This early short film from Georges Méliès lacks any camera trickery or stage magic, and might even be mistaken by a modern viewer as a docu-drama, or recreation of an event from history for educational purposes. A bit of investigation shows it to be even more interesting.
The stage is set as a proscenium-style arch, appearing to depict the upper-floor interior of a partially-ruined dwelling. Several men in tattered and unmatched uniforms enter from a window via a ladder and they run about with guns, firing out the window at an unseen opposition. One of the combatants is Méliès, who appears to be wearing a fez. Some of the men ascend another ladder at stage right, apparently taking to the rooftop. Smoke indicates when they fire, and also traces bullets flying in from outside. At one point, a puff of smoke suggests the explosion of a mortar shell in their midst, and one of the men falls over. He is assisted away from the battle to the rear of the room, and at the end of the footage a nun comes in to see to him.
This movie is one of the relatively few examples of a film reproduction of a painting, using the addition of motion to bring to life an image that people were already familiar with. Of course, such movies quickly went out of fashion with the addition of longer narratives, and filmmakers more often turned to literary sources or stage plays for inspiration, but this is a great early example of a director “thinking visually” instead of trying to bring visuals to pre-existing words. In this case, the picture is an 1873 painting by the French artist Alphonse de Neuville depicting a battle during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. This movie was produced in 1897, so most of the adults in the French audience remembered the war, and those too young to remember surely had learned about it in school or from their parents. The painting and the movie are intended to show the determined patriotism of the defenders, the hardships they had endured, and to give the French an opportunity to celebrate their nation despite crushing defeat by German forces. The one thing that is missing for us today is the color, which really makes the film seem ineffective next to the painting, but apparently this occurred to someone else; according to “The Silent Era” a remake of this movie at Lumière may have been the first to have been hand-painted, which became a standard for Méliès films in later years. Alas, I have not found any recreation or preservation of the original color version.
Director: Georges Méliès
Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown.
Run Time: 1 min, 11 secs
You can watch it for free: here (no music).