Saturday 9 September 2017

Georges Méliès' A la Conquête du Pôle

Today's special post is part of the Movie Scientist Blogathon hosted by Christina Wehner and Silent Screenings. Click on the link to visit many fantastic blogs celebrating the Good, the Mad, and the Lonely in cinematic science!

The world has not been in an uproar like this since Phileas Fogg took his abbreviated trip around the globe! The redoubtable Professor Maboul has created a frenzy with his plan to visit the North Pole in one of Georges Méliès final films.

As a result of the American movie factory and new innovations in filmmaking by directors from Hollywood and the German schools, Méliès began winding down production in the early 1910's, just as his art was to reach its peak. Méliès took the staged, tableau style - where entire scenes unfold in static set pieces before the viewer sitting back in the objective view of a live theatre patron - about as far is it could go artistically. This easily shows in the ambitious A la Conquête du Pôle (English: Conquest of the Pole), one of only three films Méliès produced in 1912.

Like Méliès' last major Scientific Romance, Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible (English: The Impossible Voyage), the scope and scale of Conquest of the Pole is tremendous. However, unlike that 1904 film, the pace is quickened up. Conquest of the Pole runs for approximately the same duration, but moves along much more rapidly, recalling mastery and magic of his greatest film from a decade prior, Le Voyage dans la Lune (English: A Trip to the Moon).

Like both of those previous films, the scene opens with the great professor's proposition to explore some fantastic and far-flung realm, followed by a visit to the factory where the transportation is being manufactured. Instead of mere fanfare accompanying this voyage to the North Pole, however, there is absolute frenzy. A gang of suffragettes look to bust up the launch of Maboul's craft. Meanwhile, other explorers hope to beat the professor with their own contraptions. Several balloonatics lift off, with the excess baggage of excessively interested parties trying to hitch a ride. Others hope to find a land route (presumably through Russia?) using their concept automobiles.

Time outside of Méliès' fantastic world of fantasy and romance marched onwards and the means of travel have changed considerably. In the wake of Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers, no longer are 1902's rocket capsules and steam trains acceptable. It's 1912, the age of aeroplanes and automobiles! For Conquest of the Pole, Méliès may have found some inspiration in Jules Verne's two-volume tales of Captain Hatteras' quest for the pole, a perennial English hobby in the mid-19th century, but there was plenty to draw from in his own time. The North Pole was finally reached by land in either 1908 or 1909, depending on whose claim one believes. Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole, in 1911. There was a mania for anything to do with the Arctic and Antarctic. In 1908, just as explorers reached the North Pole, the Great Automobile Race from New York to Paris was staged. Aeroplane racing had begun in earnest in France in 1909 with the Prix de Lagatinerie and Grande Semaine d'Aviation de la Champagne. It worked its way into the United States in 1910 and the UK in 1911, culminating in the 1911 Circuit of Europe race. What were once Méliès' flights of fancy were now becoming reality. Circumnavigation of the globe and investigation of its farthest flung points were within reach.

Thus Maboul's airship is not so unique as the rocket capsule or a space faring steam train... It is, in essence, a glorified cloud buster. Yet for Méliès, such a contraption could still be a vehicle into wonder. Just as he could blend together the worlds of the astronomer and astrologer in previous films like A Trip to the Moon and 1907's L'éclipse du soleil en pleine lune (English: The Eclipse, or the Courtship of the Sun and Moon), here he can merge magic and engineering.  In one of his last films, Méliès could not resist revisiting his beloved paper moons, painted vistas, and fantastic beasts.

As a swan song, Maboul and his fellow explorers pay a visit to the signs of the zodiac and the constellations. The lashing tail of Scorpio almost lay them low, but eventually they make it to the pole. Like all Mélièsian explorers, they too must dash their ship upon the rocks of their destination. This North Pole is an amazing Arctic wasteland with jutting crystalline monoliths, forming one of the greatest of Méliès' set pieces. This sublime Nordic spectacle of towering ice spires is only briefly interrupted by a climactic run-in with a Snow Giant... A full-size marionette that is equally as towering over the human actors, one of whom is eaten by the monstrosity. The Snow Giant forms one of Méliès' most ambitious villains, not to mention effects. While it may not be cinematically elaborate - it's a giant figure with arms, eyes and mouth worked by off-camera operators - it is notable for sheer size. This is no camera trick.

As magnificent an adventure as Conquest of the Pole was, it was not a commercial success. In 1910, Méliès had made a distribution deal with Pathé that gave the studio the right to edit his films, which they chose not to exercise so long as they were successful. The deal also included significant cash from Pathé in exchange for the deeds to Méliès' home and studio. When Conquest of the Pole underperformed, Pathé exercised their option to edit his films. Ironically, this made his final films in 1912 perform even more poorly and Méliès broke the contract. The Great War prevented Pathé from collecting on his debt, but when they finally could in 1923, Méliès destroyed his negatives and burned his sets. At that point it may have been little matter though: financial mismanagement, inability to compete with new distribution systems, and changes in public taste around and after World War One left Méliès' romantic ideals behind. They could not be as easily defeated as a Snow Giant.    

Yet defeat it Maboul did. Overcoming the Snow Giant with a well-placed shot from a canon left over in the airship's wreckage, the explorers find the rotating pillar of magnetic North and hop aboard for a spin. Toppling the Pole, they are picked up by a late-arriving dirigible and seen off by a menagerie of Arctic wildlife. They arrive back in France to a grand celebration. With hindsight, one can easily read into the frenzy and celebration a bittersweet farewell for Méliès... The fanfare is not so much for Maboul, but for his actor and creator, who had given cinema so much and was finally forced to bow out of the game. At least his end came on an artistic high note. 

The Conquest of the Pole, in German, with French subtitles,
and original music by Valentin Hadjadj.


Silver Screenings said...

Gorgeous! I'd never even heard of this film before, sadly, so thanks for embedding it in your review.

It's beautiful, all of it, the sets, the preparation of the journey, the flight, the snow monster... I find I usually watch Méliès twice in a row, because the first time I'm so distracted by all the beauty and effects that I don't pay attention to the story!

Thanks for joining the blogathon, and for introducing us (me) to this incredible film. It's sad to think he would soon end his filmmaking career, but like you said, as least he went out on an artistic high.

Unknown said...

How sad that he felt compelled to destroy the negatives! Your historical background was really interesting, too; to place the film in context. It seems like Melies was often very up-to-date in the topics of his films.

Thanks so much for introducing me to a new film by Melies and broadening my appreciation of him!

Cory Gross said...

Thank you both for stopping by and leaving a comment! This is one of his lesser known films, so I'm glad to introduce more people to it. And thank you both for hosting the blogathon. It's been great!

Caftan Woman said...

I love your line: "Yet for Méliès, such a contraption could still be a vehicle into wonder." Much like the films themselves.

Thanks for the link to the movie as I would not know enough to have sought the title prior to reading your wonderful article.