Cinema of Light, an episode from his 1999 series Cinema Europe, whirled through films from André Antoine, Jacques Feyder, Clair, L’Herbier and others, but the major focus was, of course, on Abel Gance.
Not only was this master of montage and rapid-cutting an innovator he was one of the most fearlessly honest and determined of film-makers and with La Roue his cinematic vision was set out against a back-drop of very real tragedy.
Filmed in 1920-21 but only released in 1923, Gance structured the creation of this film around the deteriorating health of his fiancée, Ida Danis, who was fighting tuberculosis.
If this wasn’t enough to add poignancy to La Roue’s tragic tale, then the death of lead actor Séverin-Mars a few months’ later confirmed that mortality and passion were inter-twined. Mars, a bar-room-brawl of an actor, whose energy still fizzles off the screen with frightening intensity, succumbed to heart failure… Gance, who had escaped to New York, cried “like a baby” at the loss of his great friend and collaborator.
This is about as immersive as cinema gets and it feels like you’re in the grip of an un-put-down-able novel… there’s hard tragedy, love, multiple-miseries and you hold out for some redemption for the tortured family at the heart of the wheel. In the end there is only love when all rage is passed.
|Sisif looks on in horror|
It starts in stunning style as a train crash brings the chaos over which none of us has any control. Gance cuts with swift alacrity between the fire and panic as passengers fight for escape and the rail workers attempt rescue.
|Ivy Close with a look later borrowed by Jeanne Moreau...|
Séverin-Mars plays First Class Engineer Sisif, who takes a leading role in the rescue, amidst the carnage he finds a small girl, Norma London, a Rose of the Rail. With her parents both lost, decides she’ll make the perfect sister for his son Eli.
This act of charity has enough selfishness behind it to ensure there are consequences…
|Gabriel de Gravone|
|A trackside studio, lit by natural light|
Sisif is highly skilled and dedicated, even breaking off a fight to allow his opponent to get his train on time “work comes first.” The other man had tried to woo Norma and we gradually discover that Sisif has more than a step-fatherly interest in the young woman.
Sisif passion for Norma forces him to alienate all around as he drinks himself into a stupor. Gradually he starts to make mistakes and reveals all to Hersan who, never one to pass on the opportunity, levers Norma away to Paris and a life of wealth and misery.
|Eli fantasizes about a medieval courtship of his "sister"|
Following an accident, Sisif’s eyesight is badly damaged and he starts to go blind. He is relocated to a funicular railway on Mont Blanc – thus allowing for Gance’s relocation to higher altitude.
The depiction of steam and metal grimness is matched by Gance’s amazing alpine camerawork. His cinematographers Léonce-Henri Burel, Gaston Brun, Marc Bujard and Maurice Duverger deserve huge credit for the range of shots throughout the film and here at 13,000 feet they had to work in the most hostile of environments. Tribute too must also go to Gance’s leadership for bringing his cast and crew through.
In the Alps Eli discovers the truth and he and his father now know the full extent of their joint suffering. Norma engineers a holiday to the region whilst Eli has a professional breakthrough… the characters are being lined up for the final movements but I’ll say no more.
The scenario is relatively straightforward but it’s the telling that makes La Roue stand out as one of the masterpieces of silent film and beyond in Kevin Brownlow’s mind and many others.
|The dance circles high into the mountains|
Gance also coaxed superbly committed performances from his cast with Gabriel de Gravone and Ivy Close both giving their all. But it’s Séverin-Mars who holds the film together – he really held nothing back and you can see why Gance linked his style of performance with his untimely death.
|Ivy Close and Séverin-Mars|
It’s available from the Edition Filmmuseum Shop online as well all the old familiar Amazons…It's also usually in stock at the BFI Shop.