beyond the lengths of previous films.

There really was no other director like Gance. He draws upon the full range of graphic effects, from irises and dramatic masking to double exposures and composite shots, and unleashes his arsenal within the first few minutes. In one essential sequence, as a character anticipates his impending death, images flash past like shuffling cards as his life flashes before his eyes. Nothing like it had ever been seen on the screen.

But his technical mastery is in the service of the story, and he transforms the story of La Roue into an emotional epic. He is a master conductor who plays scenes like symphonies of feelings, continuing long past the narrative point has been established to express the emotional intensity of the characters and situations, and to add moments of pure grace to the mighty drama.

The performances are as dramatic as the effects, at times a little overly dramatic and uncontrolled. Séverin-Mars, as Sisif, the engineer, opens the film with a wild-eyed performance, young and intense and passionate, and quickly sinks into sad-sack pathos with just as much exaggeration. Ivy Close, the British actress who plays his adopted daughter Norma, overplays the childlike dottiness of a teenage girl, playing the unbridled adolescent while all the men of the train yard eye her with desire. And Gabriel de Gravone, as Sisif’s son Elie, is the tortured artist and the doting older brother from his first scene.

Gance waits until the second half of the film, when it becomes a chamber drama set against the drama of the French Alps, to pull his actors back from the brink, just as the parade of torments and tragedies slowly gives way to love and forgiveness and acceptance. It becomes a kind of visual opera by the end, the performances calming down as the images become more magnificent, and it ends in a state of pure grace.

Shown in four parts over multiple nights at its premier, the seven-hour film was eventually cut down for wide release and export.

A 2008 restoration brought the film up to 20 reels and four and half hours, nowhere near its original length but a major step in recovering its scope. In 2019, a nearly complete reconstruction of its original 32-reel cut, the result of a years-long collaboration between the French Cinemateque, the Swiss Cinemateque, French legacy studio Pathé, and The Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé Foundation, made its premiere in France. It took a few more years for its American debut. Now running almost seven hours and restored to its original four-part structure, the reconstruction is eye-opening. Not for any lost subplots or characters—the story is essentially unchanged—but for the expressive qualities restored to the film.

The score, reconstructed from the musical cues used in the film’s 1923 premiere and arranged by composer Bernd Thewes, is performed by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra.

For more, check out the video essay “Kristin Thompson on La roue” from Kevin Lee.

The new restoration is unavailable on home video at this time.

Don’t miss a single recommendation. Subscribe to the Stream On Demand weekly newsletter (your E-mail address will not be shared) and follow us on Facebook and X (formerly known as Twitter).


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

Related posts