The Wheel (1923)

Séverin-Mars, Ivy Close, Gabriel de Gravone, Pierre Magnier,
La roue is a movie starring Gabriel de Gravone, Pierre Magnier, and Georges Térof. A railway engineer adopts a young girl orphaned by a train crash. Years later when she starts getting suitors, he grapples with whether or not to...
  • 7.5 /10.0 IMDB Rating:
  • DatePublished:
  • 2018-09-07 Added:
  • Writer:
  • Abel Gance, Director:
  • Charles Pathé, Producer:
7 / 10

Absolutely Magnificent

This stunning 1923 silent film was restored by David Shepard and others in a print that runs nearly 4 hours and 30 minutes. The original film, directed by Abel Gance, was about twice that length, never released in the US except in a severely cut down print of about 2 hours.

The story, a "tragedy of modern times," is seemingly a simple one. Aman named Sisif (Séverin-Mars) rescues a baby girl in a train wreck and raises her as his own along with his son. She's known as a "rose of the rails" since the family lives in a squalid house by the railroad where Sisif is an engineer. As the years pass the girl, named Norma, grows to adulthood. Things get uneasy when Sisif realizes that he is in love with Norma (Ivy Close), and things turn to tragedy when his son Elie (Gabriel de Gravone) also loves her ... but believes she is his sister. Sisif plots to marry her off to a wealthy man to escape the impending disaster.

After Norma is unhappily married off, Sisif is injured in an accident and banished to a small mountain railway near Mont Blanc. He lives there with his son on the edge of a glacier but even in their isolation they cannot escape tragedy ... of their love of Norma.

The film is high art, operatic, Greek tragedy, and must be approached as such. The visuals are stunning. The composition and sets includes the smallest of details, and Gance uses close-ups, iris shots, fades, and rapid editing (borrowed from D.W. Griffith's masterpieces) to make this one of the most beautiful films ever made. The current version also includes tinting to enhance the emotional pitch of the film.

The performance of Séverin-Mars won't be to every taste, but his old-school acting style is similar to that of Emil Jannings. Without dialog, all he has are his body language and face. Shots are held to emphasize the emotional plight of the aging man. And you can see every thought he has in his face.

The other great performance is by Ivy Close, a British actress who also worked in European silent films. She resembles Norma Shearer and as with Séverin-Mars, her face shows every moment of joy and sadness. There's a stunning scene toward the end when she's asked to go to a village dance. She runs to powder her face and sees a gray hair, a line on her forehead. She's growing old. La Roue, the wheel of life, is turning, and Norma is growing old.

This superb restoration is accompanied by a beautiful and haunting score by Robert Israel, itself a symphonic work of great power. Séverin-Mars died soon after filming was completed in 1921. Gance did not complete and release the film until 1923. Ivy Close made a few more silent films in the late 1920s and retired from the screen.

This may be a film you only watch once in your lifetime, but you will never forget it.

7 / 10

A meditation on train wrecks

An intimate, sprawling epicn, nearly unreviewable, it veers wildly from brilliance to hypnotic ennui, dulling the senses.

Impressive train wreck opens this five hour (originally nine hours) meditation on a small family living and working in train yards, beginning in 1923 France, and the next several decades.

Experimental in the extreme: narrative structure (and largely, coherence) is dismissed from minute one. Many scenes appear as though the cinematographer was hypnotically drawn to something, and just filmed it endlessly. An editor should have cut this footage down tremendously, but the editor appears to be suffering the same malady.

Surreal set designs and lighting, backlighting to produce silhouettes, actors walking in and out of focus as they walk in the frame, and quick-cut editing give this an impressive, hallucinatory feeling, like a very long, meandering hallucination, with circular lenses and shapes to impart on the audience the father's failing eyesight.

Entire reels of film roll through, where I am left with a sense of "What am I watching, and why is it taking so long for something to happen?" Free form filmmaking, partially engrossing, but one can't help but wonder if a LOT of editing would have improved this by adding a bit of coherency? Yet would that have cost the film its hypnotic, hallucinatory feel?

7 / 10

Classic

Roue, La (1923)

*** 1/2 (out of 4)

French master Abel Gance's 260-minute epic tells the story of Sisif (Severin-Mars), a railroad worker who discovers a young girl named Norma after a horrible train wreck. Sisif takes the girl home to his young son Elie where he plans on raising them as brother and sister. Flash forward several years and Elie (Gabriel de Gravone) has started to fall in love with Norma (Ivy Close) even though he thinks she is his sister. At the same time Sisif has also fallen in love with her, which leads the two men down a road of tragedy. A lot of the epic films released after The Birth of a Nation dealt with epic themes, usually something to do with war, but that's not the case here as you would call this a film that deals in melodrama and character study. It's rather amazing that Gance would try to take this material and push it to over eight hours, which was the original running time. I was a little worried going into this version, running 260-minutes but it turned out to be a great beauty of a film. I really don't think the film ran too long and in fact, the running time goes by quite fast but the only thing I'd question is some of the stuff that we go through two or three times. This includes one character attempting suicide numerous times and I think this could have been handled in a different way. The legendary editing is the main highlight of this film as it goes in a maniac style way. There are numerous edits each second during certain scenes and I'm really not sure if it could be done better even with today's standards. Even though the editing is quite sharp and fast, it never gets in the way of the story trying to be told. Another fascinating aspect is when the main character starts to go blind. The director then turns the visuals on screen to an all white setting to where we're seeing things just like the character who is going blind. the final sequences of the film are quite beautiful and haunting and really puts everything we've seen before it into justice. I think for the most part that the performances are good but I think at times the director would have been wise to bring them down a little bit. Severin-Mars really steals the film as the love struck father who is slowly losing his mind, life and eyes due to the love his has for the girl he raised as his daughter. Close gives the weakest performance of the three but she still handles the screen quite well. La Roue is certainly a demanding film to sit through but at the end of the film I was quite happy to take the ride and this is certainly a film that every film buff should see at least once in their life.

8 / 10

Humanity and suffering

Abel Gance in my mind was a pioneer of not just French cinema but cinema in general. All of his work is well worth the look and are visual and technical marvels, some of the techniques being one he pioneered. Some of his best works, 'Napoleon' being one of them, are revolutionary in not just silent film but also film of all kinds and are towering achievements. Is his work for all tastes? Not all, tending to be very long and sprawling with a lot of patience required.

Had heard so many great things about 'La Roue' (English translation being 'The Wheel') and being somebody that loved especially 'Napoleon' so much, there was no doubt in my mind about wanting to see it. Saw it during one of my film reviewing breaks from here on a lazy afternoon alone and was very impressed indeed. 'La Roue' won't be one of my favourite films any time soon and to me it is not quite one of Gance's best, with it for example not having the special factor that 'Napoleon'. It is an extremely good film though with many outstanding elements.

Can understand why 'La Roue' won't be to everybody's taste as it is slightly divisive here. Most of the time the pace to me was fine, but there were times in the slighter moments where the film dragged with some scenes going on a little longer than necessary.

Likewise with anybody feeling that there is some unnecessary repetition, with a couple of actions happening more than once and one questions why.

On the other hand, 'La Roue' looks amazing visually and technically, an achievement even. Not just for back then, but also then. The editing is not as "unlike anything seen before" quality like the innovative editing in 'Napoleon' was, but it is still very fluid and the transitioning is practically seamless throughout. The sets are also beautiful to look at. The standout visually and technically though is the magnificent cinematography, very audacious with some very interesting and beautifully composed techniques. Also with some beautifully poetic shots in the more emotional moments. The music is haunting and fits well, not over-bearing or over-dramatic or sentimentalised.

Gance's direction is near-triumphant and superbly controlled. The story is not always perfect pace-wise, but has a huge amount of poignant heart. Especially in the denouement, my heart broke into two here. Although 'La Roue' is a very long film, the longest seen since March and one of the longest ever, much of the time it doesn't feel long. The pace is controlled and deliberate but mostly is not dull, was too transfixed by the visuals and the emotion. The characters are worth caring for, especially Norma, and Severin-Mars is a revelation (searingly intense but also heartfelt) out of a cast that all play their parts beautifully. Ivy Close is touching too.

Summing up, very good and nearly great. 8/10

6 / 10

The Wheel is Not for All Tastes

A horrific train accident leaves a baby alone in the world, when a railway worker takes it in and raises the little girl as his own, alongside his own son, who was practically a baby, too. But, because they are never told they aren't blood relation, their relationship feels very awkward for them as they age, as they feel an attraction that is never said but is felt very much so. As the girl blossoms into a young lady, she has suitors who admire her and one in particular who proposes. From there on, it gets tragic with developments that make her marry him when she didn't really want to and the secret comes out about the brother and sister being not kin, making the son mad at the father. The father is blinded by way of an unfortunate accident, and that only exacerbates the fact that he is a drinker, who now only feels sorry for himself. The film may be well-regarded for its artistry and grandness, but to me it feels dated and seems to wallow in the misery of the lead characters too much with not enough action; they're only walking around and wailing, particularly the father and daughter. It amazes me that this four hour movie was actually much longer but was cut, as I felt it to be too long as it is. I admit the opening fade in was very moving with the shot of the father, but as the movie went from the 2-hour mark to the end, its tragedies come across rather surreal and the ending leaves the viewer with a weird What just happened?. Obviously I don't appreciate this work of art that others may love and defend.