Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Conquest of the Pole (1912)

French artist Georges Méliès is, in many ways, often considered the father of modern cinema.  He pioneered multiple special effects and fantastic sets that gave way to some of the first fantasy and science fiction films to ever grace the silver screen.  And, as mentioned in our review of A Terrible Night, Méliès is known for having made hundreds of experimental special effects films during his career, and due to the scale and scope of his productions - as well as their tendency to focus on the fantastical - it is almost certain that he was responsible for the very first giant monster movie ever made.  Many of his later works, including The Conquest of the Pole, would make use of full-size props and puppets to bring these fantastic monsters to life.

In the case of The Conquest of the Pole - as well as much of Méliès' most famous films in his filmography - a great influence on Méliès was the famed French science fiction author, Jules Verne.  Verne's most famous works of science fiction often dealt with extraordinary minds opting to travel out in the world (or the universe, as is the case in his book From Earth to the Moon which inspired Méliès' most famous film, A Trip to the Moon) and generally running into all sorts of danger.  Indeed, often they would find that man's reach often surpasses his grasp, and that the further out they traveled, the more they found themselves in a world of monsters. The giants and dinosaurs of Journey to the Center of the Earth or the massive squid from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea are prime examples of creatures of the past clashing with Verne's forward-thinking humans.  This clash was especially poignant at time, such as was the case in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea when Captain Nemo, a man who has been sinking ships with his weaponized submarine, has to keep his own ship from sinking when a group of giant squid attack it.

Taking note,  Méliès would tread these same waters in his films - many of which paid homage, if not outright adapted Verne's novels. It should also be noted that Jules Verne seems to be one of the first, if not the first to use a giant "mech" in his stories.  Mechs tend to be giant robots, often humanoid, which are also usually piloted by humans for the purpose of combat and so forth (though technically, sentient robots such as those from the Transformers franchise count as well).  In his story The Steam House, a giant steam powered mechanical elephant is used as a vehicle by some of the characters. The Mech genre is one that is often closely associated with giant monsters, and even crosses over into the same territory periodically.  Not surprisingly, Georges would also be the first to put a robot to film.

While not an outright adaptation, but rather an homage of sorts to all of Verne's works, The Conquest of the Pole still liberally borrows ideas and imagery from Verne's The Adventures of Captain Hatterus, as well as the haunting and grim The Sphinx of the Ice Fields.  Running at about thirty minutes, 1912's The Conquest of the Pole would be Méliès' last successful film before his studio went bankrupt.  Though several of Méliès' films featured color, as he hand-colored some of the film cells in a select few of his movies, this one opts to remain in black and white, serving the dark, cold, and inhospitable setting well.  The entire film has an eerie dreamlike quality that is both inviting, and also horrifying (rightfully so), making this one of Méliès' most affective achievements in his career.  Not to mention, the scene-stealing giant monster on display here is one of the most striking and bombastic conclusions to any film up until that point.

The Conquest of the Pole begins with a group of the world's leading scientists discussing - even arguing - about the best means by which to travel to the North Pole.  Back in those days, nobody had really made it to the pole, although a few had claimed to as early as 1908.  In fact, in real life, according to many, the first consistent, verified, and scientifically convincing attainment of the Pole was on 12 May 1926, by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his US sponsor Lincoln Ellsworth from the airship Norge.  And in fact, Norge went again two years later.  But back in the day of Méliès' film, this was still a very hot topic among the scientific/explorer community, meaning the film is actually pretty cutting edge as far as topical science fiction.

After the lead professor, played by Georges Méliès himself, proposes building a sort of air bus - yet another extremely forward thinking concept considering that this was within a decade of the Wright Brother's first flight - the meeting is interrupted by a gang of suffragettes.  The suffragettes are all shamelessly played by some rather robust women, who flamboyantly demand to come along on the expedition, though they are denied.  For the remainder of the first act, our main group of scientists are treated to a demo, using small models, of how the airbus will work.  Following the demo, they get to work on constructing it via a montage.  Throughout the montage we are also shown what the rival suffragettes are up to in constructing their own vehicles.  They eventually all finish their crafts and head off in a massive race to the north pole.

Most of the rivals meet humorously deadly ends right from the beginning of the race, such as a hot air balloon exploding, or the vehicles just driving off of a bridge and crashing.  It's all really exciting, and while I realize this is more likely the cinephile in me than anything else, I have to admit that I felt pure, visceral awe at seeing all of Méliès' imaginary planes and airships dotting the sky as they headed northward.  For all the modern film I see and the truly remarkable special effects we have today, there's something still completely enchanting about the imagery and scope of what Méliès tried to pull off in his films.

That scope is taken to a whole new level when the intrepid explorers land in the icy northlands.  Right from the off, as they skid to a halt on the ice, the tone and mood is set.  There is a truly pure feeling of the awe, wonder, and fear from the way Méliès constructed the ice-scape.  Jagged and sharp bolts of ice shoot up from the snowy banks toward the dark sky above.  An ominous feeling blankets the rest of the expedition - but again, it's incredible how frightening and yet dreamy everything appears.  They begin traveling on foot, heading to the pole, when they run across the entire reason I am reviewing this film: a massive frost giant.

Accomplished through the use to a ginormous marionette-type rig, the Ice Giant (a creature most well-known for appearing in Norse Mythology as a race of the oldest living beings on Earth) rises up out of the snow, his soulless eyes piercing through billowing steam, almost smoldering as it rises off of his body.  I am truly reminded of an old Super Nintendo game, reaching the final boss of a level as it rises up and stares out at nothing, flailing its arms violently around.  Is it cheap by today's standards?  Certainly, but it is not for lack of a genius design that can still be appreciated today.  And in spite of how dated the effects are, like most monster movies, it comes off as nothing short of insanely cool and utterly charming.

Following the tropes of what will become a classic formula for giant monster films, the Frost Giant has been awoken by ambitious and oblivious humans.  Wanton scientific exploit has invaded his home and awakened the beast, and the scientists are about to be punished for it.  As Ishiro Honda, the director of the original Godzilla, pointed out about his own monster creation, monsters are tragic, and many are just so large that the humans have no choice but to defend themselves.  And they do.  The scientists begin pelting the giant with snowballs, arrogantly assuming they can simply brush him aside, and that their own conquest is of a higher weight than his.  Eventually standing for no more, the giant gabs the men, and proceeds to actually devour one of them in a scene that had me just as giddy as any scene of monster-carnage that King Kong, Godzilla, or Cloverfield has ever been able to offer.  I cannot stress enough how shocked, and happy I was when first viewing this film that the monster was just as impressive and fun as any other movie monster around.  As per usual in such films, I was transformed back into a seven-year-old watching monster mayhem on a Saturday afternoon, which is a truly impressive accomplishment for a 1912 silent film.  Admittedly, I think much of that might have to do with the films pacing - which only ever really lags at the end of their flight to the pole - and the fact that the monster doesn't overstay his welcome on the screen.  It was definitely expertly balanced with the sequences in the rest of the film.

The battle with the titan comes to an end when they begin firing cannons at it.  He writhes, releases his victims, and even vomits out the man he gulped down earlier.  I'm a bit uncertain as to whether the giant actually gets killed, or merely slinks back down into the cave from whence he came - which is perhaps the only complaint or misunderstanding I had during the entire movie - but at any rate, he is defeated and the weary scientists move on.  They quickly locate the pole, which actually ends up sinking into the ocean where they all fall in and start freezing to death, only to be rescued and brought back home by one of their rivals arriving at that moment in a zeppelin.

How the Ice Giant was realized behind-the-scenes.

I'm a fan of Georges Méliès.  His movies are enchanting, even today, and his films are some of the only ones that I can say are just pure, unfiltered, art.  I do not think movies would be what they are today without his numerous contributions.  And while he certainly has a massive host of films to choose from, I have to be honest and say that this is sincerely my very favorite.  Méliès is not known for creating very memorable characters - especially compared to the highly memorable sets and sequences he often furnishes.  But this film stands head and shoulders above the rest for its more than memorable, and so much more than lovable giant monster.  As the film concluded, I was seriously so happy and blissfully pleased with what I had watched that I felt the immediate need to share it with others.  And as a giant monster movie,  the Frost Giant from The Conquest of the Pole still holds up as one of the most fun and enrapturing movie monsters I've ever seen.


  1. This film sounds purely enchanting, especially since I got to watch you enjoy it! You should share the link with me so I can watch it as well!

  2. You should learn how to use search engines and youtube m'dear.