Top 10 Sci-Fi Films of the 1910s

The 1910s was the decade when the feature film established itself as the global industry standard, significantly adding budget, production value, prestige and narrative depths to movies. The horrors of WWI also prompted filmmakers to seek out SF as a format for telling stories as metaphors, resulting in a number of groundbreaking genre films. Here’s a list of the 10 best sci-fi films released between 1910 and 1919. Do you agree or disagree? What film did we miss? Please leave a comment below the article or on our Facebook page

10. An Interplanetary Marriage

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Move over Aelita! This 1910 short film about a scientist and a girl from Mars getting married on the moon is Italy’s first science fiction film. It is derivative of George Méliès’ 1902 film A Trip to the Moon (review), but a fun little adventure. Un matrimonio interplanetario was written and directed by Yambo – real name Enrico Novelli – who is best known as an author of children’s’ books and as one of the fathers of modern Italian science fiction. Sporting nicely designed space ships, splendid miniature work, well-made animation and passable matte paintings, the film came at a time when trends were shifting from the theatrical decor and staging of the Méliès school to greater realism, inspired by the Italians and Danes, with this film still representing the former, making it slightly archaic even in 1910. Still, the movie’s high-class production values and entertaining story earns it spot number 10 on our list, kicking off Italy’s proud history as an underdog SF innovator. Read the full review here.

9. Frankenstein

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The first Frankenstein movie, made in 1910, turns the monster metaphysical rather than physical, but the gruesome special effects in the creation scene is fleshy enough. Produced by the powerful Edison studios and directed by J. Searle Dawley, this 14 minutes long rendition of Frankenstein is the only American film on our list, illustrating that in the 1910s, science fiction films were a very European affair. Filmed as a flagship project to celebrate Edison’s new state-of-the-art studio in Bronx, Mary Shelley’s story was well known enough for audiences to follow the plot with ease in this still silent era, and had enough shock value to make headlines. But to appease loud religious groups who were now targeting the supposed immorality of the motion picture, the story was turned more into a moral tale within a dream frame. Neither did the scientist Edison want to paint a bleak picture of science, so in this version the monster is cooked up by alchemy in a big cauldron. It is all done cleverly with reverse photography. The film makers first build up a skeletal being, then add flammable material to make a lifelike dummy, which they set of fire and let it burn down. Then they reverse the film, making it appear as though the monster is built up from scratch. Add skeletal arms flapping up and and down, and the effect is both gruesome and hopelessly, unintentionally comedic.

The following film deals with the monster as a manifestation of Frankenstein’s doubts and dark thoughts, and not until he loves his fiancée unconditionally and has purged all impure thoughts, does the monster disappear into a mirror. Charles Ogle as the monster – an unkempt cross between Ozzy Osborne, Nosferatu and Quasimodo – has since become an iconic figure. Clever effects, an interesting spin on the story and fairly dynamic filming earns old Frank spot number 9 on our list. Read the full review here.

8. The Conquest of the Pole

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Georges Méliès’ last science fiction film À la conquête du Pôle, released in 1912, was a magnificent swansong for an era of filmmaking. Perhaps his most accomplished film technically, and one of his longest movies, close to 45 minutes in its original running time. This was the French master filmmaker’s last attempt at challenging the changing film taste that was clamouring for realism, when he insisted on making theatrical movies with stage-like two-dimensional sets, giving his movies a fairy-tale feel. The Conquest of the Pole 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, 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 who had outgrown his style, and the magnificent failure marked the end of Méliès’ career as a filmmaker.

The story follows teams from several countries trying to reach the South Pole in a number of fantastical vehicles, with an international crew setting out in the aerobus built by the engineer Maboul, played by Méliès himself. After meetings and preparations, the team sets out on a long – loooooong – flight across the heavens, passing a multitude of constellations and planets, before they crash land on the pole, where they battle a wacky ice giant, a stupendous masterpiece of a full-size puppet, controlled by 12 stage hands at a time. Inspired by the recent trips to the North and South Poles, by the Jules Verne novels The Purchase of the North Pole and An Antarctic Mystery, and, as usual with his fantastical films, by a féerie stage play by Theatre du Chatelet, the film is a bit too long for its simplistic story and highly derivative of Méliès’ previous work. Nevertheless, a flawed masterpiece worthy of spot number 8 on our list. Read the full review here.

7. The Tales of Hoffmann

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Hoffmann’s Erzählungen is the first German sci-fi film AND the first feature film involving a robot, and just that should be enough to put it on this list. The background is a bit complex, as the movie’s actually based on an 1881 opera written by Jacques Offenbach, which in turn is a stand-alone story loosely based on three short stories by the influential German horror author E.T.A. HoffmannThe Sandman, The Cremona Violin and The Lost Reflection, making  three chapters about love lost in a supernatural or mysterious way, tied together by a protagonist called Hoffmann. One of the stories in particular is of interest, The Sandman, in which Hoffmann falls in love with a beautiful girl, who turns out to be an automaton, or robot.

The Tales of Hoffmann was directed by Richard Oswald, one of the pioneers of the horror movie, who in 1909 made the cult film Unheimliche Geschichten. The film’s a bit disjointed as it has been significantly cut down in length from the opera and robbed of its frame story, but this is made up for with superbly eerie atmosphere and a grand operatic scale, even some rather clever special effects, as well as magnificent acting, including a stand-out performance from later horror film icon Werner Krauss. So despite its blemishes, The Tales of Hoffmann sits pretty at number 7 on our list. Read the full review here.

6. A Message from Mars

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Great Britain’s first sci-fi feature film, made in 1913, is a variation on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with a Martian visiting a selfish Scrooge instead of Christmas spirits. The rich and pompous Horace Parker cares for no-one but himself, neglects his fiancée, kicks beggars and homeless people off his porch as they ask for help and is an all-round nasty brute. He is visited by a Martian who turns Parker into one of the homeless beggars he so despises in order to teach him humility and kindness.

The film’s based on Richard Ganthony’s 1892 comedic stage play, which became an international success at the turn of the century with comedy mogul Charles Hawtrey in the lead role. Hawtrey reprises his role in this 1913 film, although in truth he is probably ten years too old for it. Nevertheless, Hawtrey’s energetic performance is what makes the otherwise pretty blandly directed and acted film so enjoyable. A Message from Mars is far from a masterpiece and full of plot holes, but solidly made and still funny today. The Brits snag spot number 6 on the list. Read the full review here. 

5. The Pirates of 1920

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Pirates of the air get more than they bargained for when they kidnap a resourceful damsel in this well-made British short feature film from 1911. Yes, the Brits are at it again, in a short period between 1911 and 1914 when the British film industry managed to raise its head from a slump that it would again fall back into when WWI broke out. Very loosely based on the Jules Verne novel Robur the Conqueror, the film follows a band of futuristic pirates in an airship who rob an ocean liner and kidnap a damsel who shows that she can certainly handle herself, after her boyfriend is thrown into the sea. The miniature work in this short film is remarkably well done, the special effects hold up well and the acting is strong, despite its overtly theatrical manner. The look of the film suffers from some plywood stage sets and the screenplay isn’t exactly intelligent, but it’s an exciting and fast-paced adventure yarn done well on a minuscule budget, enough for The Pirates of 1920 to commandeer spot number 5 on this list. Read the full review here.

4. The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola

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A milestone between two cinematic eras, Marcel Perez’ 1913 adventure epic is a loving pastiche on Jules Verne and George Méliès. Based on Albert Robida’s novel, it anticipates the retro-futuristic work of Karel Zeman and Terry Gilliam. A forerunner in feminism, but problematic in its laissez-faire racism, it is Italy’s first feature-length film with sci-fi trappings.

Yes, another Italian film, released when Italy was at the forefront of cinematic development with magnificent feature-length epics like Quo Vadis and CabiriaThe Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola is a Rudyard Kipling/Jules Verne adventure tale as re-imagined in the style of Baron Münchhausen. Co-directed by Spanish lead actor and comedy star Marcel Perez, the film follows the life and adventures of Saturnino Farandola, who is shipwrecked as an infant and brought up by apes on a tropical island, becomes captain of a trading vessel and goes on great adventures with his wife (played by Perez’ frequent co-star and alleged wife, comedienne Nilde Baracchi), fighting pirates, giant whales who eat his wife and evil marine biologists who capture said whale with said wife inside, evil Siamese soldiers, African cannibals and finally get dragged into the American civil war. Here the resourceful Farandola creates super-weapons for the South States in order to beat the Northeners’ commander, none other than Phileas Fogg himself, and a final battle is waged in airships armed with cannons.

The film is a slightly odd mix between ambitious outdoor filming with live elephants and tigers, and obvious indoor sets, puppets and props, sometimes reminding of Méliès’ theatrical féerie style. However, the charming fairy-tale quality of the film makes you accept this strange mix of reality and theatricality and just enjoy the ride, a ride that carries the Italians all the way to spot number 4 on the list. Read the full review here.

3. The End of the World

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This Danish moral tale from 1916 is the world’s first apocalyptic film. August Blom’s direction takes it sweet time to get going, but when the much talked about comet finally crashes towards the Earth, the film proves why it belongs among the classics. The special effects hold up surprisingly well even today, and the images of post-apocalyptic desolation are haunting.

Filmed on the tail end of Denmark’s brief Golden Age as the world’s most prolific film producer, Verdens undergang treads water for a good while, stuck in a fairly mundane melodrama. A rich market speculator and mine owner sweeps a country girl off her feet with promises of riches and luxury, and manipulates the press for his own gain as a deadly comet approaches Earth. But when the action gets going, the film pits revolutionary workers against greedy capitalists, who destroy each other as fire and brimstone rain from the sky and oceans swallow cities whole. While working with a much lesser budget than his Italian or American colleagues, churning out epics like Cabiria (1914) or Birth of a Nation (1915), Blom is able to muster up incredible miniature work and special effects. The sweeping cinematography captures stark depictions of flooded or burnt-down villages, and the rugged landscapes of Denmark’s desolate coastline as two lone survivors re-unite by an old stone church atop a rocky hill. Filmed in the midst of a raging WWI, The End of the World, with its religious overtones, seems to say that “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth”, and this film inherits number 3 on our list. Read the full review here.

2. A Trip to Mars

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Himmelskibet, released in 1918, is he first serious movie to deal with a trip to a distant planet. Poetically filmed and featuring lavish Martian designs, this Danish space opera is at heart an endearing pacifist message in a time when the first world war was ravishing Europe. So Denmark claims another top spot on the list with this groundbreaking film directed by Holger-Madsen, just before the Danish film industry collapsed under its own weight.

International movie star Gunnar Tolnæs, renowned for and made rich by his roles as Arabian sheiks, stars as adventure-hungry pilot Avanti Planetaros who sets out on a six months long space journey in order to reach Mars, along with a small team of fellow astronauts. The mighty space ship Excelsior unfortunately looks like a rickety dirigible from the outside, but the inner sets are well-made. A Trip to Mars is fairly unique among early space films as it tries to portray the tedious and claustrophobic business of space travel, with egos and psyches rubbing against each other. However, at the breaking point our heroes reach Mars, a Greek-styled pacifist and vegan society where men where togas and funny little baby bonnets on their heads, and where magical forests are adorned with glowing flowers, dancing fairies and mystical springs. The barbaric Earthmen commit a cardinal sin by first shooting a giant bird for dinner and then throwing a grenade at poor Swedish/Martian Nils Asther, who luckily survives in order to become a Hollywood star appearing opposite his country-woman Greta Garbo in The Single Standard and in the title role in The Bitter Tea of General Yen. But as the Earthlings think they are about to be executed, it turns out that The House of Judgement is simply a correctional facility, where they learn about their evil nature and are set free again by repenting. As time goes by, the Earthmen learn the ways of pacifism and peace, and Avanti falls in love with Corona, the Princess of Mars, whom he brings with him back to Earth as an emissary for a new way of life.

The movie was made as the fourth year of WWI raged, and was commission by Nordisk Film’s founder as a pacifist anti-war film. Occasionally plodding and sometimes hilariously over-acted, with Tolnæs dramatically pointing at things all the way through, the film is a surprisingly fresh take on space adventure, anticipating films like Aelita (1924) and The Woman in the Moon (1929). The set designs and special effects are awesome, despite a comparatively small budget, and the Martian scenes carry a beautiful poetical quality. The naive moral story is sledgehammered into the audience, but this is understandable considering the circumstances. This film means that Denmark claims both third and second spot on the list. Read the full review here.

1. Homunculus

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The top film of our list will probably surprise a lot of readers. But this gothic German 1916 film serial deserves its number one spot. Originally released as six hour-long episodes, the scope and ambition of this movie stands head and shoulders over all other science fiction productions released in the 1910s. A huge success upon its release, the epic film follows the exploits of the soulless supervillain Homunculus, a creature created by science, as he wows to find love or destroy humanity. Robert Reinert’s multi-layered script draws on Frankenstein and Faust, as well as Freud, Nietzsche and Marx to create both a treatise on the human condition as well as a comment on WWI. It turned its Danish lead actor Olaf Fønss into a matinee idol and even influenced fashion. Olaf Fønss is the the same actor who played the evil businessman in The End of the World, making him the biggest sci-fi star of the 1910s.

On his sprawling adventures, Homunculus travels to the Orient, where he heals an ailing chief with his supernatural powers, he becomes owner of a powerful corporation as he invents a weapon of mass destruction, while simultaneously agitating for a socialist revolution as a double agent among the workers. He destroys the lives of numerous women while trying to understand love and kindness, but fails equally when he finds a woman who loves him for his power and wickedness. He alienates his one-time friend Rodin (Friedrich Kühne, who appeared as the villain in The Tales of Hoffmann) and after losing everything decides to bring together a young couple to a deserted island in order to breed a new race of humans, untainted by the evil of society. But this fails as well, and Homunculus retires to a cave in order to become a hermit, while Rodin uses the secrets of Homunculus’ “father” in order to create a second Homunculus, the only creature that can kill the monster that science (or is it society?) created. And the film ends with an epic battle between the two immortal creatures on a mountaintop.

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Homunculus (Olaf Fønss) bitterly mourning the death of his one true friend in life, a stray dog.

The film has been called a mix between Frankenstein and Metropolis, and the notion is not far off. Themes of doppelgängers, automatons and marionettes were popular with German filmmakers, who often laboured with themes of moral duality, Freudian projection and Faustian self-deceit. Homunculus uses his origin, in essence a perceived paternal betrayal, as an excuse for his own evilness. He reasons that because he cannot feel love, he must be evil, and as he is evil, he is not morally responsible for the evil that he does. Evil does as evil is, in essence. But thanks to the strong acting of lead Olaf Fønss, the viewer is rather quickly led to the conclusion that Homunculus’ real problem isn’t really that he feels too little, but rather that he feels too much. Instead of dealing with his feelings of betrayal and rejection, he thrusts the blame of his shortcomings onto his “father” and society for having created him as a monster: laying the blame on society, he refuses to take responsibility for his own actions. In a sense a very modern notion of a morality play.

Fønss is magnetic in his portrayal of Homunculus, pulling out all the stops for a wonderfully charismatic and over-the-top performance. Some scenes are beautifully framed and shot. The film’s artistic qualities are probably more thanks to cinematographer Carl Hoffmann, who was one of the greats of early German cinema, than to director Otto Rippert. While Expressionism had not yet been crystallised in cinema, we see much of the lighting schemes later used in Expressionist movies, like the stark contrasts between light and shade. The outdoor photography is magnificent, and some of the stunt work very impressive. The film drags in parts, even in its shortened form, and the operatic feel and exaggerated acting does take some time to get used to.  Film scholar David Bordwell praises the pictorial ambitions of the filmmakers, and writes that some of the reasons why the series is so compelling are partly that it offers a “fairly original reworking of the Frankenstein premise” and partly that “its central conceit of a mad, misunderstood supervillain in search of love can evoke some empathy. There’s also the effort to convey a world in flames, to suggest a cosmic catastrophe with minimal means.” And these efforts make Homunculus the best science fiction film of the 1910s. Read the full review here.

Janne Wass

 

 

2 replies

    • Thanks! There’s a pricey double edition DVD with The End of the World and A Trip to Mars available on Amazon, but you can find The End of the World in a decent quality upload on YouTube as well.

      Like

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