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DVD Hell on Wheels Well Worth the Ride

Review by Jim Joyce 

(Click to read the shorter version of this review appearing on Amazon.com.)

(Hell on Wheels, a film by Pepe Danquart, 123 minutes, November 2005, in German with English subtitles.)  

Lance Armstrong's unforgettable speech to the world press gathered on the eve of the 2003 Tour de France sets this mystical, magical masterpiece in motion.

"I show up prepared," says Armstrong, dead serious. "I show up motivated and I show up because I love it and respect it and I want to do well. Nothing means more to me than to win this event."

What follows is a sports documentary that is gorgeous and grandiose while at the same time gritty and incredibly down to earth. 

This is cycling film that should be seen by anyone who considers himself a sports fan. This is the cycling film that should be shown in phys. ed. and geography classes across America. This is the cycling film that would win the hearts and respect of people who have never watched - nor cared to watch - a professional cycling race, and have only caught snippets on the evening news. And this is the cycling film that allows the cycling fan to forget the drug-accusation cloud hanging over professional cycling, and reminds us just how much there is to love about "The Tour."

German filmmaker Pepe Danquart, an Academy Award winner, centers the film on Eric Zabel and Rolf Aldag, two great German cyclists and longtime teammates competing in the '03 TdeF with the T-Mobile (then Team Telekom). Rather than interviewing the racers and filming every stage of their performance, the director turns on the camera, places it in the team bus and motels, and the riders themselves tell their incredible story with class and wit. We get to know Zabel particularly well. The legendary sprinter and amiable film subject (a face resembling Robert Downey, Jr.) is captured nightly in dialog with the camera while his long time, grandfatherly trainer, Dieter Ruthenberg, a.k.a., Eule,  treats his wounds and massages the many kinks and strains from his back and legs in preparation for the next day's stage.

Following an early, nasty wreck that tragically weakens his grip and puts him out of the running for the yellow jersey, the camera finds Zabel lying on his motel bed, at a loss for words while Eule works on his legs. He can only squeeze out a few words to describe the tour ahead: "Now the suffering begins and we're not even in the mountains."  

However, Zabel always rises to the occasion with a smile and twinkle in the eye, and praises his roommate and buddy, Aldag, who he credits for helping him become a champion over the years. In a twist of fate, Aldag wins the polka dot jersey in an early mountain stage, leading Zabel to answer his phone in the room like so: "Office of the best climber in world, Rolf Aldag." Oh, and Zabel makes sure it's known that Rolf is also king of the TV remote control.

Team Telekom goes to bed sore, tired and hopeful, and rises the next day, fit and ready, and then sits down for the breakfast of cycling champions--a heaping plate of spaghetti. 

While Zabel, and to a lesser degree, Aldag and Team Telekom, are the key players, the cast of thousands, and the wonderful countryside and small towns that make up the Tour are equally important. Though the stunning bird's eye views of the race are beautiful and essential to understand the Tour, much of the footage is shot at ground level, making you feel you're a fan in the crowd, or a medic leaning over a fallen rider, scraped and bloodied, or a photographer lying horizontal on the asphalt, next to scores of other photographers from around the world. You, literally, are there.

The wavy, golden wheat fields in the foreground shimmer while the peloton suddenly speeds past. Green, leafy corn stalks rise above the riders as the camera catches them cranking ahead in slow motion. But was it most colorful of all is the collection of fans and the cool, if not quirky, traditions of the Tour. Before each stage, for instance, a parade of funny floats weaves through each town along the route. My favorites were the giant, smiling lion looming on the back of a car, and the yellow duck that actually is a car. 

Scores of police officers struggle to keep back cheering fans who want to get within inches of the riders. One particularly stern female officer is as memorable as she is tough, keeping a little girl from running into the dangerous street. A fleet of motorcycle cops polices the tour like clockwork on sleek cycles and parks in a perfect row at the end the day. In the villages, old women playing cards and men in tweed caps gather on balconies and patios under sun umbrellas, eagerly awaiting the peloton. Kids, teens, young adults, families - every person in town - are out for this event that is the Super Bowl of France, lasting not one day but nearly a month. In the spectacular mountains, fans from around the world run alongside their favorite riders, some giving push from behind. Others camp next to trailers on sparse, rocky mountainsides, and gather around small TVs, following the stage's progress while they anxiously await a glimpse of the passing riders. Of course, the throngs of Paris dwarf all others.

Danquart also weaves into the film behind the scenes players like the roomful of sportswriters with laptops watching the race on a big screen, the Team Telecom coach who follows the riders by car and barks out instructions to riders' helmets via microphone, the experienced team official who so deftly passes water bottles from swift moving vehicle to swift moving rider, the colorful Spanish announcer, and the tour "roadies" who assemble and break down stages and barriers with the crack efficiency of a Rolling Stones stagehand. These scenes and personalities are exciting for all, but educational to those unfamiliar with the pro cycling.

Sweetening this masterwork is plenty of excellent footage of the big stars. Lance, Jan Ulrich, Ivan Basso, and especially Tyler Hamilton (and the story behind his broken collarbone) are all seen in great action shots. We also are treated to rise of T-Mobile's Alexandre "Vino" Vinokourov, of Kazakstan (no relation whatsoever to Borat). 

History lovers will appreciate intermittent black and white film archives of old races alongside the fresh images and the Tour lore as told by French journalist Serge Laget, who is shows no less pride in the event and his country's role in it as would John Madden of NFL football, or Bob Costas of Major League Baseball. 

Another remarkable feature of the film is the music, which is apparently (and incredibly) an original score. Lots of cool, jazzy numbers (like from the 60s?--or 70s?), with lots of highs and lows, blend well with the highs and lows of the race. New age takes over in times of great scenic beauty. A loud electric guitar solo plays while riders struggle in slo-mo up the steep slopes of the Alps, some having to drop out. It is just incredible. 

To describe any more of this film would be to rob the reader of all the unexpected treasures I discovered while watching it today. I plan to watch it again tonight. It's that good. (Plus I want to re-read those subtitles!). You will find no better documentary on PBS or the Travel Channel. It's unique style is completely different than Ken Burns documentary, but I guarantee Burns would love it just as it is. 

You ought to see it. No--you have to see it. 

Hell on Wheels is distributed in the United States by First Run Features.

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