La Roue is arguably Abel Gance’s masterpiece (Napoleon aside), so it stands to reason how it made the must see list. Abel Gance was a visionary and important European silent director, and to have him missing from the list would’ve been nigh unspeakable, so here we are. Like Napoleon, this one has quite the hefty running time (4 1/2 hours), so get comfy if you intend to delve into it.
The film draws its title from a metaphor by Victor Hugo superimposed by the opening title card, that Creation itself was like a giant wheel ready to crush those underneath it. The film then opens on the railroad, and we meet Sisif as he is tending to the survivors of a train crash. There, he finds an orphaned girl on the tracks, Norma, and he takes her in. From there, the story delves into almost a reverse-Oedipus syndrome, and I won’t spoil it for anyone who does want to sit through this one.
Like Napoleon, the film is incredibly notable for its cinematography. The lighting in this film was revolutionary for its time, and the camerawork is signature Gance, in that it is just as brilliantly conceived as in Napoleon (though this one came first). Gance makes extensive use of unique camera framing, and helps along what he filmed with a great sense of style. The editing is very rapid for a plus-four hour film, and while the story meanders a lot (especially after the major plots have already been set up), it is at the very least composed.
Abel Gance just loves long films, and unfortunately for us, this film is just too long. It’s slow, and it definitely feels its length. Plus, with all the added baggage that, for the most part, feels unnecessary, this can be quite a strenuous effort to get through. It is a visual treat, especially for cinematographers and film historians, but otherwise, you’ll have too hard of a time getting through this one.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10