- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2008

Turner Classic Movies uses an occasional series called “Lost and Found” to showcase vintage movies that have been restored and preserved. Tonight, two of the landmark silent classics directed by the prodigious French filmmaker Abel Gance (1889-1981) will make up an extended double bill: “J’accuse,” at 8 p.m. and “La Roue” at 11 p.m. If you stay the course, you’ll finish at 3 tomorrow morning.

Now or later, your appreciation of Mr. Gance’s contribution to movie history will be memorably enlarged by an acquaintance with these ambitious and durably remarkable epics, essentially romantic tear-jerkers with delusions of grandeur. A remarkable aspect of his talent was that the delusions were often magnificently illustrated and justified.

Because it’s unlikely that many spectators will remain absorbed in this tribute for 6½ uninterrupted hours, it’s gratifying to report that the opportunity to sample or acquire the pictures in a less demanding time frame will be available soon. The versions TCM is showing have been imprinted on digital formats by Paris-based Lobster Films, whose restoration work is distributed in the United States by a specialty house called Flicker Alley.

A two-disc DVD of “La Roue,” first shown in France in 1922, will reach the market on May 6. A retail price of about $40 is being discounted by 20 percent until then. A DVD of “J’accuse,” which premiered in 1919 and set an enduring pattern of “antiwar” polemicism for fictional depictions of World War I combat, will be issued this summer.

The TCM salute begins at 7 p.m. with a documentary about Mr. Gance, “The Charm of Dynamite,” originally made for the BBC in 1968 by the English filmmaker, collector and historian Kevin Brownlow. At the time, it served as a vivid supplement to Mr. Brownlow’s invaluable oral history about the silent-movie era, “The Parade’s Gone By.” The book itself was dedicated to Mr. Gance, the single most creative and influential stylist among the European filmmaking pioneers and arguably the most tenacious cinematic talent of the 20th century, in part because he proved robust enough to survive almost a century.

This longevity permitted him to be on hand for the triumphant restoration of his historical epic “Napoleon” at the Telluride Film Festival in 1980, 53 years after its Paris premiere. That restoration, instigated by Mr. Brownlow, proved the climactic event for about three generations of moviegoers who had been persuaded that film preservation was a noble cause. The restored “Napoleon” justified their trust while playing at Radio City Music Hall in 1981 and then going on the road in North America. It finally arrived for a Kennedy Center showcase in February 1982, where patrons benefited from several enhancements that had been added to the presentation while it was touring.

“J’accuse” and “La Roue” were the Gance projects that culminated in “Napoleon.” Their creator didn’t achieve decisive success as a popular filmmaker until the war years, with a pair of tear-jerkers titled “Mater Dolorosa” and “La Dixieme Symphonie,” released in 1917 and 1918, respectively. The protagonist of the latter, a classical composer, was played by an actor named Severin-Mars, a prominent theater performer in the decade before the war when Mr. Gance was struggling to make his own mark as an aspiring actor and playwright.

Severin-Mars was cast in leading roles in “J’accuse” and “La Roue.” In the former, he’s a brutish, suspicious Provencal farmer, Francois Laurin, who needs a long war to reconcile himself to the possibility that his cowering wife, Edith (Maryse Dauvray) could be forgiven for loving his neighbor, the poetical Jean Diaz (Romuald Joube), who evolves into an improbably cherished comrade at arms.

“La Roue” is the chronicle of a widowed railway engineer named Sisif who torments himself upon realizing that he feels more than a paternal love for his adopted daughter Norma (Ivy Close), the orphaned survivor of a train crash in the movie’s first sequence. Among other unexpected achievements, the movie emerges as a memorial to a bygone actor’s eccentric but eventually overwhelming presence.

Four hours later, and despite whatever absurdities intrude from episode to episode of “La Roue,” you feel that Severin-Mars should be revered as one of the Abraham figures among the first generation of dramatic movie actors. He seems to anticipate a lot of histrionic descendants: Emil Jannings, Michel Simon, Wallace Beery, Victor McLaglen, Lee J. Cobb, Anthony Quinn. He has a spooky trick that foreshadows the character’s loss of sight in the final episodes: He can tuck his irises up under his eyelids. (Evidently, Mr. Gance valued Severin-Mars as an embodiment of physically intimidating men who lacked insight.) The Oedipal allusion stalks Sisif well before his vision blurs and then vanishes in a setting near Mont Blanc. This loss is the last of his misfortunes, leaving room for a redemptive finale in which the banished Norma returns to comfort her misguided and bereft old dad.

Encountering these movies almost 90 years beyond their time is bound to create certain obstacles. For example, the reputation of “J’accuse” as a pacifist torchbearer is contradicted by numerous scenes and tendencies in the movie as a whole. For one thing, it’s disinclined to take a generous view of Germans. The famous rhetorical finale — hundreds of slain soldiers rise up to haunt the home-front survivors — seems a last-gasp brainstorm rather than the logical culmination of the title. It’s a spellbinding flourish but more equivocal than pacifists tend to acknowledge. The haunting is envisioned as a spectral consolation for the survivors as well as an echoing condemnation of warfare.

“La Roue,” a forerunner among films designed to exploit the kinetic power of trains and railways, keeps veering off narrative and emotional rails before maneuvering its way to a beatific fadeout. The pictorial quality of the restorations is so good that you’re reminded of how a mastery of image, mood and allusion can compensate for melodramatic cliches and outmoded conventions. Mr. Brownlow had it right in his summary of the director’s prowess: “Gance hurtled the cinema from a timorous infancy into a full-blooded maturity.”

WHAT: “Lost and Found: Abel Gance”

WHERE: Turner Classic Movies

WHEN: Tonight, starting at 7

WEB SITE: www.tcm.com

SCHEDULE: “Abel Gance: The Charm of Dynamite” (1968), 7 p.m.; Mr. Gance’s “J’accuse” (1919), 8 p.m.; Mr. Gance’s “La Roue” (1922), 11 p.m.; repeat of “J’accuse,” 3 a.m. Monday

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