What’s Funnier than a Genocidal Belgian King?

AN ADVENTUROUS AUTOMOBILE TRIP (1905) — Georges Méliès

Note: This is the thirty-second 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 second favorite 1905 film, AN ADVENTUROUS AUTOMOBILE TRIP, directed by Georges Méliès.

If Georges Méliès’ THE PALACE OF THE ARABIAN NIGHTS (1905) represented a sort of artistic downturn, a shallow focus on the féerie style that made him so popular in the face of a changing film landscape, (and yet, nevertheless, my favorite film of the year), his AN ADVENTUROUS AUTOMOBILE TRIP (1905)was a more interesting film received with lukewarm financial returns.

THE PALACE OF THE ARABIAN NIGHTS (1905) — Georges Méliès

Smaller in scope yet nevertheless made with typical Méliès’ flare and a satirical approach not seen in his 1905 epic, AN ADVENTUROUS AUTOMOBILE TRIP’s high production values rendered its selling price to exhibitors a little too high. It was a commercial failure, and is considered one of the turning points in Méliès’ rapidly declining career. In this, both THE PALACE OF THE ARABIAN NIGHTS and AN ADVENTUROUS AUTOMOBILE TRIP have something in common, but otherwise, the two films are of decidedly different Méliès flavors.

For one, AN ADVENTUROUS AUTOMOBILE TRIP was much more critically beloved due to its comedy, and maybe because of its subversion and commentary on current, scandalous events. THE PALACE OF THE ARABIAN NIGHTS, on the other hand, was a traditional fairy tale, albeit one with sumptuous and colorful visuals. AN ADVENTUROUS AUTOMOBILE TRIP is an out-and-out, madcap, slapstick comedy that, perhaps unintentionally, seems to indict the perpetrator of one of the largest instances of human rights violations of the (and all) time.

King Leopold II of Belgium

The film’s plot follows the King of Belgium, King Leopold II, as he attempts to reach Monte Carlo from Paris as fast as he can; to do so, he enlists the help of a strange inventor with a super car. The only reason we get this specification of who the King is is because of the American narration (narration often being provided for films in the days before the popularization of intertitles). The original French and European narration omitted the identity of the King in order to avoid offending Belgian audiences, but why was King Leopold the target? Well, the on-the-nose (and more definite answer) is that King Leopold was known for driving his automobiles erratically and being involved in many accidents and crashes. He was also responsible for the decimation of the population of the Congo.

Some “real” history: King Leopold II of Belgium claimed the Congo Free State and its people as his own (important distinction: not as Belgium’s, per se, the Congo was his personal property and he was the founder) in the throes of African colonization by European nations. At the Berlin Conference of 1884–85, said European nations engaged in colonization authorized Leopold’s claim to the country, so long as the manifestations of his ownership improved the lives of the people living there.

Abused Congolese

Instead, he fucked the country with a mercenary group called Force Publique in search for ivory, rubber, and a huge(r) personal fortune. Perhaps some of that money found its way into funding some of the large number of public works he ordered; King Leopold was also known as the “Builder King.” Coincidentally, he could also be considered the “Murder King”; the modern estimate consensus of Congolese killed under Leopold’s reign is 10 million (this figure is widely debated to potentially be anywhere from 1 to 15 million), with many more injured, maimed, violated, and otherwise displaced. About half of the Congolese population was wiped out by force and disease.

It’s kind of hard to keep the destruction of an entire country quiet, and especially by the turn of the 20th century, rumors, concrete evidence, and direct challenges were swirling about in the discourse of the Leopold-controlled Congo. Perhaps most famously, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, published in three parts in 1899, brought widespread attention to the injustices being committed in the African country. Ultimately, in what is dubbed the “Congo Free State Propaganda War” waged by Leopold and his supporters against his growing number of his critics, the latter won out.

Blackwood’s Magazine in which Heart of Darkness first appeared

The Belgian parliament compelled Leopold to relinquish the Congo Free State as his personal property into Belgian control in 1908. Things did not ultimately turn out totally fine in the Congo, of course, but Leopold’s influence was at least removed; he took great lengths to destroy his paperwork on the matter, and died a year later, in 1909. His efforts were validated for some time. Belgium experienced a “Great Forgetting” and Leopold was only touted as the Builder King for some time. Outside of Belgium, public opinion on Leopold was a little more closely aligned with the facts, but only recently has widespread recognition of the atrocities committed in that 25 year or so period in the Congo caught on.

Wow, that was some history lesson. The whole point was that, especially as Leopold’s grip on the Congo was to be loosened only three years later, many had heard the “rumors” of what was happening in Africa. Belgium’s neighbor France may have been a little more clued in on it than most; at the very least, Leopold’s much more visible and domestic automotive antics were public record. Méliès used this widely known wanton behavior, which really shows a lot about the man that was King Leopold and why he treated the Congo as he did, to comment on the criticism of the Belgian king that was practically reaching a fever pitch. I hope. In actuality, it’s unclear if Méliès knew about the events in the Congo or if he was really making a controversial (at the time) and offensive (to Belgians, especially) statement against the actions of Leopold. I read the film as such, however, and I believe there are a few points in the film that support my theory.

You see, in King Leopold’s quest to get to Monte Carlo as quickly as possible, shunning the seventeen-hour train ride, he wrecks a lot of people’s lives, and takes a few of them too. It’s also kind of the chauffeur/automobile maker’s fault. He is driving/allowing Leopold to drive after all! In reality, King Leopold had his own steward taking the Congo operations in hand: explorer Henry Morton Stanley. The chauffeur may also stand as the Force Publique mercenary forces, and represents the will of King Leopold being carried out by others; he never did the “dirty work,” but he did enable it and set it into motion. Leopold’s impatience to get to Monte Carlo may also indicate the real Leopold’s greed for the riches the Congo unwillingly gave him, even though he was already a wealthy king.

Eventually, the king does take his own travel into his own hands. After the car gets some gas, he accidentally backs up, running over a policeman. The man is flat, but not dead, and as the king peels away, a group of attendants rush over and pump up the man to normal size…until he accidentally explodes. As the king and the man who helped carry out this madness, the chauffeur, travel on, they knock over a postman, run into a fat guard (who also explodes), upset a fruit cart, create another explosion by running into a wagon full of tar, and finally reach their destination, but upset an entire grandstand of spectators with a final crash. Nevertheless, the king and the chauffeur are welcomed with open arms.

This series of events showcases Leopold’s disregard for both the common man and authority; the real Belgian king ignored the countries gathered at the Berlin Conference and, of course, he didn’t much care for the human rights of the Congolese he exploited and killed. Furthermore, the explosions represent the very visible nature of these violations, and although the continuity of the film’s story of course doesn’t allow the spectators in the final scene to know what transgressed on the king’s transcontinental ride, their willingness to pay him praise indicates his supporter base’s dismissal of the scandalous claims against him in spite of the evidence.

It’s perhaps important to note that AN ADVENTUROUS AUTOMOBILE TRIP is really funny. In fact, it may be Méliès’ funniest outright comedy to date (by 1905, I mean). The slapstick sensibilities feel like the evolved form that would emerge about a decade later, and while the film is certainly manic, it has a different sort of pace to the physical interactions that feels slightly more nuanced. Make no mistake, the movie is incredibly silly, but the craft of the comedy feels more inventive than some of the other “minor” Méliès trick films that he was constantly churning out.

Original ad

For example, the explosion effects are quite well done and embody the golden definition of comedy: they subvert your expectations and inspire laughter in the process. Just before the inflated policeman blows up, he returns from a well-crafted flat dummy into a normal man via a crowd-covered substitution splice, and wriggles around on the ground as if air was still being pumped into his body. As the crowd obscures him, you expect them to step aside after a substitution splice and reveal a normal, “cured” man. Instead, they step aside as he explodes. It’s a totally incredible moment that feels very much rooted in Méliès’ own sensibility and world, rather than one of an adapted tale or genre. A miniature set depiction of the car racing through the Alps is of particular note in this establishment of a unique mise en scène. Méliès films could often be described as cartoon-like, but AN ADVENTUROUS AUTOMOBILE TRIP feels especially unique in his creation of the “rules” of the world, as it were.

Of particular note in AN ADVENTUROUS AUTOMOBILE TRIP’s creation is its genesis as a stage show/film hybrid at the Folies Bergère cabaret, directed in conjunction with Victor de Cottens and starring singer/comedian Harry Fragson as the king. Fragson would reprise his role in the standalone film released in 1905, and many of the Folies Bergère stars appeared throughout the movie. As such, it would be one of the more notable examples of a Méliès film that utilized actors outside of his reliable stock and starred recognizable entertainers, though of course crediting etiquette and value hadn’t quite been realized in the film industry. The film’s employ of the Folies Bergère stars, however, and its origin as a lavish and unconventional portion of a larger stage show, may have contributed to its ultimate budget.

Full film

So, in a lot of ways, AN ADVENTUROUS AUTOMOBILE TRIP succeeded where Méliès’ high-profile 1905 film failed. It carried a satirical or political message while retaining its surface level trimmings of entertaining comedy and outrageous effects. It just didn’t make much money, and may have convinced Méliès to err on the side of even more extravagant yet shallow; go big or go home, as it were. Regardless, AN ADVENTUROUS AUTOMOBILE TRIP stands as one of his more subtle accomplishments, a smaller scale movie that nevertheless has a lot of heart and bite, and lands as my second favorite film of 1905 just behind THE PALACE OF THE ARABIAN NIGHTS because of the latter’s aesthetic scope.

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