La Roue (1923) Review

La Roue (1923) Director: Abel Gance

“Creation is a Great Wheel which does not move without crushing someone” -Victor Hugo


La Roue is a film which defined and solidified the train/railroad motif in early cinema. It seems that all the great directors of early cinema made copious use of trains –Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and, in this case, Abel Gance. With La Roue, Abel Gance offers a new cinematic language for conveying visual narrative: extended close-ups of characters and scenes which deeply ingrain a sense of time and place. The film itself rolls along like a wheel. In La Roue the two chief contrasting locales are striking: first, a gritty and ashen railroad town where life is hard and noisy, followed by a peaceful and remote snow-capped mountain town where our protagonist Sisif is now a blinded but contented old man.

We begin with a dramatic and cataclysmic train crash. Sisif (played by Séverin-Mars who died of a heart attack before the release of the film) the ironically named and alcoholic railroad engineer, adopts a young girl from the wreckage, Norma. He raises her along with his son, Elie, whose mother died in childbirth. Sisif lives in a humble house surrounded by railroads. He comes home each day covered in soot and filth, though he is actually a gifted inventor and another colleague takes the credit for his work. As Norma grows, she becomes a lovely girl. Suitors begin to hang around, one wealthy gentleman offers his hand in marriage, promising to save Norma’s family from destitution, however is reluctant. Sisif gets into a fistfight with a co-worker over the beauty of his adopted daughter, Norma. Elie dislikes the dreariness of railroad work, and he dreams of becoming a violin-maker, married to someone pretty like Norma.

As time goes on, Sisif falls in love with his adopted daughter, whom he calls his “Rose of the Rail.” Midway through the first part of the film, Sisif reveals his dark secret in a private confession. Afterward, he tries to kill himself by starting the train and throwing himself under it, in a fiercely tense scene, only to be rescued at the last second by a fellow railway worker. He announces that he must be living in hell because he cannot even die. When he recuperates, his wealthier colleague blackmails him into allowing Norma his hand in marriage. Sisif recklessly drives the train to Norma’s wedding day, nearly crashing.

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Time goes by and her marriage is unenjoyable. Sisif’s son, Elie, realizes the truth, and both men acknowledge their love for Norma. Sisif again is punished at work, this time for running his train named for “Norma” off the rails. The accident nearly blinds him. He moves away to a small mountain home high up in the snowy mountains with his son. Sisif operates a small mountain train, a parody of his former work. These scenes are some of the most majestic in the whole film. Elie spots Norma in the audience for a classical performance featuring one of his violins. Elie writes a note to Norma professing his love, but it is discovered by her husband. He goes to confront Elie and the two of them fight in a dramatic cliff-hanging sequence high up in the mountains. At the last moment Elie spots Norma only to fall to his death moments later in an intense cut-scene sequence. Norma moves in with Sisif, at first without him knowing because of his failing eyesight. They live in sorrow for their losses. An old co-worker (the one who once saved Sisif) arrives for a visit and asks about Elie, and Sisif looks off in the distance and says he has gone for 27 years, for that is how long it takes for the glacier to give up it dead. The last hour of the remastered film contains extended scenes of misery and sorrow for Sisif and Elie, and Sisif’s eyesight continues to grow more cloudy. They live together, and he re-assumes the role of her father. She goes out to a gay dance in the mountainside, while Sisif looks out the window smoking his pipe: “Sisif had gently departed, as a ray of sunshine abandons a window at twilight” and also “As the soul of Sisif found release one of its shadowy wings caressed the carefree young Norma as she continued to revolve within the Wheel.” We are given scenes of the mighty snow-capped mountains inter-spliced with scenes of the railroad wheels, as Sisif dies in front of his mountain home window. Sisif transforms from an odd and, in some ways, unlikable character in the first half, to a sympathetic human being in the second half of the film.

I was particularly struck by the unique glimpses we are given into the minds of the characters through unique visual arrangements such as flashbacks, memories, and dreams (such as the dream of Elie and Norma in medieval garb as violin-makers or the scenario in which the face of Norma appears to Elie while he is high up in his new mountain home as he amusingly tries to swat the image away and close the window on it to no avail). These unique asides to the audience cannot be conveyed in traditional theatre, and they help to reinforce a new language of cinema. Jean Cocteau once said ‘there is cinema before and after La Roue, in the same way that there is painting before and after Picasso.’

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Gance initially screened the film on 32 reels, over three days. Estimates vary, but the film originally lasted somewhere around 7.5-9 hours, and unfortunately the original has been lost, however thanks to the tireless efforts of the current version runs somewhere just south of 4 hours. The film was highly influenced by Gance’s lover who was ill –she was dying of tuberculosis while he was developing the film. His leading man and friend, Séverin-Mars, was also seriously ill and dying during the filming, and Gance, himself, was recovering from the Spanish Flu.

J’accuse (1919) Review

J’accuse (1919) Director: Abel Gance



Like other films in Abel Gance’s incredible silent film repertoire, J’accuse is a grandiose achievement. The contemporary edited-down version lasts nearly three hours, but the original was 14 reels long and Gance shot much of the harrowing footage on location in World War I trenches (the film features real WWI soldiers in the final cut). Why is it titled J’accuse? Gance claims he intended to accuse everyone, to place everyone on trial with this film: he points the finger at ignorant citizens, greedy politicians, war-hungry businessmen, and so on. Allusions to Emile Zola abound.

The technical quality of J’accuse is extraordinary and the story unfolds in a compelling manner. It is surely one of the great early anti-war films. D.W. Griffith often receives all the credit for being the master of early silent epics, but Abel Gance is indeed a more worthy genius. His poetry is cleverly told across the silent screen replete with images of scenic beauty.

The film begins in an idyllic, small-town in Provence, France. When World War I begins the citizenry, bands of young men, flock to enlist in the army. Among them is Francois, a large and aggressive man who is married to Edith, daughter of an elderly French veteran. However, he catches her in a secret romance with a poet, Jean Diaz. Angry, Francois sends his wife away to stay with his mother, but she is captured by German soldiers and promptly raped. Jean does not enlist (he is a pacifist) but eventually he is forced to enlist when his hometown is captured and occupied by the Germans.

Meanwhile on the frontlines Jean and Francois find themselves serving together in the same battalion, skeptical of one another. Jean eventually returns home due to poor health (trench fever) in the trenches, but he finds his mother on her deathbed and Edith returns with an infant German baby. They try to hide the baby from Francois when he returns home, but he quickly grows jealous and violent, remembering their earlier affair. The two men fight until the truth is revealed and they ultimately exact vengeance on the Germans back on the front. In the final battle, Francois dies and Jean suffers from extreme shell-shock. He has a notable vision of dead soldiers arising from the battlefield and walking back to their homeland. He returns to his mother’s home and he angrily tears up a book of his poems. He stops on his “Ode to the Sun” and shouts out at the sun as the land deteriorates into a destroyed wasteland on the frontline. He blames the sun for the crimes of the war, and then he collapses in death on the ground, and the film concludes.

Abel Gance had been denied service in the French army due to ill heath during WWI (he had contracted tuberculosis), and this discharge ultimately saved his life and served as the true inspiration for the film. The scene at the end of the film showcasing Jean’s dark vision actually featured over 2,000 French soldiers in the south of France who appear to rise from the ground and return home. These extras had come straight from the front and had to return only a few days later, many of them would never again grace their homes but their legacy lives on in this impressive silent film. It is a ghostly reminder of all that was lost. J’accuse was a financial success upon its release in France, and Abel Gance went on to make a celebrated remake of the film in 1937.

Napoleon (1927) Review

Napoleon (1927) Director: Abel Gance


Abel Gance’s magnum opus is a towering behemoth of silent cinema, a visual feast of enduring delights. The most common version seen today is the result of twenty years of restorative work by Kevin Brownlow, to whom silent film owes a great debt of gratitude. Napoleon offers the first great historical biopic, a silent tour de force, and as its subject, it uses the great Corsican/French leader, Napoleon Bonaparte. Abel Gance, a French director, first developed the idea for an epic about Napoleon Bonaparte after the successes of his other films: J’accuse! in 1919 and La Roue in 1922. He saw D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and decided to create a massive epic of his own. Gance’s original intent was to create a six-part biopic on Napoleon, with each part lasting 75 minutes, however his financial backer went bankrupt and he was forced to stop after the first film. One aspect of particular note with this film, is the extraordinary access he was granted to the true spaces where Napoleon dwelled. For example, he was actually permitted to use Napoleon’s rooms in the Fontainebleau Palace. Gance even wrote to the surviving descendants of Napoleon, prophesying a “resurrection” of the emperor in his film. His letters went unreturned.

Albert Dieudonné was given the role of Napoleon in the film after he showed up unannounced at the palace one night in full costume, reciting one of Napoleon’s speeches. This was enough to impress Gance. The film portrays a young Napoleon as a leader during a schoolyard snowball fight (a highly memorable scene in the film for me), and from there we travel through the French Revolution and Napoleon’s rise to power, as well as his own romantic inclinations, concluding with battle scenes during the Napoleonic Wars. At the close, Napoleon gazes out over the Alps envisioning future struggles as a French flag is raised.

Securing funding for Napoleon was an ongoing challenge. The filming style was also unorthodox. All manner of contraptions were used to shoot scenes – cameras were hung from ceilings and attached to staff members or strapped to bicycles and so on. Many of the scenes were shot on location in Corsica, where Napoleon was raised. At one point, when re-enacting the climactic battle scenes, Gance and several others were badly burned in an explosion, however they returned to work shortly thereafter covered in bandages, determined to complete the film. Once finished, the many feet of celluloid required months of editing, which ultimately caused permanent damage to Gance’s retina and also caused his assistant to suffer a nervous breakdown.

Upon release of the film, crowds were whipped up into a frenzy by singing La Marseillaise, as copies of the music were distributed in theaters. The film was immediately claimed by some to be a masterpiece, while others said it was far too long (at over 9 hours in length) with too many divergent subplots. Studios begin revising and severely editing the film down to a more palatable length. Additionally, in his later life, Gance continued to add to the film and revise it, causing further archival chaos – between the original negative, studio revisions, and Gance’s additions and changes following the advent of sound film. Thus, Kevin Brownlow stepped in to restore the film beginning in 1969, by rebuilding the film from a wide variety of fragments. He died in 1981, and lived just long enough to see a screening of the restored version in 1979 in Colorado. Even Francis Ford Coppola undertook an effort to screen the film with a score composed by his own father, Carmine Coppola.