20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1907)

20,000_Leagues_Under_The_Sea_(1907)Georges Méliès goes back to Jules Verne, five years after his classic trip to the moon. 

A young man descends to the sea bed via his submarine, where he has encounters with various strange creatures of the deep…

Georges Méliès was a Frenchman born into a family of shoemakers, who was bitten by the theatrical bug on a visit to England. He became a stage manager and illusionist, before adapting his talents to the newly born medium of cinema and becoming the pioneer of fantasy and science fiction film. Between 1896 and the beginning of World War One, Méliès turned out over 500 short subjects, mostly on bizarre themes, reaching its zenith with ‘A Trip To The Moon’ (1902). This was a 13 minute adaptation of Jules Verne’s ‘From The Earth To The Moon’ (1865) and featured the rocket hitting the moon in the eye, an image which has since become one of the most famous in all cinema.

In 1907 when he produced this 17 minute epic, Méliès was still riding the crest of international success. He had invented many early cinematic techniques, including using ‘stop motion’ to create SFX. The story may be apocryphal but allegedly he was filming a street scene when the camera jammed. He got it going again but when he watched the resulting footage, the sudden ‘break’ turned a normal horse and carriage into a hearse. This also points, perhaps a little too conveniently, towards such moments as the sudden ‘appearance’ of Satan in Méliès’ ‘The Haunted Castle’ (1986), often cited as the world’s first horror film.

Sadly, only 10 minutes of this film remains, and that in a print so white that a lot of the detail is lost. A young aquanaut descends in his submarine after a send-off featuring some soldiers and a line of dancing girls. Once under the sea, he wanders about without oxygen or a wetsuit and encounters various undersea creatures, such as a giant lobster, and some more dancing girls who emerge from a large sea shell. This is complete fantasy, of course, and at total variance with Verne’s more factual approach to storytelling. But it was the fantastic elements that allowed Méliès to indulge his visual sensibilities and outlandish designs; in short, the signature ‘look’ of all his work.

Georges_Melies

Georges Méliès

But success was not to last for the Frenchman. He signed a financially disastrous business deal with the Pathé Studios in England, just as his films started to go out of fashion. Spending more money on more elaborate productions must have seemed like the solution, but it just increased his financial woes and, just before the outbreak of World War One, he lost control of his studio and film company. In a rage, he burnt most of the negatives of his films, one of the prime reasons why barely 200 of them have survived into the present day.

For many years, it was generally believed that Méliès had died in absolute poverty; a bitter and broken man. It is true that he sold toys from a booth in the Paris Metro, as depicted in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Hugo’ (2011), but, by the 1920s, there had been a revival of interest in his work, particularly amongst contemporary film directors. A gala evening of his films was held in 1929, which Melies later described as ‘one of the most brilliant moments of my life’. Friendships were fellow directors endured and he became the first curator of what would eventually become the world renowned film archive, the Cinémathèque Française. He died in 1938.

Although this film is in too poor a condition to be truly representative of Melies’ best work, it still serves as a reminder of the roots of fantasy and science fiction filmmaking and stands as another testament to the first film director in the moon.

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