ÉRUPTION VOLCANIQUE À LA MARTINIQUE (Georges Méliès, 1902, France, 1m)
The Eruption of Mount Pelee
The Eruption of Mount Pelee
Éruption volcanique à la Martinique Méliès.jpg
A frame from the film
Directed by Georges Méliès
Produced by Georges Méliès
Star Film Company
Release dates 1902
Run time 1 minute, 3 seconds
Éruption volcanique à la Martinique, released in the United States as The Eruption of Mount Pelee and in Britain as The Terrible Eruption of Mount Pelée and Destruction of St. Pierre, Martinique, is a 1902 French short silent film directed by Georges Méliès. The film is a short reconstruction, using miniature models, of a recent historical event: the eruption on 8 May 1902 of Mount Pelée, which destroyed the town of Saint-Pierre, Martinique.
Mount Pelée looms over the town of Saint-Pierre. Fire and smoke rises from the crater; then lava begins pouring down the sides of the mountain. The village is soon engulfed in smoke and flames.
The film is one of the most frequently cited examples of Méliès's "reconstructed newsreels," staged re-enactments of current events. The Eruption of Mount Pelee was his third-to-last work in the genre. It was followed by two others also made in 1902: The Catastrophe of the Balloon "Le Pax" and the most complex one of all, The Coronation of Edward VII. Stylistically, the film is reminiscent of the dioramas popular in the 19th century, which offered simulated views of places and events that would otherwise be inaccessible to spectators. Méliès's table-top miniature models recreate the eruption in a "storybook illustration" style highly indebted to Romanticism.
Academic opinion is divided on the exact method Méliès used to create the eruption. The Méliès descendant and film scholar Jacques Malthête hypothesized that a type of flare known as the Feu de Bengale was used (as Méliès did four years later to create an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in The Merry Frolics of Satan); film historians René Jeanne and Charles Ford nominated a flammable combination of cloth, colored water, cinders, and a kind of powdered chalk called Blanc d'Espagne; Méliès's granddaughter, Madeleine Malthête-Méliès, indicated that starch was poured down the model to simulate lava, and that pieces of paper and unseasoned wood were burned to create smoke; and the Méliès expert John Frazer suggested that the model was made of cardboard and paper and that "the eruption [was] created by a combination of flashing lights, powdered chalk, and cinders."
According to the film historian Pierre Lephrohon, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire once asked Méliès himself how he made The Eruption of Mount Pelee. Méliès said simply: "By photographing cinders and chalk." Apollinaire remarked to a friend who was with them: "Monsieur and I have the same occupation, we enchant ordinary materials."
Release and other versions
The Eruption of Mount Pelee was released by Méliès's Star Film Company and is numbered 397 in its catalogues. Two other filmmakers contemporary with Méliès, Ferdinand Zecca and Thomas Edison, produced their own miniature-model reconstructions of the Pelée eruption. Zecca's version, produced in May 1902 as Catastrophe de la Martinique (number 544 in the Pathé Frères catalogue), used four stagehands to create the eruption effect: one burning sulfur behind the model mountain, another pouring down smoke from a ladder off screen, a third on another ladder throwing down handfuls of sawdust to represent cinders, and a fourth agitating the miniature sea and raising the water level to suggest a tidal wave. The film historian Georges Sadoul notes that Zecca's version aims for academic realism in its style, creating an effect markedly different from Méliès's deliberately Romanticized portrayal.
The Edison Manufacturing Company version was released in three parts: Mt. Pelee Smoking Before Eruption (St. Pierre, Martinique), Mt. Pelee in Eruption and Destruction of St. Pierre (Martinique), and Burning of St. Pierre (Martinique). The Edison Company had sent the photographer J. Blair Smith to Martinique to film the aftermath of the accident; meanwhile, the filmmaker Edwin S. Porter stayed at the Edison studio in Orange, New Jersey to recreate the eruption using a studio model. A dozen clips of Smith's real-life footage, and all three of Porter's films simulating different stages of the eruption, were sold by the Edison Company in July 1902; the catalogue encouraged exhibitors to combine the real and faked films to "make a complete show in themselves." According to the film historian Lewis Jacobs, the crew that created the Edison version found their own unique way to simulate the eruption: they exposed a barrel of beer to direct sunlight and waited for it to explode.
The Eruption of Mount Pelee was presumed lost for many years; a film in the collection of the Cinémathèque Française was sometimes misidentified as Méliès's film, but it was in fact Zecca's version. Méliès's film was finally recovered in 2007, when a copy was found and restored by the Filmoteca de Catalunya.
In this period, the multi-shot film emerged as the norm rather than the exception, with
films no longer treating the individual shot as a self-contained unit of meaning but linking
one shot to another. However, filmmakers may have been using a succession of shots to
capture and emphasize the high points of the action rather than construct either a linear
narrative causality or clearly establish temporal-spatial relations. As befits the 'cinema of
attractions', the editing was intended to enhance visual pleasure rather than to refine
One of the strangest editing devices used in this period was overlapping action, which
resulted from filmmakers' desire both to preserve the pro-filmic space and to emphasize
the important action by essentially showing it twice. Georges Melies's A Trip to the
Moon, perhaps the most famous film of 1902, covers the landing of a space capsule on
the moon in two shots. In the first, taken from 'space', the capsule hits the man in the
moon in the eye, and his expression changes from a grin to a grimace. In the second shot,
taken from the 'moon's surface', the capsule once again lands. These two shots, which
show the same event twice, can disconcert a modern viewer This repetition of action
around a cut can be seen in an American film of the same year. How They Do Things on
the Bowery, directed by Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Manufacturing Company. An irate
waiter ejects a customer unable to pay his bill. In an interior shot the waiter throws the
man out and hurls his suitcase after him. In the following exterior shot, the customer
emerges from the restaurant followed closely by his suitcase. In a 1 904 Biograph film The
Widow and the Only Man, overlapping action is used not to cover interior and exterior
events but to show the same event a second time in closer scale. In the first shot a woman
accepts her suitor's flowers and smells them appreciatively. Then, rather than a’ match cut',
in which the action picks up at the beginning of the second shot from where it left off at
the end of the first, as would be dictated by present-day conventions, a closer shot shows
her repeating precisely the same action.
While overlapping action was a common means of linking shots, film-makers during this
period also experimented with other methods of establishing spatial and temporal
relations. One sees an instance of this in Trip to the Moon: having landed on the moon,
the intrepid French explorers encounter unfriendly extraterrestrials (who remarkably
resemble those 'hostile natives' the French were encountering in their colonies at this very
time!). The explorers flee to their spaceship and hurry back to the safety of Earth, their
descent covered in four shots and twenty seconds of film time. In the first shot, the
capsule leaves the moon, exiting at the bottom of the frame. In the second shot, the
capsule moves from the top of the frame to the bottom of the frame. In the third the
capsule moves from the top of the frame to the water, and in the fourth the capsule moves
from the water's surface to the sea-bed. This sequence is filmed much as it might be today,
with the movement of the spaceship following the convention of directional continuity,
that is, an object or a character should appear to continue moving in the same direction
from shot to shot, the consistent movement serving to establish the spatial and temporal
relationships between individual shots. But while a modem film-maker would cut directly
from shot to shot, Melies dissolved from shot to shot, a transitional device that now
implies a temporal ellipsis. In this regard, then, the sequence can still be confusing for a
Linking shots through dissolves was not in fact unusual in this period, and one can see
another example in Alice in Wonderland ( Hepworth, 1903). However, another English
film-maker, James Williamson, a member of the Brighton school, made two films in
1901, Stop Thief! and Fire!, in which direct cuts continue the action from shot to shot.
Stop Thief! shows a crowd chasing a tramp who has stolen a joint from a butcher,
motivating connections by the diagonal movement of characters through each of the
individual shots; the thief and then his pursuers entering the frame at the back and exiting
the frame past the camera. The fact that the camera remains with the scene until the last
character has exited reveals how character movement motivates the editing. Film-makers
found this editing device so effective that an entire genre of chase films arose, such as
Personal (Biograph, 1904), in which would-be brides pursue a wealthy Frenchman. Many
films also incorporated a chase into their narratives, as did the famous 'first' Western The
Great Train Robbery ( Edison, 1903), in which the posse pursues the bandits for several
shots in the film's second half.
In Fire!, Williamson uses a similar editing strategy to that employed in Stop Thief!, the
movement of a policeman between shots 1 and 2 and the movement of fire engines
between shots 2 and 3 establishing spatial-temporal relations. But in the film's fourth and
fifth shots, where other film-makers might have used overlapping action, Williamson
experiments with a cut on movement that bears a strong resemblance to what is now
called a match cut. Shot 4, an interior, shows a fireman coming through the window of a
room in a burning house and rescuing the inhabitant. Shot 5 is an exterior of the burning
house and begins as the fireman and the rescued victim emerge through the window.
Although the continuity is 'imperfect' from a modem perspective, the innovation is
considerable. In his 1902 film Life of An American Fireman, undoubtedly influenced by
Fire!, Porter still employed overlapping action, showing a similar rescue in its entirety
first from the interior and then from the exterior perspective. A year later, however,
Williamson's compatriot G. A. Smith also created an 'imperfect' match cut, The Sick
Kitten ( 1903), cutting from a long view of two children giving a kitten medicine to a
closer view of the kitten licking the spoon.
During this period, film-makers also experimented with cinematically fracturing the space
of the pro-filmic event, primarily to enhance the viewers' visual pleasure through a closer
shot of the action rather than to emphasize details necessary for narrative comprehension.
The Great Train Robbery includes a medium shot of the outlaw leader, Barnes, firing his
revolver directly at the camera, which in modern prints usually concludes the film. The
Edison catalogue, however, informed exhibitors that the shot could come at the beginning
or the end of the film. Narratively non-specific shots of this nature became quite common,
as in the British film Raid on a Coiner's Den ( Alfred Collins , 1904), which begins with a
close-up insert of three hands coming into the frame from different directions, one
holding a pistol, another a pair of handcuffs, and a third forming a clenched fist. In
Porter's own one shot film Photographing a Female Crook, a moving camera produces the
closer view as it dollies into a woman contorting her face to prevent the police from
taking an accurate mug shot.
Even shots that approximate the point of view of a character within the fiction, and which
are now associated with the externalization of thoughts and emotions, were then there
more to provide visual pleasure than narrative information. In yet another example of the
innovative film-making of the Brighton school. Grandma's Reading Glasses ( G. A.
Smith, Warwick Trading Company, 1900), a little boy looks through his grandmother's
spectacles at a variety of objects, a watch, a canary, and a kitten, which the film shows in
inserted close-ups. In The Gay Shoe Clerk ( Edison/ Porter, 1903) a shoe shop assistant
flirts with his female customer. A cut-in approximates his view of her ankle as she raises
her skirt in tantalizing fashion. This close-up insert is an example not only of the visual
pleasure afforded by the 'cinema of attractions' but of the early cinema's voyeuristic
treatment of the female body. Despite the fact that their primary purpose is not to
emphasize narrative developments, these shots' attribution to a character in the film
distinguishes them from the totally unmotivated closer views in The Great Train Robbery
and Raid on a Coiner's Den.
The editing strategies of the pre- 1907 'cinema of attractions’ were primarily designed to
enhance visual pleasure rather than to tell a coherent, linear narrative. But many of these
films did tell simple stories and audiences undoubtedly derived narrative, as well as
visual, pleasure. Despite the absence of internal strategies to construct spatial-temporal
relations and linear narratives, the original audiences made sense of these films, even
though modern viewers can find them appealing but incoherent. This is because the films of the
'cinema of attractions' relied heavily on their audiences' knowledge of other texts, from
which the films were directly derived or indirectly related. Early film-makers did learn
how to make meaning in a new medium, but were not working in a vacuum. The cinema
had deep roots in the rich popular culture of the age, drawing heavily during its infant
years upon the narrative and visual conventions of other forms of popular entertainment.
The pre- 1907 cinema has been accused of being 'non-cinematic' and overly theatrical, and
indeed film-makers like Mêlées were heavily influenced by nondramatic theatrical
practices, but for the most part lengthy theatrical dramas provided an inappropriate model
for a medium that began with films of less than a minute, and only became an important
source of inspiration as films grew longer during the transitional period. As the first
Edison Kinetoscope films illustrate, vaudeville, with its variety format of unrelated acts
and lack of concern for developed stories, constituted a very important source material
and the earliest film-makers relied upon media such as the melodrama and pantomime
(emphasizing visual effects rather than dialogue), magic lanterns, comics, political
cartoons, newspapers, and illustrated song slides.
Magic lanterns, early versions of slide projectors often lit by kerosene lamps, proved a
particularly important influence upon films, for magic lantern practices permitted the
projection of 'moving pictures', which set precedents for the cinematic representation of
time and space. Magic lanterns employed by traveling exhibitors often had elaborate
lever and pulley mechanisms to produce movement within specially manufactured slides.
Long slides pulled slowly through the slide holder produced the equivalent of a cinematic
pan. Two slide holders mounted on the same lantern permitted the operator to produce a
dissolve by switching rapidly between slides. The use of two slides also permitted
'editing', as operators could cut from long shots to close-ups, exteriors to interiors, and
from characters to what they were seeing. Grandma's Reading Glasses, in fact, derives
from a magic lantern show. Magic lantern lectures given by traveling exhibitors such as
the Americans Burton Holmes and John Stoddard provided precedents for the train and
travelogue films, the lantern illustrations often intercutting exterior views of the train,
interior views of the traveller in the train, and views of scenery and of interesting
In addition to mimicking the visual conventions of other media, film-makers derived
many of their films from stories already well known to the audience. Edison advertised its
Night before Christmas ( Porter, 1905) by saying the film 'closely follows the time-
honored Christmas legend by Clement Clarke Moore'. Both Biograph and Edison made
films of the hit song 'Everybody Works but Father'. Vitagraph based its Happy Hooligan
series on a cartoon tramp character whose popular comic strip ran in several New York
newspaper Sunday supplements. Many early films presented synoptic versions of fairly
complex narratives, their producers presumably depending upon their audiences' pre-
existing knowledge of the subject-matter rather than upon cinematic conventions for the
requisite narrative coherence. L'Epopee napoleonieme ('The Epic of Napoleon', 1903-4
Pathe) presents Napoleon's life through a series of tableaux, drawing upon well-known
historical incidents (the coronation, the burning of Moscow) and anecdotes ( Napoleon
standing guard for the sleeping sentry) but with no attempt at causal linear connection or
narrative development among its fifteen shots, la similar fashion, multi-shot films such as
Ten Nights in a Barroom ( Biograph, 1903) and Uncle Tom's Cabin (Vitagraph, 1903)
presented only the highlights of these familiar and outperformed melodramas, with shot
connections provided not by editing strategies but by the audiences' knowledge of
intervening events. The latter film, however, appears to be one of the earliest to have
interties’. These title cards, summarizing the action of the shot which followed, appeared
at the same time as the multi-shot film, around 1903-4, and seem to indicate a recognition
on the part of the producers of the necessity for internally rather than externally derived
Independent Film, VOD Distribution, Video Game Studies, Cultural Studies, Call-for-Papers, Communication, Jobs, Conferences, Workshops, Alumni etc.
©2017 Filmbay Ltd.
brands are the property of their respective owners. Use of this Web site constitutes
trademark owned by Filmbay Ltd. www.Filmbay.com