The Camera Can Add Ten Feet

Note: This is the eighteenth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my third favorite 1902 film, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS AMONG THE LILLIPUTIANS AND THE GIANTS, directed by Georges Méliès.

A TRIP TO THE MOON is a technical and artistic masterpiece. Anything from the era is compared to that landmark film, and no one received the pressure of that comparison more than the movie’s director himself, Georges Méliès. Méliès’ contemporary critics and modern scholars alike use A TRIP TO THE MOON as a template for what he could do, and especially when examining his films post-1902, many refer back to that massive success. As someone who admittedly falls into this same pattern of oftentimes reductive compare and contrast behavior, I found myself relatively underwhelmed with Méliès’ other 1902 work. Then I paid a little more attention to GULLIVER’S TRAVELS AMONG THE LILLIPUTIANS AND THE GIANTS.

Unfortunately, the film we have today is not totally complete. The GULLIVER’S TRAVELS that results is more of a highlight reel of key moments from the Jonathan Swift novel, including the important initial encounters and interactions with the titular Lilliputians and giants. Like most any Gulliver’s Travels adaptation, Méliès’ film doesn’t really communicate the satire and clever commentary Swift intended with his book. It does, however, brilliantly visualize the equally impressive fantastical elements of its source material in innovative, technically refined fashion. Most importantly, it plays with scale and proportion to unparalleled success, at least by 1902.

Substitution splices, miniature sets, and careful shooting angles had already created giants, tiny sprites, and convincing action in film. I’ve even written about the delightfully bizarre and convincingly frightening giant of a 1901 favorite, MAGICAL SWORD. But extreme size disparities are a part of GULLIVER’S TRAVELS’ central conceit, and Méliès pulled it off on a, pardon the expression, larger scale.

As I mentioned, the film’s preservation status makes it feel like a disconnected handful of scenes, but each show off some kind of scaling technique. The film opens with an old, bearded Gulliver (played by Méliès) tip-toeing through a Lilliput town. This immediately establishes Gulliver’s place in a small world through, as usual for Méliès’ films, brilliantly crafted, sumptuous sets with illusory depths. The difference, of course, is that they are miniature. Our brains are used to seeing buildings on a large scale, so their small recreations immediately make Gulliver look huge, in spite of the fact that he is the same size as any ordinary human, and will remain so throughout the film.

The next couple scenes are relatively seamless examples of fantastic splicing and depth of field tricks. If you look closely, you can see where the line is blurred, but ultimately, the Lilliputians’ interactions with Gulliver are very much real. Whether he’s tied up and being prodded at or sitting at a table being served by minuscule men, Gulliver appears to be a part of the small society. He doesn’t look like a ghostly apparition brought into their realm by unconvincing double exposure, and his quick action, namely in picking up the vessel of a Lilliputian woman and putting out a fire with a little spray of water, is fluid and clear.

And just like that, without much explanation due to the film’s missing portions, Gulliver goes from being the big man in town to being not unlike a Lilliputian himself, in comparison to the giants he finds himself among. Now, because we’ve seen Gulliver appear large before, and because the camera is pulled closer to the actors than ever before in a Méliès film, his diminutive frame lends the giants an implicit size that would otherwise seem normal.

The framing of the story up until that point, the framing of the camera, and the audience’s knowledge of Gulliver’s true nature give the context necessary to make normally proportioned humans appear massive. While Gulliver’s encounter with the giants is underwhelming after the charm, action, and humor of the previous surviving segments, the sheer technical and psychological effects at play in the film’s final scene are a fitting reversal of what the film was doing with its titular character up until the end.

As limited as the story can be, considering the fragmentary nature of GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, its technical feats create an undeniable charm strengthened by Méliès’ incredible production value and sense of place. Like A TRIP TO THE MOON, I felt like I was actually in the world being portrayed while watching GULLIVER’S TRAVELS. By 1902, Méliès was transcending his limited studio space, both literally and figuratively, improving upon his staging of a physical space, and creating immersive movies in the process. He was able to communicate a sense of convincing depth as early as CINDERELLA (1899) and JOAN OF ARC (1900), but with A TRIP TO THE MOON and GULLIVER’S TRAVELS in 1902, Méliès’ films were breaking some of the limitations inhibiting him just a few years earlier. GULLIVER’S TRAVELS AMONG THE LILLIPUTIANS AND THE GIANTS, especially, is an important progenitor of perspective and proportion plays that would allow films like THE LORD OF THE RINGS to present their fantastical worlds and people of all shapes and sizes to such convincing effect.

Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.

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