Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Franco-Prussian War

The Last Cartridges (1897)

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.

The original painting.

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

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown.

Run Time: 1 min, 11 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

Surprise Attack on a House at Dawn (1898)

Alternate Title: Surprise d’une maison au petît jour

This short scene from Alice Guy may reflect the popularity of American war films at the time. While the Americans had their own real war to shoot (the Spanish-American War), the danger of conditions and limitations of the technology resulted in most of their combat scenes being re-enactments. Well, France had plenty of historical and patriotic wars to re-enact, and that is what Guy has her actors do here.

Surprise Attack on a HouseWe see the front of a house on a snow-covered morning. A lone guard stands next to a small cannon, or possibly a Gatling gun or similar weapon. A group of soldiers in different uniforms sneak up behind him and one of them shoots him from behind. Now they all run around to stand before the camera and exchange fire with the soldiers who come out of the house to investigate the shot. They soon retreat and the defense force uses the gun to frighten them and also engages in pursuit. An officer, with a sword and side arm instead of a rifle, waves his arms and tries to direct the soldiers. Suddenly, the enemy reappears, pushing a large wagon in front of them for cover. They fight with the officer and his few remaining men, the officer cutting several down with his sword. When the film ends, the fighting is still going on.

Surprise Attack on a House1This movie made no immediate sense to me, and I had to do a certain amount of digging before the French Wikipedia informed me that it is a re-enactment of a battle from the “War of 1870” (known to Americans, if at all, as the “Franco-Prussian War”). I’m not good at identifying uniforms, but I believe the French are the defenders in this sequence, which may explain why the heroic officer isn’t cut down for his rather foolhardy sword attack on men with guns. The apparent snow on the ground threw me as well – the only war I could think of where cold weather was a factor was Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia, which didn’t seem like an uplifting subject for a French filmmaker. Of course, the French lost the Franco-Prussian war as well, ultimately, but this version of events allows the viewer to focus on the individual heroism of the soldiers and on the aspect of defending against a ruthless enemy (willing to shoot a man in the back, for instance). As compared to other war movies I’ve seen from the time, this one is pretty exciting: keeping up the action consistently throughout and using the stationary framing to add a degree of suspense – when the soldiers run on and off camera, we imagine the battle expanding, and wonder when the next attack will come on screen.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Alice Guy)

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).