Wheel, The (1923)


A wicked first hour, and then...
A wicked first hour, and then...

Genre: Drama (France)

Starring: Séverin-Mars, Ivy Close

Directed By: Abel Gance (NapoleonLucrezia Borgia)

Overview: A widowed engineer adopts a girl he finds at a tragic accident. The girl Norma brings joy to her father Sisif and brother Elie. When they are grown up, Elie discovers that she is adopted and immediately understands their father's behaviour. Elie realizes that her father is in love with her, and realizes that he is as well.

My plans for my recent vacation to Quebec City included a laptop and a dongle full of film. I’d been reluctant to start Abel Gance’s La Roue, a.k.a. The Wheel, as I had originally understood this Silent Epic to be six hours long. As I tend to enjoy company while watching film, I’ve been opting to watch stuff that Girlfriend Of Squish and others might actually easily enjoy, as opposed to Busby Berkley Musicals (review coming soon!) and Silent Romance Drama Miniseries such as this one. So when I prepared for my six-hour train ride, I thought “what better for the trip than a movie about a train engineer?”

Being a silent film fan, as well as an appreciator of Abel Gance’s Napoléon, my expectation was that La Roue would by no stretch be a chore, as it would be blessed with Gance’s glorious visuals. Still, I feared that the length would detract the enjoyment by turning what could easily have been a drama-filled… Drama… into a slower character study. Fortunately, La Roue turned out to only be four and a half hours (273 minutes to be precise), but unfortunately, after the first incredible hour, the film’s pace recedes into a floral, pastoral and other 'nice' adjectives for cinema that goes on too long. As expected, for as much as landscapes such as the Alps are beautifully chosen, the dramatic twists are romantic ones, which tend not to appeal so much to guys like me.

Abel's strength is without a doubt his use of technical and special effects. He's a frequent fan of vignetting and superimposition. Ever the innovator, Gance even put intertitles at the bottom of a vignetted image. Though not the first instance of technically making a subtitle in film history, it's the first time I saw it, and it's impressive when all you've ever seen before is the standard intertitle. Gance continues to surprise throughout the film with poignant imagery and beautiful cinematography, as well as effective use of the recurring theme of The Man Of The Wheel and the Rose Of The Rail.  The Man of The Wheel is our main character, Sisif, a train engineer. His loyalty to the company is admirable, but being prone to self-destructive depressive behaviour involving his train makes it hard for his employers to keep him responsible for an important rail line. The Man Of The Wheel of course represents a train engineer, the masculine, things man-made, ever-changing advancement, but also represents fate. Sisif is more than aware of the single path he must follow, led by the lines of fate beneath him as it is with the trains he drives and and the rails underneath that direct them. Norma is The Rose Of The Rail. The film opens with a terrible train accident and Sisif the engineer finds a girl orphaned by the tracks. When Sisif decides to take her in as his own, he picks up Norma next to the wrecked rails, as well as the rose snagged to her clothing. From this point on Sisif calls her The Rose Of The Rail, who clearly represents femininity and nature, especially as it pertains to the beauty that exists beside the hard steel and smoke Sisif is accustomed to.

A visual genius...
A visual genius...

The first hour is filled with rapid cuts and dramatic action like those that take place during the opening's accident, but when the drama sets it, the film slows to a not-so-interesting crawl. For as powerful as Gance's images and characters are, the main plot revolves around the adopted Norma as the object of desire to everyone including her surrogate father, Sisif, and to Elie his son, once he learns the truth about her origins. Of course a rich suitor takes her away from a hard life with a poor engineer father, and yes, that spices things up a little, adding some decent strife and fisticuffs on mountaintops, but all told the four and a half hour version of The Wheel grinds on just a little too slowly to be recommendable.

A story that makes you say "I think I can, I think I can... finish this"
But a story that makes you say "I think I can, I think I can... finish this"

Performance: 7 Cinematography: 9 Script: 6 Plot: 5 Mood: 6

Overall Rating: 66% (Not Enough Steam)

Originally the finished film was almost 9 hours long. I never thought Gance was a von Stroheim about film, but I suppose I’m not surprised.  For distribution purposes, it was shaved down to three and four hour lengths. I would certainly like to know more about the audiences of the 20s and how they watched film. With filmmakers like von Stroheim and his 'originally 9-hour Greed', I don't get how these guys got away with making such long films. What's great about The Wheel is that it doesn't seem disjointed the way Greed did. To all the silent film fans who don't need to sit through an entire film to enjoy it, watch the first hour of The Wheel and know that the way you imagine it ending will play out just the way you thought, because it does so predictably.

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"I don't get how these guys got away with making such long films"

Same here. Although, In the case of the cuts to Greed, it seems like that they always didn't get a chance to show them.

I'm guessing that there were still no "rules" to commercial film making at that time. It seems that a few directors were intent on making "art" -- and while most of these ultra long early efforts do contain technically brilliant aspects -- they certainly are often a bore for modern audiences. And I suspect that they had difficulty holding the much longer attention spans of 1920s movie-goers. Still they are a curious artifact of that early era.

The more I watch the more I appreciate. Every movie has something you can take away from it. Compartmentalization can work very well in film.

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