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À LA CONQUÊTE DU PÔLE (1912)
Director: Georges Méliès
Starring: Georges Méliès, Fernande Albany
Screenplay: Georges Méliès, based upon a novel by Jules Verne
gathering of the great minds of the world, it is decided to
undertake an expedition to the North Pole. Professor Maboul (Georges
Méliès) invites his colleagues to his workshop and shows them a
model of the means by which he intends to reach their goal: an
amazing flying machine. Maboul leads the way to his factory, where
construction of the airship is nearing completion. When the flying
machine is ready, Maboul and some of the other savants depart, to
the acclamation of the gathered crowd. Those who did not manage to
secure a seat on the flying machine consider other means of reaching
the pole; some leave by balloon, others by automobile – all meet a
grim fate. Meanwhile, Maboul and his team fly through the heavens,
encountering comets, planets and constellations. A lash of Scorpio’s
tail almost causes the flying machine to crash. It recovers and
Circumstances were not kind to Georges Méliès in the decade
following the triumph of
Voyage Dans La Lune. Although he
maintained his popularity in the years following the release of his
magnum opus, his finances never
recovered from the damage sustained at that time. Moreover, the
world of cinema was changing. No longer considered a mere novelty,
film was becoming a serious business, with companies like Gaumont
and Pathé coming to be recognised as a force to be reckoned with not
The cumulative effect of all these blows upon Georges Méliès can be judged by his ever-diminishing creative output. At the height of his success, Méliès was making something in the vicinity of eighty films a year; in 1912, he made only five. As things turned out, however, among those five is one of his most enduringly popular, another that contributes to the contemporary vision of Méliès as one of the fathers of the genre film. À La Conquête Du Pôle is for the most part a science fiction-adventure story very much in the mould of Le Voyage Dans La Lune – frankly, rather too much in the mould of Le Voyage Dans La Lune – but at its climax it produces something original, something that moves it into the realm of the horror movie, and would endear the film to generations to come: A Honking Big Monster.
But first things first! À La Conquête Du Pôle, which is very loosely based upon Jules Verne's “The Adventures Of Captain Hatteras”, as well as on a now-lost film by R.W. Paul, Voyage Of The Arctic, opens with a congress of “savants”, who decide to undertake an expedition to the North Pole. The leader of the group, a bearded chap called Professor Maboul (played as usual by Méliès himself), invites some of the others into his workshop, to show to them his model of the “flying machine” with which he intends to attempt the assault upon the pole. A curious mixture, those other savants: we have two Mexicans, one in a sombrero, the other in full bandido regalia; there’s a fan-waving, be-robed Japanese man, and a fur hatted and bearded Russian, and so on. There is a slightly uncomfortable vibe to this blunt stereotyping, but I suppose in a film only ten minutes long, some visual shorthand is forgivable. (The problem, I suppose, is that the nationality of the other adventurers is ultimately irrelevant.) Maboul demonstrates the model of his flying machine, then conducts the others into his factory, where the real machine is under construction. Enthused, the others dedicate themselves to the expedition. Only some of them win a place in Maboul’s flying machine, however, and the others seek alternative methods of transport. One group chooses a balloon, while the other decides that they will drive to the pole (!!).
In the next sequence, we get the distinct impression that Georges Méliès’ always macabre sense of humour had, over the intervening years, either naturally or due to his increasingly difficult circumstances, crossed the line into the realm of outright cruelty. The savants are not the only ones presented via crude stereotyping: as the various expeditionary groups set out, there is an attempt made to disrupt the proceedings by a suffragette. While Méliès would have enjoyed the tribute paid to him in the “Tonight, Tonight” music video, there was one aspect of that to which he probably would have objected: the fact that Billy Corgan & Co. have a woman as an equal participant in the adventure, eagerly boarding the flying machine, duelling with Selenites, riding a rocket and swimming in the ocean. Women did not fare quite so well in Méliès’ own films, where for the most part they were cast as sex objects, as victims, or as the targets of mockery. Such is the case here as the suffragette grabs onto the balloon as it begins to ascend. The men on board shake her loose (!!), and she tumbles through the air – fussing with her hair on the way down – to end up impaled upon a church steeple....between the legs. This being a Méliès film, she then explodes.
Mind you, most of this film’s male characters don’t fare much better. In fact, in the process of detaching the suffragette, the balloonists lose much of their ballast. The balloon goes soaring into the sky where, yes, it explodes, killing all on board. Meanwhile, those attempting to approach the pole by automobile (models that look charmingly forward to the special effects of Eiji Tsuburaya, and the work of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson), succeed only in driving straight off the edge of a cliff.
So much for “savants”.
Meanwhile, Professor Maboul and those fortunate (?) enough to have won a place on his flying machine are soaring through the heavens, having the usual Mélièsian celestial encounters, and causing the usual amount of damage. The machine flies straight into Saturn, here a construct with a grotesquely laughing face, and Saturn, yup, explodes. Maboul and the others travel on, flying past various constellations representing the signs of the zodiac (“Libra: today you will encounter a peculiar Frenchman in a flying deathtrap....”). This is almost the end of them, as Scorpio strikes at them with the stinger in its tale. The flying machine spins wildly, but Maboul manages to bring it under control, and to bring it in for a landing. Naturally, he knocks chunks out of the Arctic landscape, and the machine itself finally crashes and crumples. Again, Homo sapiens: wrecking the joint wherever he goes.
The adventurers themselves are uninjured, and
they begin to explore their surroundings. Here again we get some of
Méliès’ glorious constructed landscapes, as an
How many of us, during the years prior to the
ready availability of Méliès’ work (we are so spoiled these days!),
were tantalised and tormented by stills from the following sequence,
reproduced in various books? Maboul and the others discover a
strange opening in the ice, and even as they begin to examine it,
something stirs within:
géant des neiges, the giant of the
ice. This marvellously imaginative creation is nothing less than a
full-sized marionette, towering over the human actors as it is,
self-evidently, manipulated by out-of-shot stage-hands. There is a
delightfully contradictory aspect to the realisation of our giant:
in truth, the operation of the marionette is not particularly well
done; his eyelids and his arms are continually out of synch.
However, the result of this is to bestow upon the giant a real
personality: with his bizarrely uncoordinated movements, he finally
comes across like the drunk, disreputable uncle of one of the
The explorers, understandably terrified, at first run for cover as the giant slowly emerges from his icy retreat. Then they decide to attack him, by pelting him with snowballs. (I am compelled here to quote my dear friend and colleague Dr Freex: under what circumstances would this be deemed a good idea?) The giant’s reaction to this is one that is censored from many of the surviving prints of À La Conquête Du Pôle: he catches up two of the adventurers in his hands, and eats one of them alive.
In response, the remaining adventurers step up the attack, producing a cannon from the wreck of the flying machine (don’t leave home on your Arctic expedition without one) and firing it at the giant. This has the result of making the giant spit out the devoured adventurer, who proves to be alive and in one piece (rather unlikely, given all the gruesome champing of jaws we were just witness to); and then the giant sinks back into the ice.
Next the adventurers achieve their supreme triumph by reaching the North Pole – represented by a literal pole, of course. After shaking each others’ hands vigorously, they claim the pole by planting a flag. (Curiously, this flag looks very much like a “Betsy Ross”, the early American flag featuring a circle of stars above the stripes. Although the question of who really reached the North Pole first remains in dispute to this day, in 1912 it was generally accepted that the Peary expedition had done so in 1909. The use of this particular flag may have been Méliès’ way of acknowledging the American claim.) The men then get a dramatic illustration of the fact that this is not merely the North Pole, but the North Magnetic Pole: venturing too close, they are irresistibly drawn to the pole and stick to it, struggling helplessly as it rotates. This rather comic episode then turns to tragedy as the pole collapses under the combined weight of the men, and it and they sink into icy waters.
All seems lost for the adventurers until, suddenly, a second flying ship appears (and just who may be piloting that, we never do learn). As the ship hovers over the crevice, it lowers a rope ladder, which Professor Maboul scales. It seems at this point that only the Professor will be saved, but as the flying ship pulls away we do get the briefest glimpse of a strange bundle being extracted by rope from the crevice. It may well be that this is the other men, trussed together in an exceedingly uncomfortable manner. Be that as it may, it is only Professor Maboul who reappears before le Club aéronautique, to receive the acclamation of his peers. FIN.
À La Conquête Du Pôle is a charming work in its own right, but it also highlights the basis of much of the criticism that in certain quarters has been levelled at Georges Méliès. Put bluntly, the film is just Le Voyage Dans La Lune all over again, something quite painfully apparent during the first half, which 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.
Of course, all of this is much more obvious today, when we are able to sit and watch examples of Méliès’ work back-to-back, than it would have been at the time of their release, when film was a most ephemeral entity, to be watched once and often discarded. It is quite possible that audiences of 1912 welcomed a reappearance from such old friends as the celestial women - assuming that the film didn't play to a new audience altogether. However, a viewing of this film makes it 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. The bag of tricks – painted backdrops, superimpositions, explosions, jump-cuts – has not altered one iota over the preceding decade.
The plain fact is that Méliès never had any real interest in cinema as cinema; his aim was, rather, to use cinema as a means of preserving the traditions of the theatre, to which he was passionately devoted. It is rather unjust, therefore, to criticise the man for not doing what he never tried to do, or for not being what he never intended to be. At the same time, it is easily understood how contemporary film-making could overtake and then abandon Méliès. For better or for worse, by 1912 the cinema was on a very different evolutionary path. A real language of film had been developed, thanks to pioneers such as Edwin S. Porter. All over the world, production was exploding, resulting in longer, more carefully scripted and executed narratives; while actors – “stars” – and directors were beginning to become publically known and acclaimed. Within two years of the release of À La Conquête Du Pôle, the Italian cinema, already developing a tradition of historical and biblical productions, would produce the three-hour epic, Cabiria; in Germany, film-makers like Robert Weine and Paul Wegener and the American-born Arthur Robison were winning fame with their tales of the Unheimliche; while in America, David Wark Griffith was honing the skills that before long see him hailed as the leading director in the world. Beside all this, the works of Georges Méliès begin to seem quaint to the point of absurdity.
The partnership with Pathé, entered into so reluctantly, brought Méliès little but further grief; he made his final film in 1913. (One of Méliès’ causes for complaint was the editing of his films against his will: there is some indication that the existing prints of À La Conquête Du Pôle may be less than half its original running-time; my own print is shorter than that found on recent DVD releases.) With the outbreak of war, Méliès was forced to close his beloved Theatre Robert-Houdin, and subsequently earned a living by converting his film studio into a small theatre and running a repertory company comprised largely of family members. This lasted until the early twenties when Pathé, from whom Méliès had parted most acrimoniously, tried to recoup some of its own debts by forcing the sale of Méliès’ remaining assets. At the same time, the Theatre Robert-Houdin was ordered to be demolished to make way for a road-building project. In the face of this final, overwhelming blow, Georges Méliès would wreak a terrible revenge upon posterity – and, unknowingly or uncaringly, upon himself. Méliès was compelled to remove his remaining possessions from the theatre prior to its demolition. Amongst them were crates containing the negatives of his films. In his anger and misery, Georges Méliès ordered those crates destroyed....
The crowning irony of all this is that the film pirates against whom Méliès had fought so bitterly for so many years, and who had cost him so enormous a portion of the profits he should have earned, are the main reason why today we still have as many of Méliès’ films as we do. It is, granted, only a third of the total – catalogues preserved from the time indicate that Méliès made something like 560 films, of which less than 200 survive – but considering that we might have, in that moment of madness, have lost all of Méliès’ work, we can only be grateful for this partial mercy.
Over the years following his retirement from film-making, Georges Méliès was periodically “rediscovered” – literally, in the first instance, when in the late twenties he was recognised by a film critic while at work at the small shop that was by then his main support. Some of his films were found and screened in 1929, to a rapturous reception from the public that at long last provided a balm for Méliès’ lingering hurt. Méliès’ last years were spent peacefully in a retirement home for veterans of the film industry. He died in 1938. In 1952, Méliès’ widow, Jehanne d’Alcy – she of the heavens, and of that shocking near-nude bath scene in Après Le Bal – and their son, André, were heavily involved in the production of Le Grand Méliès, a telling of the man’s life and film-making career directed by Georges Franju; Andre Méliès was allowed to star as his father. At long last, Georges Méliès received his full due.
For something too often dismissed as “novelties” – as opposed to “real” films – the productions of Georges Méliès would prove to have a huge impact upon generations of film-makers; Charles Chaplin, René Clair, Luis Bunuel and – I take it all back: this is the crowning irony – D.W. Griffith are just a few of the directors to claim Méliès as a major influence; while from the 1920s onwards, those taking up employment in a whole new film-making realm, the special effects artists, would only too obviously look back to Méliès for inspiration. Those of us who love the fantastique are incalculably in his debt: horror, fantasy, and science fiction films; monsters and demons; aliens and lost worlds; inventions and expeditions; mad scientists and their bizarre experiments; evil doctors and their disregard for ethics....all of these cinematic standards, and many, many more, have their roots in the imagination of Georges Méliès, and the alternatively bizarre, unnerving and charming celluloid fever-dreams to which it gave birth.
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