After considering a number of schemes and suffering an interruption by suffragettes, a group of scholars throw their weight behind Professior Maboul’s expedition to the North Pole. He proposes to reach the roof to the world by aeroplane. After a long and difficult flight through the heavens, he achieves his goal. Unfortunately, a giant of the Arctic snows takes offence at his presence…
Things were not going well for film pioneer Georges Méliès by 1912. His short subjects had defined the early days of cinema and he’d enjoyed constant international success for over a decade. But he’d made a very bad business deal with Pathé Studios in England and his brother had returned from a filming project in Africa with only damaged footage, incurring considerable financial loss on the his studio. But, more importantly, tastes were changing. Méliès’ fantastical subjects had been eclipsed by more realistic material, and his box office was suffering. So what was the answer? A bigger and better film in the trademark Méliès style, of course! And that film was ‘The Conquest of the Pole’ (1912); a half hour epic that harked back to Jules Verne, and one of Méliès’ biggest triumphs: ‘A Trip To The Moon’ (1902).
The film opens with the meeting of eminent scholars. They consider the best method for reaching the pole; train, motor car(!), or balloon. Eventually, they pin their colours to the flying ship of Professor Maboul, played by Méliès himself. It’s a surprising decision, considering the vehicle resembles a box with wheels that has a bi-plane’s wings attached and a large figurehead in the shape of a bird of prey. But no matter! Rival explorer’s protest and decide to pursue their chosen methods anyway. And then the meeting is invaded by plaque waving suffragettes, desperate to get in on the action. This could be a concession to ‘modern’ times, of course, but l suspect it’s more of an effort at witless comedy.
Méliès’ flying box/plane/bird departs for the pole, encountering lots of celestial bodies along the way, as usual in the form of smiling young women playing stars in the night sky. When they eventually arrive at the pole, our intrepid explorers encounter a snow giant, whose head and arms rise above the ice. The picture’s best sequence is the battle that follows. Rather pleasingly, afterwards they climb the actual North Pole before it falls over and deposits them in the icy water.
Technically the film is quite an achievement for 1912, particularly the snow giant. Méliès could not be accused of failing to put his budget up there on the screen. Unfortunately, despite the length of the film, is still doesn’t have the strong narrative thread that audiences were beginning to demand. lt’s still a triumph of style over substance, and nothing that audiences hadn’t seen from Melies before. In other words, more of the same, just bigger and better.
The film was not a success. Méliès lost control of his studio to Pathé. The Great War that would shatter Europe was just over the horizon. The party was over. Méliès never made another film.