The Wheel (1923)

Originally running in at eight hours in length, Director Abel Gance enters the annals of auteurs to follow vision first and tackle practicalities later. The Wheel is an epic, but unlike those of Griffith or Lean, it is an intimate epic, channeling tumultuous emotion across the screen. The Wheel is the story of Sisif, a railway man with two children, Elie and the beautiful Norma. However, Norma is not Sisif’s biological daughter, he recused her from a disastrous train wreck in her infancy and, now a woman, Sisif finds himself harbouring illicit feelings…

The initial subject matter of The Wheel is rather disturbing, and with a four hour run time, a certain sense of dread settled onto the film. Could this really be a four and a half hour long tragedy along the lines of Oedipus? Subject matter of this kind unfurling on stage and wrapped in the midst of ancient dialect softens the blow, but The Wheel is the modern man in the modern eye with modern morality. Incredibly, Gance merely explores this theme through variations of love which stretches and weaves into a tapestry which insnares his characters. Ardour is not simply a matter of sex or ownership, though Sisif does rename his train ‘Norma’ to keep part of her for himself, but it is rather a matter of light in a darkened world. Norma is affectionately called ‘The Rose of the Rail’, a reoccurring image and an apt analogy for beauty in emptiness. Gance sets his poverty stricken characters into a small home trapped between the cold rail-lines and smoke billowing trains. The characters, whether trying to create beauty as Elie plays the violin, being beauty as Norma is, or trying to obtain beauty as Sisif attempts, each is a juxtaposition to their soot blackened existence.

This theme of love morphs the story in weird and wonderful ways. In modern cinema, we are accustomed to a particular aim at the end of the tunnel and obstacles to overcome, but The Wheel presents an illicit aim and life as the obstacle. Characters simply try to find happiness even if it is misguided. Gance channels this most prominently through Sisif and the results are astounding. Beginning in Sisif’s prime, we track him through complete physical corruption and eventual spiritual redemption as he wrestles with what he wants but knows he should not have. Severin-Mars plays our hero (if the title fits) and his powerhouse transformation over the course of the film is worthy of study of today’s aspiring actors. Of course, some acting is struck by the sensibilities of the 20s, but ultimately the portrayals are poignant and engaging, particularly between Sisif and Norma. The relationship is complex and heartbreaking as Sisif remains cold to starve his impulses whilst Norma yearns for affection.


If the content is expertly created, the construction is masterful.

French film director Abel Gance was destined for the arts. Originally pushed into being a lawyer, Gance answered the call of the stage but truly found his feet in the budding new art – Film. Forming his own production company in 1911 and beginning directing the same year, Gance quickly gained reputation at Film d’Arte as an experimentalist – brandishing outlandish ideas including dolly shots, close-ups and rapid editing. Gance earned himself a place in film history time and again, entering the tail end of WWI to film real life skirmishes for his fictional film and box-office smash – J’Accuse before beginning work on his first masterpiece, The Wheel. 

High velocity cuts, flash backs, dolly shots, superimpositions, negative prints, and extreme close-ups, each employed with such ingenious flare this film could easy have become pure spectacle. But Gance uses every trick in his book to create a complex atmosphere of both the smoke choked world of the railways and the dizzying inner obsessions of his character mentality. Nothing is trickery for the sake of expressiveness and this originates from the unique French expressionism akin to The Smiling Madame Buedet. Unlike the German Expressionism which revels in constructing the unreal, Gance harmonises realism of our world with expressionism of his characters through camera technique. The make-up of the charcoal plastered Sisif both presents his inner thoughts whilst originating from a point of validity, Norma white washes the mountain range home in accordance with Sisif’s mentality without overstating itself and all of this is captured with elaborate style. Nothing is created out of the ordinary and must originate from a source of verisimilitude.

Most innovative of all is the editing which inspired Russian filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein and Pudovkin. The breakneck editing of train crash sequences and moments of jealous rage unlock an untapped filmic languae vital in today’s cinematic vocabulary. The Wheel is simply a symphony of cinematic devices and a feast for the eye in panoramic shots.

It is here Gance truly connects. The sluggish funicular climbing the snowy mountain tops is the opposite of the busy and dirty world we first encountered. The intimacies between characters are at their most poignant in this fresh landscape, and in a way it is a relief for audience and character alike to be breathe new air and witness a well deserved conclusion.

At four and a half hours with an uneven pace, The Wheel can be somewhat of a task. But with patience and dedication, Gance rewards with innovative sequences and a drama both epic and intimate.

Classic Moment… 

The Wheel opens in Media-Res. A horrific train crash scatters metal and bodies alike. Passersby, survivors and engineers scatter in a cacophony of confusion to aid the bloody scene. Sisif attempts control and, with quick thinking, barely saves another train from joining the pile up. Words fail this scene because it is purely visual. Submerging viewers into the same panic and confusion as the characters with excellent camera work and superb editing creates one of the most exciting and engaging openings and the beginning of a cinema changing masterpiece.

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