The Wheel (1923)
First Look: There’s a great, twisted story at the heart of The Wheel that, unfortunately, could be told in far less time than the 4+ hours Abel Gance devotes to this tale. Sisif is a widowed engineer who discovers a young orphaned girl following a terrible (but impressively filmed) train crash. Thinking she would make a great companion for his son Elie, Sisif takes the girl as his own and names her Norma. 15 years later, we learn that Sisif has not only kept Norma’s identity a secret; he has also developed feelings for his adopted daughter. Sisif inexplicably reveals his desires to a colleague named Hersan, a man who’s smitten with Norma and uses this information to blackmail Sisif into arranging his own marriage to the girl. She concedes, and through her brother’s jealousy we learn that Elie, too, has been harboring feelings for his adopted sister.
Gance’s film is a story of Oedipal, even Biblical proportions that certainly warrants big storytelling, yet it will inevitably lose viewers given the length. While fans of silent films may have patience, The Wheel can admittedly be sluggish at times. Certain sequences, including an early scene in which Sisif is drunk in a bar and proceeds to brawl with a man who’s attracted to Norma, provide some effective foreshadowing but could be told more economically as opposed to over several minutes of screen time. The Wheel‘s highs are high, but is occasionally dragged down by the pacing.
In all likelihood, viewers who take a chance on The Wheel will already be familiar with the length and more interested in its narrative effectiveness, and on that front it delivers in spades. Not only is the family drama uniquely taboo even by today’s standards, the film is an incredible achievement in terms of editing. 1001 Movies notes the way in which music is used to complement and enhance the drama of what’s presented on screen, and this was certainly noticeable in the version I saw. (Though it’s possible the composition may vary if there are multiple versions of The Wheel floating around.) Also impressive is the way in which Gance uses rapid-fire editing, as in the case of the aforementioned train crash and to communicate the characters’ disorientation later in the film, whether as the result of secrets being revealed or, in one instance, the threat of death. These sequences feel surprisingly modern, and are effective at generating suspence. Even the intertitles are unconventional, presented in large text and always marked with an image of a wheel in the upper-left hand corner, a metaphor that’s hammered home by the numerous literary references throughout the film. Victor Hugo’s warning that the wheel “crushes,” and Rudyard Kipling’s assertion that we can never be “free of the wheel” serve as foreboding reminders that life barrels on, often leaving casualties in its wake. That The Wheel is merciful enough to offer a surprisingly sweet conclusion to this tragic melodrama is a welcome reward for rolling along with it.
Why It’s Essential — A silent film that impresses on both a technical level and as soapy melodrama.
Why You’ll Want to Skip It — Director Abel Gance’s Napoléon is generally considered a superior work.
Personal Ranking — 7/10