Thursday, October 1, 2009

19. La Roue/The Wheel (1923)

Running Time: 273 minutes
Directed By: Abel Gance
Written By: Abel Gance
Main Cast: Severin-Mars, Ivy Close, Gabriel de Gravone, Pierre Magnier


All strapped in to watch a four plus hour French silent film, I wasn't all that enthused, as my experiences with anything over three hours in this book, has been anything but good so far. I'm glad to say that I was very pleasantly surprised.

La Roue or The Wheel opens with an absolutely spectacular train wreck, more dazzling that anything I'd ever expect to see for this time period. We find our protagonist, Sisif, a master engineer, sorting through the wreckage and putting forth a real "take charge" kind of attitude. Suddenly he spots a very young girl, motherless and crying, he takes her by his side and places her under a rose bush while he tends to the wreckage. Afterwards he takes her home, and along with his son, Elie, raises her as his own. Her name is Norma.

Flash forward fifteen years...

Norma and Elie are all grown up and get along quite swimmingly as brother and sister. Sisif, wishing to protect Norma, never tells her or Elie that they're not blood siblings. Instead of the "take charge" man that we met fifteen years prior, we are now faced with a drunk, gambling, fighting main character, one that seems to be facing some very serious personal demons.

We find out soon after, that Sisif has fallen in love with Norma, and while he thinks it's deplorable, he simply cannot deny his urges and feelings, and spends most days away from Norma, saying that he's afraid to face her one on one, as she may see his heartache in his eyes. Elie, now a violin maker, has also, it seems, fallen in love with Norma and before the men cannot control themselves any longer, Sisif sends her off to be married to rich, high class Jacques de Hersan, a man for whom Norma has much disgust for.

While Norma is away and very unhappy in her new life, Elie and Sisif grow closer. Sisif eventually confides in Elie and spills the beans that he and Norma are not true siblings, which seems to make Elie's love for her grow even more. One day while working on the trains, as he did everyday, Sisif is nearly blinded as a co-worker accidentally falls asleep on one of the compressors and sends a face full of steam into Sisif's face. Sisif, no longer able to be an engineer for the express railway, with his eyesight as bad as it is, goes to work on a funicular train, and he and Elie live contently, yet still constantly haunted by the thoughts and images of Norma, and her love that escaped them.

Time passes and Norma finds out where her "brother" and "father" are living, so she urges her husband for a vacation to the area. Elie sees her in the city, while trying to sell some of his handmade violins and decides to send her a special violin of his own. He constructs the instrument and on the inside lining writes a love note, proclaiming his love for her and telling her that they are not true siblings. Hersan intercepts the violin, before Norma and discovers the love note inside, smashing the violin and rushing to Elie and Sisif's home to confront Elie. The fight, high up in the snow capped mountains and, Elie falls over the cliffs, clinging to a tree branch. With his free hand, Elie manages to fire a shot at Hersan, killing him. Elie later falls to his death, before he can be rescued by Sisif and Norma, who followed Hersan.

That's not quite the end of the story, but if you've noticed I don't like to give away the endings in my reviews, as I don't want to spoil the film for anyone reading this.

This movie had some amazing sequences. The train wreck at the beginning, so spectacular for 1923, with some fast cuts of the train wrecking and explosions and catastrophe. According to the book, there were several cinematographers, that brought some absolutely captivating images to the screen. A favorite shot of mine, was when Sisif builds a cross and carries it to the site where Elie was killed on the anniversary of his death. Some absolutely stunning camera work of Sisif carrying the cross along the snowy slopes of the mountains and the pain in his face as he went to his sons death place. The characters in this story are so fleshed out and there are times when you just wanna pop through the screen, give 'em a pat on the back and say "Hang in there, It's all gonna work out". Such a sad, sad tale of love and loss of love. Probably one of the more depressing movies that I've seen, but still fantastic nonetheless.

RATING: 8.5/10 As I've said before, this is basically just my knee jerk reaction of a rating. I would love to buy this movie someday and take another crack at it, as it's something that you can really sink your teeth into and has many enjoyable aspects.

NEXT UP: The Thief of Baghdad...Expect the review for this, probably Saturday, as I'm awaiting it's arrival from Netflix. Later.

October 1, 2009 3:00pm


  1. Wow sounds like a truly great movie. I definately want to check this one out!

  2. Another little victory in tracking this down from a guy in Scotland who sells copies on Ebay.. All legal, as this is well in the public domain. I've used him a couple of times for simular (non list) stuff.
    BUT a tainted victory.. my copy is cut.. and (it seems) what cuts.. The death of Elie and Hersan.. it's not there.. I get to see them go out side the hut.. and the next thing I know is Sisif telling someone he will see his son in 27 years, when the glacier gives up it's dead.. And the blinding bit.. what you describe.. well I didn't see that either.. Sisif just seems to have another crash...
    So thanks for filling in some blanks!
    A shame, because despite that, I really liked this. Sure, a tad long (as in napoleon), but still gripping and very inventive.
    Another to say 'Thank you Book, for getting me to watch this...'


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