Divers at Work on the Wreck of the “Maine” (1898)
This short from Georges Méliès exploits the Spanish-American War by pretending to recreate its cause. While not a convincing actuality for modern viewers (and possibly not even for contemporaries), it again shows the technical creativity Méliès brought to his early work.
The camera shows a backdrop painted to look like a ship with a hole in its hull, fishes swim in the foreground and three men in old fashioned diving suits are visible at center stage. The divers occasionally attach some flotsam to a rope and it is hauled up, out of view. One of the divers now produces a mannequin, representing the corpse of a drowned sailor, from the wreckage, and this is also tied to a rope and hauled up. As the scene ends, one of the divers climbs onto a rope ladder and begins to climb upward awkwardly.
The impressive part of this illusion is the fish swimming in the foreground, which at first I thought were on strings, but closer examination (and Wikipedia) has convinced me that Méliès placed a fish tank between the camera and the actors. This actually gives the scene a depth-effect not often seen in early movies which tend to be very two dimensional. The big question is whether this movie was actually accepted by contemporary audiences as a “real” document of the ocean floor or if they knew it was a re-creation, which is hard to say. It’s more convincing than some of Méliès reenactments, for example “The Surrender of Tournavos” which seems very obviously a staged action scene, but I suspect that few people believed Méliès had really gone all the way to the Caribbean to shoot underwater. The “corpse” should have given it away at least, it is quite clearly a dummy. Still, this is a nice example of creativity and showmanship from the nineteenth century.
Alternate Titles: Visit sous-marine du Maine, Divers at Work on a Wreck Under Sea
Director: Georges Méliès
Camera: Unknown, possibly Georges Méliès
Starring: Unknown, possibly Georges Méliès
Run Time: 1 Min
You can watch it for free: here.