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Yellow Layer Failure, Vinegar Syndrome and Miscellaneous Musings by Robert A. Harris

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

Thoughts on La Roue

Once in a great while a motion picture is released on DVD that falls into three contrasting categories.

It is a film that will be virtually unknown to the majority of motion picture devotees, even those who consider themselves knowledgeable in the field, especially of modern films. At best they will have heard of it, but few will have experienced it in any version.

It is also a film of such importance to the history of the motion picture that it stands out as one of a handful, sharing a place with possibly ten others as one of the greatest achievements in the art form.

And lastly, it is a film that has stood the test of time.

Between those ten films and the next group that one might create of the “Merely Great” films, there is a void.

I wanted to bring to your attention just such a film that will be released on DVD in early May.

It was directed by one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, who along with Griffith and a few other conspirators, literally created the language of the cinema.

The film in question went into production in 1920 and premiered in Paris in December of 1922 at the Gaumont-Palace.

The filmmaker was the legendary Abel Gance.

The film is La Roue (The Wheel).

The film that Gance unveiled before the world was unprecedented in length and complexity of emotion. The running time in 32 reels was seven and one half hours – that’s 7½ hours – 450 minutes!

For the original screenings with an original score by Honegger, Gance divided the film into four parts presented at three performances on three consecutive Thursday afternoons in December 1922. Parts 1 and 2 were shown separately while the third and fourth were presented together for the final program.

At the premiere, and in typical Gance fashion with the film being re-edited as the premiere was occurring, there was a “totally unjustifiable intermission” while the next reels made their way over from the cutting rooms, allowing the show to continue.

The opening was brilliantly received. Following the opening, La Roue went into general release on February 17, 1923. Throughout that year, it toured theatres across France, accompanied by Honegger’s score.

What later became known as Soviet montage is based upon Abel Gance’s work initially on La Roue, and later on Napoleon (1927). Gance met with Eisenstein, and shared his editorial concepts with him.

Although La Roue had a major impact on world cinema, it still had to achieve worldwide distribution, especially as the production cost was 2 ½ million francs. Gance was obliged in 1924 to cut the film from 32 to 12 reels, in which form it traveled the globe in his own cut.

Gance, however, would have no such control in the English-speaking world. In 1925, the British distributors slashed La Roue to 8 reels. Anticipating MGM’s similar shredding of Napoleon in 1928 for American release, the British mutilation of La Roue badly damaged any effect the film might have had in England. The resulting critical disaster perhaps explains why the film never reached the United States.

Since the original screenings in 1922 the film has been rarely seen. On occasion it has been screened in varying length, from 12 reels on upward, and in varying qualities. But nothing has come close to this newly reconstructed and restored DVD.

The new DVD is a 20-reel, 270 minute tinted restoration, with a wonderful synchronous score by Robert Israel, is the fullest presentation to reach the public since 1923.

I must note that some information above was borrowed from an essay by William M. Drew entitled Abel Gance’s “Tragedy of Modern Times”: La Roue, which will be included with the Flicker Alley discs, and which in turn borrowed certain information from Kevin Brownlow’s classic tome, The Parade’s Gone By.

The release of La Roue via Flicker Alley DVD and David Shepard’s Blackhawk Collection portends to be the Silent Film Release of 2008.

And it is only April.

Filmmaker and artist Jean Cocteau probably said it best. “There is the cinema before and after La Roue as there is painting before and after Picasso.”

La Roue


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