Other reviewers have commented on the amazing quality of this restoration and the epic nature of Abel Gance's work, even when dealing with this anguished tale of the unrequited love of railroad engineer Sisif and his son Elie for Norma, the lovely "Rose of the Rails." Sisif rescues Norma from a train wreck when she's a baby, and raises her as his own daughter. When Norma grows into a beautiful young woman, Sisif is dismayed to realize that he desires her. "La Roue" plays out this melodrama of frustrated love and redemption with an absolutely dazzling array of cinematic devices: double exposures, irises, different compositional framing, a mix of crisp natural and expressive lighting, and the fastest editing on earth before the Soviet directors mixed cutting with Hegelian dialectics a few years after "La Roue's" release. There are also the symbolic visual leitmotivs of the locomotive, the violin, the snow, and the omnipresent wheel. In short, Gance nimbly uses all the visual and editing devices we are accustomed to seeing in an accomplished piece of narrative film-making. Even though "La Roue" was financed by Pathe, the exciting thing about this restoration is the sense it conveys to this viewer at being present at the moment of creation. Gance obviously takes extraordinary zest in discovering new cinematic possibilities for expression depending on the dramatic demands of a scene or the opportunities presented by a new location. There is an astonishing shot of Sisif almost at the end of Part One, when he goes into a cavernous railroad shed to bid farewell to his beloved locomotive. Gance stands his actor atop a huge locomotive-bearing wheel, which shunts cars from one track to another so they can be worked on. Sisif stands there like a working-man's Pierrot, and as the wheel slowly turns the background of the shed and the locomotives looming there glide silently behind our distraught unmoving hero. It's a virtuosic shot, made possible by the real (and metaphoric) possibilities of the location. It's all the more amazing when one realizes how difficult it was for directors during the 1920s to achieve effective traveling shots without the aid of bulky cranes. Moments like these show Gance at his experimental best. "La Roue" is worth seeing for treasures like these.
Gance and the novelist Blaise Cendrars set their story of the sad life of the railway engineer in the very railway yards stations and locations where real workers toiled on their trains. The documentary quality of these parts of "La Roue" is noteworthy. Whether for reasons of drama, or to save on production costs, or both, this "reality feel" of La Roue convincingly shows us the vanished world of French railroad life between the wars. At his best, Gance has a Dickensian love of character, and Sisif's comrade the stoker, as well as Norma's pet goat (!) have a charming way of stealing every scene in which they appear.
My admiration for La Roue is tempered by the clumsiness of the melodramatic scenario. Of all the directors who grew up in Griffith's shadow, Gance, (like Griffith), has the strongest predilection for Victorian sentimentality. That's during Gance's good moments: his bad moments are drenched in bathos. Gance has his own editing rhythms, and likes to juxtapose fast action sequences with slower lyrical scenes, but there is a marked tendency in "La Roue" to linger far too long on shots of the actors in varying stages of overwrought emotional meltdown. The irony of Chaplin or Lubitsch, the withering social analysis of Stroheim in "Greed," are all absent in "La Roue." Instead there is a cloying parade of sentiment for sentiment's sake, and some scenes of truly awful over-acting. (By contrast, watch Chaplin's sophisticated story treatment and restrained direction of "A Woman of Paris," made just a few years after "La Roue.") This viewer was left with the paradox of Gance as a great director who used innovatively all the visual and editing techniques of modern film-making, while telling a maudlin story which drags the movie as far into the past as his expressive techniques push it into the future. In this sense the viewers of "La Roue" are on the wheel quite as much as the bathetic Sisif.