(6/10) Georges Méliès’ last science fiction film, released in 1912, was a magnificent swansong for an era of filmmaking. Perhaps his most accomplished film technically, but the polar adventure rehashes too many old ideas and formats, and Méliès had simply grown out of touch with cinematic progress.
The Conquest of the Pole (À La Conquête Du Pôle). 1912, France. Written and directed by Georges Méliès. Inspired by the works of Jules Verne. Starring: Georges Méliès, Fernance Albany. IMDb score: 7.0 Tomatometer: N/A Metascore: N/A.
The Conquest of the Pole (À La Conquête Du Pôle), released in 1912, is an exuberant culmination of the work of French film pioneer Georges Méliès. The film runs 30 minutes long, and at Méliès’ preferred frame rate of 12-14 images a second, it would have been close to 45 minutes when it was shown back in the day. This was the master filmmakers last attempt at challenging the changing film tastes and beating the emerging feature films at their own game. The movie was released exactly ten years after Méliès had become the uncrowned king of international film with his groundbreaking Jules Verne-inspired fantasy A Trip to the Moon (1902, review), only a third in length and with a lot cruder and cheaper effects. Although a resounding critical success, The Conquest of the Pole failed to connect with audiences, and the magnificent failure marked the end of Méliès’ career as a filmmaker.
Few would contest the notion that stage magician and theatre manager Georges Méliès was the most important film innovator of the ten first years of cinema, from 1895 to 1905. Taking his cue from the French tradition of féerie stage plays, he made films in a theatrical tradition, he was the first to fully comprehend what could be achieved by marrying the narrative strengths of theatre with the seemingly endless possibilities that trick film and cinematic effects provided. He was a pioneer of almost every special effect in use all the way up to the digital era, from replacement splices to latent image mattes, forced perspective, black screen photography, fades, double exposure, animation, stop motion photography, etc. From his adaptation of Cinderella in 1899 he made at least one big-budget extravaganza a year up until 1907, including the science fiction classics The Impossible Voyage (1904, review) and Under the Seas (1907, review), and almost single-handedly created the language of the emerging narrative movie. It would not be amiss to call him the father of both the fantasy film and the science fiction film.
Countless filmmakers imitated not only Méliès cinematic tricks and effects, but also his style and his stories. Méliès created films for his own, independent Star Film company, and the French giant Pathé quickly started making imitations of his movies through directors like Ferdinand Zecca, Gaston Velle, Segundo de Chomon and others. If one were allowed a crude generalisation, one could say that his long films fell roughly into two moulds: the fairy-tale films modelled on Cinderella, and the extraordinary voyages, with its foundation in A Trip to the Moon. But through the years many of the directors that imitated and drew inspiration from Méliès evolved, using his tricks and developing their own styles, taking the foundation that he laid to a new level. People like Walter R. Booth, Segundo de Chomon and Edwin S. Porter were all heading in a new direction, with less theatricality and more realism, faster and narratively more creative editing, novel camera angles, pans, tilts, tracking shots and even dolly shots, close-ups and mid-scene angle switches, all contributing to putting the viewers in the midst of the proceeding, rather than treating them like a stationary stage audience. All were moving on, except Méliès himself, who had little interest in this new style of film-making. To Méliès, there was no point in showing reality on film, as one could see that simply by opening a window. Films were supposed to transport you to a different world, as the old féerie plays did.
At an International Congress at an Aero Club, explorers from around the world argue about the best way to fly to the North Pole. All are in disagreement until the congress’s president, the engineer Maboul (Georges Méliès) of France, explains his plans for an “Aero-Bus,” an airplane with a passenger car and a huge figurehead in the shape of a bird head. The proceedings are interrupted by a group of militant suffragettes, who announce their intention to go to the Pole themselves. When they have been chased off, the Congress nominates an international group of experts to accompany Maboul to the Pole: Run-Ever of England, Bluff-Allo-Bill of America, Choukroutman of Germany, Cerveza of Spain, Tching-Tchun of China, and Ka-Ko-Ku of Japan. Maboul takes his colleagues to his office to study the model of his invention, and then to the electricity-powered factory where the real thing is being constructed. The leader of the suffragettes (Fernande Albany) moves on with her own plans to get to the Pole, building a machine fitted with propellers and a multitude of toy balloons, but it fails to get off the ground.
The completed Aero-Bus lifts off to great acclaim, though it meets with two difficulties; first the suffragette leader tries to board with the expedition at the last moment, and then the explorer Tching-Tchun, arriving late, is accidentally left behind. The race to the Pole attracts many other adventurers, who depart in their own machines; soon the sky is full of aircraft of every shape and size. Both Tching-Tchun and the suffragette leader attempt to make it to the Pole in a balloon, but again meet with failure. (The explorer falls a short distance to the ground and gives up; the suffragette, having held on longer, falls onto a church steeple and explodes.) Meanwhile, the Aero-Bus continues through the sky unimpeded, passing various planets and constellations.
The aircraft skims down over the ice of the Arctic and finally crash-lands. The delegates make it out of the wreck, safe and sound. Almost immediately, however, they run into an obstacle: the Giant of the Snows, a pipe-smoking, man-eating frost giant who has to be scared off with cannon fire. They come at last to the pole proper, where they find a huge magnetic needle. Stuck by magnetic attraction to the needle, which breaks under their weight and plunges them into the icy waters, they signal for help and are picked up by a passing airship. Penguins, seals, and Arctic birds wave goodbye. The explorers return in triumph to the Aero Club, where they bow to all assembled.
As seen above, the film is divided into three separate segments: the preparations, the actual trip and the adventure on the Pole. The first segment is almost a carbon-copy of the ones in A Trip to the Moon, as Elizabeth A. Kingsley writes in her superb blog And You Call Yourself a Scientist, it “reproduces the meeting, the construction of the means of transport, and the departure scenes of the earlier film. The subsequent flying scenes are exactly the same, with the explorers encountering the same heavenly bodies as their predecessors did on the way to the moon, right down to Saturn and the star-women, and those two young women holding up a star. The arctic landscapes, although beautiful creations, are also too similar to the moonscapes of a decade earlier.”
In fact, the scene in which Maboul’s Aero-Bus flies through the skies is some of the most boring cinema ever put on screen. In the version put online, the segment takes full 10 minutes from start to finish, and in the “correct” frame-rate it would have been close to 15 minutes. That is, fifteen minutes of watching the flying bus go past stars and constellations without anything of consequence happening. This is on third of he whole film. There’s a feeling that Méliès felt pressure from his parent company Pathé, who had by then bought Star Film, to add more running time to the film in order to compete with the feature movies. In general the film doesn’t really have any more plot than would have been enough to fill a 15 minute movie, since Méliès hasn’t evolved as a story-teller one bit since 1902. Instead all scenes are dragged out unnecessarily, giving you the urge to skip ahead.
The third segment is the best, as it at least introduces something new, which is the ice giant. This is not the first time Méliès has dealt with giant monsters, but this one is certainly the best and most elaborate. It’s head alone stood two metres tall, and contained within it two people controlling he eyes, mouth, ears and pipe of the creature. All in all the giant puppet was controlled by 12 different people, surely making it one of the most elaborate hand-puppeteered giant monsters in film history. Off the top of my head I can’t think of one that would have required such a large group of handlers until we get into the age of remote-controlled animatronics and such. Please let me know in the comments below if you can think of one. The puppet is brilliantly out of sync, and enhances the feeling of this being a slightly drunk uncle at a party. The way the ice giant tries to clumsily collect the explorers in his arms reminds me of an old neighbour of mine who spent a good ten minutes at a party trying to place his pipe in the pipe-holder on his table. But even the ice giant chomping down on one of the characters and being forced to regurgitate him isn’t novel: in one of Méliès first sci-fi film, The Astronomer’s Dream (1898, review), the man in the moon did the exact same thing.
Technically this is Méliés’ most accomplished film, but at this time, he’s simply run out of new stories to tell, which isn’t really surprising as he made over 500 films in his career. He was also beset by problems on all sides. By 1908 Star Film had entered into a movie trust with Edison and other companies in the US, severely limiting his brother Gaston’s possibilities to distribute their films in the US. Gaston Méliès, who had become a film producer in his own right in America, was having problem selling his over-reaching productions, costing the company money. Furthermore, in 1909 the international filmmakers’ meeting in Paris, ironically chaired by Méliès, had decided on new regulations regarding renting films to distributors, rather than selling, meaning film companies were now paid by how many metres of film bulk they rented, rather than how many tickets the films sold or how often they were shown. A conveyor belt mentality had crept into filmmaking, prioritising quantity over quality. A small independent like Star Film had no chance of making films on Méliès standard anymore, grudgingly Méliès sold his company to Pathé in 1911, and in the process he lost artistic control over his movies.
Georges Méliès released only one film in 1911, not a lot for a man who in his prime turned out over 80 films a year, that was Baron Munchausen’s Dream, and by all accounts, Pathé never even released it, as the first account of it being screened is when it was re-released in 1943. His next movie was The Conquest of the Pole, his longest and probably most expensive film, which was filmed during winter 1911-1912 and released in May 1912. Pathé had high hopes for the film, even though the theatrical style of Méliès had gone out of style, and when it tanked with audiences, Pathé’s head of production, Ferdinand Zecca took greater control of Méliès‘ final three movies. This is ironic, since Zecca had spent the last ten years at Pathé doing his best to imitate Méliès. Out of original ideas, Méliès and Pathé made a next movie called The Knight of the Snows, which told of a princess being kidnapped by a demon and put in a dungeon, from which she is saved by a brave knight. Méliès had already used this theme in two of his most successful films, The Kingdom of the Fairies and Arabian Nights. Several props and sets were also reused from his old films, such as the dragon puppet from The Witch and the snake from Rip’s Dream. Méliès still insisted on playing out entire scenes without cuts, close-ups or edits (others than effect edits like stop tricks and double exposures), like one would do at at theatre stage. However, with the poor reception of The Conquest of the Pole, Zecca took the reins and did a massive re-cut of The Knight of the Snows, using cross-cutting and linear cutting to give the film a more modern feel.
The same thing applied to Méliès next movie, which was a lavish re-telling of the film that gave him his international breakthrough in 1899, Cinderella, now re-named Cinderella; or, The Glass Slipper. According to Méliès’ wife, later widow, Jehanne d’Alcy, Zecca cut down the film to half its running time. As it stands, the online version is 23 minutes long, so if d’Alcy’s claim stands, it would mean that the original would have been a whopping hour-long film at Méliès frame rate. Zecca also heavily emphasised cross-cutting and linear editing, and even cropped some scenes to create medium shots, as Méliès was still shooting almost exclusively wide shots. According to d’Alcy Zecca removed some of the best scenes of the film, and in 1944 she claimed that Zecca’s re-edit was a deliberate attempt at sabotaging the film, thus ruining Méliès’ career. However, no evidence has ever surfaced that Zecca wasn’t just trying to make the best he could out of a director’s work that was hopelessly out of date. Méliès started work on a final film in 1912, called The Voyage of the Bourrichon Family, scheduled for release in 1913. This was an attempt at a more modern style, and is described by Méliès scholars Paul Hammond and John Frazer as a comedy in the vein of the extremely popular Max Linder films, based on a musical hall play. However, Pathé never released it, and it was long presumed either lost or unfinished, but it was rediscovered in 2000. And despite the more modern setting, the films very identifiable as Méliès, complete with painted sets, theatre-style three-walled train coaches, wide shots all the way and a busy lunatic milling about. This style of comedy relying heavily on acrobatics had been done before by Méliès, and better, for example in The Merry Frolics of Satan.
The decision not to release his last film was the last straw for Méliès, who terminated his contract with Pathé in 1913, leaving him in dire straits, as his contract with Pathé included his home and his film studio in Montreuil as collateral, but we’ll return to that a bit later.
As stated, all of Méliès’ last films rehashed old ideas or were blatant remakes of his older films. He often gets much credit for being the first to adapt Jules Verne’s books into films, but the truth is that none of his sci-fi movies are actual adaptations of any of Verne’s novels, but rather inspired by them, or perhaps more importantly: inspired by féerie stage adaptations of them. Many of Méliès’ films were in fact more or less rip-offs of previous stage productions, in particular those by Theatre du Chatelet, with which Méliès also occasionally worked, creating effects and video projections.
It’s often suggested that The Conquest of the Pole is an adaptation of Verne’s novel The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, but other than the basic premise of an expedition to the North Pole, the two share few similarities. In fact, if the the film is inspired by any Jules Verne novels, it is primarily The Purchase of the North Pole and An Antarctic Mystery. The former is the last book dealing with the Baltimore Gun Club, who previously had made attempts at the moon with their moon rockets. In The Purchase of the North Pole there is an international auction for the Arctic, very much like the international pissing contest in the beginning of the movie, which the Baltimore Gun Club win, and start building an enormous cannon in order to change the tilt of the Earth, bringing a coal deposit under their ownership due to the changed latitudes. An Antarctic Mystery features an “ice sphinx” that is magnetically charged, causing the expedition’s metal gear to stick to its side.
Moreover, Méliès was inspired by current affairs, as this was the period of the race to the North and South Pole. Frederick Cook and Robert Peary were both disputing over which of them had actually reached the North Pole in 1908 and 1909, and at the end of 1911 Roald Amundsen became the first person to reach the South Pole, while Robert Falcon Scott and his men all perished in their attempt at reaching the pole during the same time.
Furthermore, the entire third act of the film seems to be borrowed from a Theatre du Chatelet play a few years earlier, which indeed featured a puppeteered ice giant and a magnetic needle at the pole (might it even have been the same props?). The first and second acts of the film are, as mentioned previously, more or less rehashed versions of Méliès’ earlier films, with some new ideas thrown in.
But despite the old ideas, critics at the time loved the movie, perhaps betraying that they, like Méliès, was out of touch with audience sentiment. Le Cinema called the film “a masterpiece”, while British journal Bioscope wrote that Méliès was “the H. G. Wells of picturedom, the wizard who gives the fillip to our imagination, and provides us with scientific phenomena of his own making”. Looking at the film today as a stand-alone work of cinema art, it is easy to find certain flaws, even if one doesn’t count the ones can be attributed to the low-tech cinema technology at the time. First of all, the middle part of the movie drags on awfully, and almost all scenes are a bit too long for comfort. But disregarding this, it is, as French magazine Avoir-Alire puts it “a delightful fairy-tale”, or Lyz Kingsley: “a charming work in its own right”. And in a way, one can call it Méliès most accomplished film, from a strictly technical point of view: it is bigger, louder, better produced, better designed and with better effects than anything else that Méliès ever did.
But it also buckles under its own weight, losing much of the whimsical charm and stingy satire that Méliès was so good at when he was at his best. While still criticising European colonialism and money-driven imperialism, his stabs at the suffragette movement puts him squarely on the wrong side of history, and makes the film rather cringe-worthy to watch (of course, women didn’t get full voting rights until the sixties in France). And Kingsley proceeds, writing that it is “hard to argue against those critics who claim that Georges Méliès never grew as an artist. Other than the single concession of intertitles instead of a narrator, there is little here to tell us that À La Conquête Du Pôle was made in 1912 rather than 1902.” It may seem rather odd to press this issue, as no-one today would complain that a film “feels like it was made in 2008 rather than 2018”. But back then films were evolving with gigantic leaps each year, and it was a new and exciting medium. Film released in 1902 already felt archaic in 1912, and the movie-going public didn’t want nostalgia. Imagine if a console game was released today, advertised as the greatest gaming experience of a lifetime, but turned out to have the graphics of a 1998 game. Old-time aficionados might wax poetic about about “the wizard who gives the fillip to our imagination” and indulge in the retro-feel of the game, but the general gaming community would probably give it a major thumbs-down.
To put Méliès’ films in perspective, this was an age when realistically shot feature films were making their debut. Italy had released L’Inferno in 1911, a film which put Méliès’ trick film techniques to superb use, but in a realistic style with hundreds of extras, on-location shooting and an epic scale. In the US, D.W. Griffith was putting modern editing and camera techniques to good use in his short films with movie stars like Mary Pickford, Lilian Gish and Lionel Barrymore, often making urban dramas filmed on the streets of New York. France’s own D.W. Griffith was Louis Feuillade, who in 1913 would premiere the world’s first successful feature film serial with Fantomas, 50 minutes long episodes featuring the master criminal and disguise expert Fantomas, thus laying the basis for the mystery drama. Like Griffith, Feuillade shot much of his material in urban environments, creating a degree of modernism and realism. 1913 would see the release of Danish disaster movie Atlantis, a 113 minutes long film inspired by the sinking of Titanic, and Italy would produce Quo Vadis, nearly two hours in length with lavish sets and several thousand extras. That same year German director Paul Wegener released The Student of Prague, a psychological horror film laying the foundations for the expressionism of Weimar cinema. There would certainly have remained a niche audience for auteurs like Méliès, but his films were simply too big and too costly not to be expected to compete with the hottest money-makers of the time, and that they couldn’t do.
When Méliès left Pathé in 1913 it was as an embittered man, and things were not made easier by the fact that his brother Gaston had driven the American branch of Star Film into bankruptcy through costly documentary filming in Tahiti and Asia, without being able to deliver any usable film. The situation led to a feud between the brothers, and they didn’t speak to each other even though Gaston moved to France in 1913. Cast out of the film industry, in debt and in danger of losing his home and his studio to Pathé and on non-speaking terms with his brother, further tragedy struck in 1913, as his wife Eugénie Genin died, leaving him alone to care for his 12-year old son. WWI came as a relief, since the onset of war caused a court to give a moratorium, postponing Pathé’s overtaking of the Montreuil studio. But the war shut down his beloved theatre for a year, and the army confiscated over 400 original Star Film negative, melting them down for the silver and for celluloid to make boot heels for the soldiers. In 1915 Méliès’ brother Gaston died, unreconciled. In 1917 his largest studio in Montreuil was turned into a military hospital, and along with his mistress Jehanne d’Alcy and his family, he turned the smaller studio into a small theatre, with which he was able to support himself. But even this little boon ended in 1923, a year of final disaster, when his beloved Theatre Robert-Houdin was demolished in order to make way for a new road, and Pathé finally claimed his Montreuil studio. Méliès was ordered to empty the studio of his old sets and props, and in rage he set about burning all his surviving negatives, perhaps thinking that he would not let Pathé earm another cent on his misery. This could very well have been one of the biggest tragedies in film history. Luckily, he had Jehanne d’Alcy, whom he married in 1925. d’Alcy had inherited a small toy and sweets shop at a Paris train station, where Méliès worked for many years, carving out a meagre living with the financial aid of
some of his old friends from the movie business, and raising one of his granddaughters.
But for once, I don’t have to end one of these articles with “he died alone and forgotten”. In 1928 a film scholar recognised Méliès sitting in his shop, and together with like-minded friends, he started hunting for lost Méliès films. Méliès, knowing full well that all negatives that hadn’t been melted down by the army had been burned by himself didn’t hold any high hopes, but thankfully the movie pirates he had fought so fervently during his career came to his rescue. Thanks to Pathé’s, Edison’s and other corporations’ greed and disregard for copyrights, hundreds of illegal copies of Méliès’ films existed in archives and storage all over the world. In 1928 a special gala evening was held in order to preview the eight films that the film scholars had been able to dig up by then, including A Trip to the Moon, his most successful and loved film. Méliès experienced a new generation’s love for his movies, and later recalled that it was the happiest moment of his life. He was later awarded an order of France, presented by none other than Louis Lumière. And in 1932 he was granted a place at a retirement home for filmmakers, along with d’Alcy and his granddaughter, where he would spend his days teaching young filmmakers.
The Conquest of the Pole remains one of Méliès’ most accomplished films, but a film made a little too late, and under circumstances that the director himself refused to acknowledge. The box office failure of the film really marked the end of an era in filmmaking. Feuillade, Griffith, DeMille, Christensen, Wegener and other were changing the face of cinema, and after the horrors of WWI a whole new generation of movie makers entered the scene. Hollywood with its influx of immigrants and its economic advantage (it wasn’t bombed to smithereens) dominated the international market, and in Weimar Germany the Langs, Murnaus and Dreyers made expressionism the new black with the help of massive state financing in the aftermath of the war. After the chaos of WWI, when most people wanted to look the future rather than the past, it’s forgivable that Méliès was forgotten. One can rejoice in the fact that he did live to see his films re-discovered and his reputation restored. In 1952 a high-profile French documentary was made about him and in the age of the internet ever more got to know his films through uploads on Youtube. Perhaps the finest honour was bestowed upon Méliès by Martin Scorsese, who in 2011 made the absolutely wonderful and Oscar-winning film Hugo, giving a fictionalised, but fairly truthworthy account of his latter years, and the rediscovery of his films in 1928.
The Conquest of the Pole (À La Conquête Du Pôle). 1912, France. Written and directed by Georges Méliès. Inspired by the works of Jules Verne. Starring: Georges Méliès, Fernance Albany. Produced by George Méliès for Star Film.