Sunday, September 13, 2009

Tunneling the English Channel (1907)

One of Georges Melies' most prophetic of his pseudo-science fiction efforts, "Tunneling the English Channel" is a delightful combination of political satire and fantasy.

Made in 1907, the film is presented in a lavishly hand-colored print (although the print used for the recent "Melies: First Wizard of Cinema" collection begins with a rather rough, black and white copy and switches to a pristine, hand-colored source about halfway through. This was presumably pieced together from the best surviving elements). The films begins with a sort of split-screen set up, featuring the King of England and the President of France getting ready for bed. As they dream, visions of the building of the tunnel underneath the English channel play out. We see the construction of the tunnel on both the English and French sides, as well as the celebrations following the successful completion of the project. However, their dream turns to a nightmare when disaster strikes as two trains collide in the tunnel, waking both the King and the President from their dream. At this very moment, an engineer comes to see both men with plans to build a channel tunnel, and both leaders forcibly eject him from the scene!

Delightfully stylized moments occur throughout. The set representing the channel tunnel is very elaborate, with sand and silt underneath the tunnel, and the sea itself above, in which we see various submarines, fish, and other aquatic creatures moving about. Melies packs an incredible amount of visual detail into every frame.

Melies' fascination with industry and technology is present throughout. In Melies' narration, written to accompany the film, he goes in to great detail on the scientific and technological details of the construction. In his book "Flickers: A Century of Cinema" (1995), British critic Gilbert Adair notes that, technically speaking, "Tunneling the English Channel" offers a more daring vision of the future than Melies' more famous film, "A Trip to the Moon", in that-while travel to the moon became a reality 67 years after that film's release, the Chunnel did not become a reality until 88 years after the release of this film.

The ending of the film, with both leaders soured on the idea of a tunnel because of their nightmare, leads to a perfect comic close to the whole film. There are some moments of fun political satire throughout, such as the moment when the leaders' respective footmen mock their pompous march in a celebratory parade.

A delightful film on all counts, this lesser-seen Melies title deserves its place among his best work. It is available as part of the "Melies: First Wizard of Cinema" DVD set, available from Flicker Alley, which includes 173 of the cinematic magician's films in pristine copies with the original hand-coloring and narration intact.

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