With One Final Conquest, the First Wizard of Cinema Sailed Off into the Sunset

THE CONQUEST OF THE POLE (1912) — Georges Méliès

Note: This is the sixty-sixth 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 favorite 1912 film, THE CONQUEST OF THE POLE, directed by Georges Méliès.

Georges Méliès may have been the greatest single filmmaker in the world until the 1920s. He truly tapped into the expansive potential of film earlier than most anyone else, except for perhaps Alice Guy-Blaché. But Méliès’ beautiful, fantastic féerie style, based on his own stage magician background and the popular theater genre, defined excellence in the early days of film. And they still do.

Georges Méliès c. 1890

Unfortunately, Méliès didn’t really get his due while he was alive, and certainly not in 1912, the last year he would ever make films. Méliès’ rise and fall is perhaps one of the earliest high-profile examples, in hindsight, of the arc we understand and expect of the stars and creators in the cinematic slice of show business. And as the fate for the first wizard of cinema, that’s truly a shame.

Méliès’ stage bound style, which he never truly evolved, was falling out of fashion in the late 1900s. The Motion Picture Patents Company by Thomas Edison, a monopoly conglomerate that controlled the film industry primarily in America, was established in 1908. But, of course, this had far-reaching consequences in Europe as well. In fact, part of the reason the MPPC was formed was to mitigate the flooding of foreign films on the American market. Even still, Méliès did find a seat at the table; the American branch of his Star Film Company, run by his brother Gaston, was one of eight studios in the MPPC.

MPPC members (neither Gaston nor Georges are in attendance)

But maybe that seat was at the kids’ table. Star Film had to provide an incredible amount of films to the conglomerate, and meanwhile, each of those films were doing less and less business. In 1909, Méliès and other European filmmakers agreed to fight back against the monopoly and lease their films rather than sell them. And his output declined, from dozens of films a year (of his over 500 films across his career) to just nine films in 1909. Gaston’s American studio primarily fulfilled the obligations to the MPPC. And then, in 1910, Méliès made a decision that many say destroyed his career, although it’s not clear what would have happened to it regardless.

Méliès made a deal with Pathé that gave him a lot of money to make his films in exchange for distribution and editing rights for Pathé, as well as ownership of Méliès’ home and studio space. The films that followed Méliès’ “low key” years of 1908–1910 were more extravagant and ambitious, but that just meant they were bigger failures. After BARON MUNCHAUSEN’S DREAM (1911), THE KNIGHT OF THE SNOWS (1912), CINDERELLA OR THE GLASS SLIPPER (1912), and his final, unreleased film, THE VOYAGE OF THE BOURRICHON FAMILY (1912), Méliès broke his contract with Pathé, although it still owned the deeds to his properties. And then Gaston traveled abroad, filming as he went, and lost $50,000. He had to sell the American Star Film studio to Vitagraph, and came back to Europe and died there in 1915. The two brothers hadn’t spoken to each other for years by that point.

Gaston Méliès

World War I prevented Pathé from taking over Méliès’ home and studio, the latter of which he had used to stage some theatrical revues until 1923, when Pathé did gain control of his properties. Before then, though, Méliès’ first wife had died in 1913, World War I had happened, and Gaston had made his aforementioned financial mistakes; these reasons, and perhaps feeling outdated creatively, are why Méliès stopped making films. Not only did he stop making films, but the world lost many he already had created due to the military melting down some original prints for silver and celluloid and Méliès burning down many of his negatives, sets, and costumes at his studio upon learning Pathé would take control of it.

Méliès would marry his long-time mistress and muse. actress Jeanne d’Alcy, and eked out an existence throughout the 1920s selling sweets at toys in the Montparnasse station; well-chronicled (in a vividly interpreted form) in the tribute to the man that is The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) and its film adaptation by Martin Scorsese, HUGO (2011). In the 1930s, Méliès would be rediscovered by film journalists and new auteurs, and he was actually admitted into a French film industry retirement home in 1932. Méliès would work on scripts for films that would never be made and he made friendships with filmmakers like René Clair and Georges Franju, leading to Méliès becoming the first conservator of the Cinémathèque Française in 1936. He died on January 21, 1938 at age 76.

Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès in HUGO (2011)

The story of Georges Méliès is a wonderful and tragic one that ultimately found a bittersweet ending. And nowhere do those conflicting emotions come to the fore watching Méliès’ last masterpiece, THE CONQUEST OF THE POLE (1912). Perhaps his longest film at just over 30 minutes, the voyage, Verne-inspired (and Verne parody) film that Méliès was best known for was concentrated in THE CONQUEST.

Pulling from contemporary events (with questionable results), THE CONQUEST expanded Méliès’ scope in narrative “depth.” Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out, but he created some lasting images and imparted impressive production value. Beginning with a club of explorers made up of stereotypes of different countries, a group decides to strike out for the North Pole. This plot was driven by the dueling claims of explorers Robert E. Peary and Frederick Cook, the latter claiming he had beaten Peary to zero longitude, who made it in 1909.

Frederick Cook c. 1906

These caricatures are interrupted by more caricatures in the form of overbearing suffragettes, who were gaining attention in France, even though it took until 1944 for the French government to grant women the right to vote. These suffragettes want to be treated as equals and reach the North Pole as well, but the men shut them out. When the trip actually gets underway, a lagging woman explorer falls out of a balloon and explodes on a building spire. Any thought that Méliès is just presenting a satirical view of the treatment of women by men, rather than an indictment of suffragettes, is quieted by this morbid moment. It’s sobering for modern eyes, and it certainly reads as oppressive.

Furthermore, these expository scenes drag on for some time. Once the main group of explorers get into the air, followed by dozens of other ships jumping on the opportunity, the pretty amazing view of the ships in the sky overstays its welcome, even as it passes by and through celestial bodies. Even though it’s such a small portion of the film, the explorers’ time at the pole is the highlight of the film.

And of course, the incredible man-eating snow giant, a massive puppet operated by 12 men, is the most incredible visual of the film. Its movement is hypnotic, and captures the out-of-this-world magic of which Méliès was truly the king. The scenes leading up to this one show Méliès trying to capture depth, and in doing so, he did create a more fleshed-out world. THE CONQUEST OF THE POLE is undoubtedly more complex than most of Méliès’ works. But the snow giant proved Méliès would always be best at creating crazy creatures and effects.

Realism and outdoor and on-location shoots were taking hold, however. THE CONQUEST OF THE POLE was just another Méliès failure, financially. Critical opinion of the film is incredibly high today, however, and is regarded as one of the most notable and best films in the Méliès canon. And it certainly belongs there. Its significance as one of his last films certainly carries some of its power, but it also holds a lot of strange expansion that, although I found boring at times, retroactively grounds the film as a decidedly different Méliès experience. Perhaps it’s simply because it’s longer. I would really love to have seen a Méliès feature. Or a talkie. But like many filmmakers from his era, he couldn’t evolve with the times.

Full film

But what we do have is an incredible body of work that still delights and fascinates with its movie magic. Méliès embodied the spirit of the cinema for as long as he could, and as much as I love him, I appreciate that work even more because it gave way to varied, different work. I lament the difficulties of his later life, but also know that his filmmaking style could not have been the dominant force forever. Indeed, part of its magic now is just how different it is from everything else. In 1912, I’m sure the inverse of that was true, and features and filmmakers like D.W. Griffith were exciting audiences with how different they were. THE CONQUEST OF THE POLE is a fine sendoff to one of my favorite directors of all time, one who has dominated these essays and my list by the sheer influence of the high quality of his films at such an early juncture. Some of Méliès’ last words, allegedly, were “Laugh, my friends. Laugh with me, laugh for me, because I dream your dreams.” And he certainly did.

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



I write about movies, music, video games, and more.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store