Georges Méliès’ extraordinary A Trip to the Moon is one of the first films that I remember seeing: that image of the Man in the Moon is so stuck in my brain that I can’t recall a time before I was aware of it. I don’t even completely know how I first stumbled across it—I may have gotten my parents to rent Around the World in 80 Days (1956) from my local Hollywood Video in Portland, Oregon, which includes a large excerpt from film introduced by Edward R. Murrow, but I’m not sure, and I don’t think I’ve even seen that film all the way through.
Jules Verne supplied the inspiration for Méliès, although some critics have cited H.G. Welles’ The First Men in the Moon, which had been translated into French mere months before production, as being just as influential. However it’s all Méliès’ magic that is the driving force during this short film’s running time, which is around the 13 minute mark—it all depends what speed the film is played at. Méliès was literally a stage magician, and the film is so extraordinary due to the fact that he used every trick he learnt on the stage to pull off the special effects. Everything he does is incredibly simple (especially by today’s standards), but you kind of don’t want to know how it was done, because it dispels the magic of the film.
The film is nearly 120 years old at this point, but I would take what Méliès was able to do with special effects over anything in a Marvel film (which I love too), and it’s undeniably the first masterpiece of narrative cinema. The story is so simple that a little child can follow it—it’s all images without requiring any inter-titles, which makes even more modern than some other silent films. Méliès was also a political cartoonist who did scathing cartoons on the proto-fascist Georges Ernest Boulanger, so the film has a deeply anti-imperialistic view.
D. W. Griffith may have pioneered the feature in the 1910s, and is often considered the father of modern cinema—Charlie Chaplin called him “The Teacher of Us All”—but he learnt a lot from Méliès. We are lucky that Méliès’ films survived, because when to the French army turned his studio into an Army Hospital in WW1, they confiscated over 400 prints and melted them down to recover the silver and celluloid.
Every filmmaker interested in the dreamlike or fantastical owes it all to the work of Méliès, whether it’s Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, Tim Burton or Karel Zeman. Méliès also might have the most beautiful grave in all of the Père Lachaise Cemetery, which is saying quite a lot.
Arrow’s release under its Arrow Academy line is an exclusive on their webstore, and it’s a wonderful package. I received a screener disc, so I didn’t get the The Long-Lost Autobiography of Georges Méliès: Father of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Cinema, z book [project instigated by Jon Spira, which buyers will receive in its first English translation (it’s by Ian Nixon.) The book itself goes for around £25 to £30 without the Blu-Ray, so the package offers a nice price, and I’m sure it’s great. The film is available in the black and white or hand colourised version (I prefer the black and white), along with a video essay by Spira and a new trailer about the restoration. The two big extras on the disc are a French feature-length documentary from 2011 with interviews with the heirs of Méliès, such as Michel Gondry, Michel Hazanavicius, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Costa-Gavras is also interviewed, which is odd choice given the types of films he makes), and a wonderful short biopic by Georges Franju, which plays like a proto-Hugo at times and features Méliès’ son André portraying his dad.