In the 1910s, or the teens, the Empires and Nations of the World were in upheaval. Nationalism, Socialism, democracy, modernisation and technology shook the world. Radio, newspapers, magazines and books made information more readily available, literacy and and education started reaching a broader spectrum of people, new ideas spread, rising up against old power structures that felt bolstered by new technologies of manufacturing and war-making. Europe, in particular, was a powder keg of ideas, political movements, power struggles, a new urban working class demanding rights and wages, and a number of bloated, unstable Empires, like bubbles waiting to be popped. All of this led to the devastating WWI in 1914, a war unlike any in history, fought now with the aid of terrible new weapons like the airplane, the tank, rockets and the dreaded yellow death, the mustard gas. It was a war fought in trenches and bunkers, with young men (and women) often oblivious as to what or whom they were fighting for, chewed up by a faceless, ruthless war machine. After an uneasy peace treaty at the tail end of 1918, the map of the world was forever changed, as five great Empires had exploded, leaving a new, splintered geography in its wake.
If the previous decade had still been permeated with optimism regarding the future, as science and technology advanced, then the 1910s added an overhanging sense of doom and gloom, especially after the outbreak of the Great War. Good old Frankenstein was dragged out of the closet as a symbol for people’s mixed feelings about the advance of science and its inventions. And with war on the horizon, authors and filmmakers painted a bleak view of the future, often depicting end-of-the-world scenarios, cataclysmic disasters and dystopian societies. The rise of socialism and the workers’ movement also added its flavour to the mix, describing clashes between a greedy, corrupted elite and an impulsive, angry working class.
If films in the 1900s were obsessed with transportation, aviation, speed, electricity and the broadening of the known world that all this brought with it, these themes soon took a back seat to ruminations over weapons of mass destruction, comets, meteors, volcanic eruptions, deluges and ponderings of morals and the evil of man.
On the literary field, the 1910’s was the decade when science fiction finally started to emerge as a genre, thanks in no small part to legendary editor and agent Hugo Gernsback, who started what was arguably the first science fiction magazine in 1908 as the editor of Modern Electrics, the world’s first magazine about radio and and electronics, in which he also published gadget-themed science fiction stories, most notably perhaps his own (universally panned) Ralph 124C 41+.
While H.G. Wells published his best remembered books between 1892 and 1901, he was still a highly relevant author in the 1910s, even though he stripped his socially and politically charged stories of their earlier juvenile trappings. The popular socialist author Jack London had published his dystopian epic The Iron Heel in 1908, but he also wrote a handful of sci-fi stories in the 1910s, including the haunting post-apocalyptic The Scarlet Plague about a deadly viral outbreak, which came to influence a plethora of later zombie yarns. In 1912 Arthur Conan Doyle published The Lost World, a riff on earlier “lost world” stories, but perhaps the most influential one in terms of film, together with the Pellucidar series written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who rode the Lost World wave with his 1914 book At the Earth’s Core.
Burroughs was perhaps the most important sci-fi author of the decade, creating not only the subterranean world of Pellucidar, but also wrote the first books in his hugely influential John Carter of Mars series. When he was not too busy creating Tarzan, of course, or any of the other world he made, like Caspak, The Land that Time Forgot. If Jack London took the social and political themes from Wells’ books, Burroughs picked up what was left on the cutting table: adventure, aliens, monsters and thrills – and added scantily clad princesses, hairy barbarians, space ships and high fantasy. While one of the pioneers, he was not alone in writing space and underground themed adventure stories aimed mainly at boys: authors like H. Rider Haggard, Abraham Merritt, Gernsback and Victor Rousseau Emanuel were among other early pulp fiction writers.
Other important sci-fi authors of the era was, for example, the prolific veteran J.-H. Rosny aîné, one of the pioneers in describing non-humanoid and even immaterial alien races, as well as one of his disciples, Frenchman Maurice Renard, who published his magnum opus The Blue Peril in 1910. German Bernhard Kellermann wrote the bestseller The Tunnel in 1913, a utopian vision of a tunnel between the US and the UK, Hungarian Frigyes Karinthy wrote the popular Extraordinary Voyage book Voyage to Faremido, French avantgarde writer Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus was a surreal plunge into mad scientist territory. Important feminist sci-fi writers of the decade were Inez Haynes Irwin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who wrote social science fiction with utopian themes. An extremely popular subject in many sci-fi yarns of the 1910s were lost worlds and escapist adventures, both as political allegory and simply as entertainment in a time of great unrest and insecurity.
However, as with the previous decades, very little of the literary themes showed up in the sci-fi movies of the age, as filmmakers were still taking many of their cues from the stage, rather than the library. Thus, sci-fi films were still deeply rooted in the worlds of Jules Verne, Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson, whose works all found success in the theatre prior to cinema. The exceptions were mainly the Danish and German films made in this era. August Blom’s The End of the World (1916, review) and Holger-Madsen’s A Trip to Mars (1918, review) were both original works with pacifist messages made in response to WWI. The films came at the tail end of the Golden Age of Danish cinema, and in terms of budget, design and production they were easily able to compete US, Italian and French films of the time. Both films are notable for their special effects, their use of location shooting and occasionally stunning camera work.
The Juggernaut of cinema during WWI was Germany, which quadrupled its movie output during the war. Titans like F.W. Murnau, Paul Wegener, Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou, Robert Wiene and Richard Oswald took their first steps during the 1910s, developing the blueprint for both the horror film and the Expressionist film style, with psychological horrors, surrealism, morally ambiguous tales, hints of mysticism and magic, Faustian themes, surprising camera angles, theatrical sets, dark, gothic photography and stark contrasts between light and shade. While the films often had themes of myth, magic and psychological horror, they occasionally crossed over into science fiction, as in Oswald’s The Tales of Hoffmann (1916, review) and Otto Rippert’s Homunculus (1916, review).
If the 1910s was a dramatic time in general, it was such for the movies as well. After his last science fiction epic, Conquest of the Pole (review) in 1912, the godfather of cinema, French pioneer and cinema superstar Georges Méliès left the movie business. The theatrical, stage-based fairy-tales that made him the undisputed king of the dramatic film were now seen as old-fashioned and out-moded, and his short trick films that had enchanted the world had lost their magic.
Instead the Danes and Italians were pioneering the feature film, the Danes with erotic melodramas and realistic films, and the Italians with historical epics and sword-and-sandal blockbusters. Quo Vadis (1913) and especially Cabiria (1914) were international megahits with stupendous production values, thousands of extras, innovative camera work, special effects, lavish sets, action and stunts, and finally managed to persuade US film companies that feature films were worth investing in, and inspired D.W. Griffith to make his grand and highly controversial epic Birth of a Nation (1915). While the often US-centric online film websites like to claim that it was Birth of a Nation that opened the flood gates for the feature film, it was actually Cabiria. This also gives us one of the few American entries into the sci-fi film canon of the 1910s, the Jules Verne adaptation 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916, review), an impressive but uneven large-scale production containing the first underwater footage in a feature film.
The Brits made a few interesting entries in the sci-fi catalogue during the early 1910s, such as The Pirates of 1920 (1911, review) and A Message from Mars (1913, review), during the brief few years that the UK film industry pulled itself up by its bootstraps before WWI took their boots away altogether, and they fell into the slump that was described as the British film crisis in the early 1920s. However, even these films suffer from a certain amateurishness and cheap budgets.
The biggest victim of the 1910s was the French film industry. Not that it didn’t remain an important international player, but considering that in 1907 up to 60 percent of all films showed in US cinemas were French, the blow was devastating when the Italians, the Americans, the Danes and ultimately the Germans suddenly got ahead. In part this development was due to the fact that France was hit very badly by WWI, but by then the French film industry was already on the wane. To some extent this had to do with new guidelines within the international film industry, which made it harder for France to export films to the US, and to some extent with the fact that other countries, including the US, simply caught up with France artistically and in terms of organising their industry. But France remained highly relevant. Comedian Max Linder was huge star internationally, and director Louis Feuillade was instrumental in developing both the film serial and the detective film with the immensely successful Fantômas and Les Vampires. And while commercially not as dominant as before, the latter part of the decade saw the development of French Impressionism and Poetic Realism through directors like Abel Gance and Germaine Dulac.
The 1910s was the decade when film stars overtook the stage stars in public popularity, mainly because of the exponentially growing popularity of movies. Lavish purpose-built cinemas and “movie palaces” were built, standing alongside the crummy, cheap Nickelodeons. With the rise of the feature film, cinema became a more involving experience and got a huge artistic lift. Film reviews started featuring regularly in newspapers, and glossy magazines made interviews with and articles about the stars of the movies.
While Hollywood often dominates the discussion of early film and film stardom, one should remember that there was a gigantic movie scene on the other side of the Atlantic, with stars just as huge as the American ones. Everyone knows the names Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Gloria Swanson, who emerged in the mid-1910s, as well as Oscar lifetime award winners Mary Pickford and Lilian Gish, two of the earliest film stars in Hollywood. Often forgotten, however, are Danish superstar Asta Nielsen and the afore-mentioned Max Linder. Max Linder was Chaplin before Charles Chaplin, and was voted as the most popular star in the world in several European countries, often closely followed by Nielsen. Linder was one of the many European stars who moved to the US at the outbreak of WWI, alongside comedians like Marcel Perez and Charlie Chaplin – some of them rose to fame, others weren’t able to quite transplant their success to the American market.
Italy was the front-runner in creating action stars, with director-comedian-acrobat André Deed, and Cabiria spawned a whole industry around lead actor, strongman Bartolomeo Pagano, who took on the stage name of his famous character Maciste, whom he played in at least 26 sequels between 1914 and 1927. The popular hero was revived in the sixties with American bodybuilders taking up Bartolomeo’s mantle. And German cinema created horror stars such as Paul Wegener, Olaf Fønss and not least Conrad Veidt who emerged at the end of the decade and would go on to create such iconic characters as Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Jekyll/Hyde in The Head of Janus (1920), Orlac in The Hands of Orlac (1924), Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs (1928), Grand Vizier Jafar in The Thief of Baghdad (1940) and of course Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942).
In short, the 1910 saw the movies establish themselves artistically and economically. Hollywood was founded and soon challenged Paris, Turin, Copenhagen, Berlin and New York for the title of the film centre of the world. While still fledgling, film industries had by now been born in all but the poorest and least industrialised countries of the world. The establishment of both the feature film and non-linear editing techniques allowed filmmakers to make ever more complex and engaging films, and longer films meant higher ticket prices, which meant bigger budgets, which meant better films, which meant more audience, and for once the spiral was good-natured.
Science fiction didn’t really exist as a film genre before the fifties, and with a few exceptions, like Conquest of the Pole, The Pirates of 1920, A Message from Mars and A Trip to Mars, their sci-fi elements in the films of the 1910s were minor – consisting perhaps of the existence in the film of a robot or a mad scientist toying with life and death. But interestingly enough, the decade managed to lay out the groundwork for most subgenres of science fiction, despite often rather muddled ideas and a general lack of sci-fi movies. The 1910s gives us robots, interplanetary travel, alien visitations, apocalypses, dystopias and utopias, artificial human beings, superpowers, human experiments, flying cars, giant monsters, time travel, lost worlds with dinosaurs, future law enforcement and much more. For someone exploring the roots of modern sci-fi, the 1910s is an excellent place to start.