Film History Essentials: Escrime (1890)

(English: Fencing)

What it’s about:

Two men standing against a dark backdrop demonstrate several different fencing techniques and positions.

Why it’s essential:

Through most of the 1880s, Étienne-Jules Marey continued his experiments with photography and motion, but by the end of the decade he’d made a few upgrades. The most significant of these was replacing the glass plates inside his cameras with strips of film, a change he apparently made within only a few months of Le Prince’s successful experiments with film. Of Marey’s many chronophotographic works, though, very few are considered “motion pictures,” and even fewer depict actual humans.

Marey was particularly interested in flying and falling animal bodies, but this isn’t to say he didn’t photograph people at all. He also had a great interest in the motions of athletes, particularly runners and jumpers. In fact, in 1900 he was specially commissioned to photograph the athletes at the Paris Olympic Games. His photographs breaking down the movements of America’s champion hurdler, Alvin Kraenzlin, changed the way future runners approached that event.

Despite his innovations, Marey, like Le Prince, doesn’t have the same name recognition as the other leading luminaries associated with the birth of cinema. This is for the very simple reason that he had no interest in commercial public exhibition of his work. He was a scientist, not a showman. Nevertheless, unlike Le Prince, Marey’s contributions served as a known source of inspiration for those later innovators. His achievements were widely reported by the global press, and he published multiple books in the early 1890s about movement and the photography of movement, considered by some to be the earliest works on cinematography. His mechanism for advancing the strip of film as the shutter opened and closed formed the principle that all of the later cameras followed (each in their own patentably-unique way).

In Escrime, we can see all of those advances fully in action. Marey is shooting under much more controlled surroundings than Le Prince. As a result, the two men fencing show up with a clarity of image and of motion that we haven’t seen before, even where the film has degraded badly. Marey’s set-up here, with the action contained on a small stage, very well-lit (usually by direct sunlight), against a black backdrop, would become the standard practice for filming motion pictures over the next several years.

Why you should see it:

The video below is a collection of several different shots of the same two men fencing, ranging in length from a few to a few dozen images. Each is shown first at “full speed,” then slowed down to emphasize Marey’s purpose of studying the fencers’ motions. Neither man is wearing the standard fencing “uniform” (and it was standard by then . . . I checked). That’s an interesting choice (by Marey?), and it makes it quite easy to tell the two apart, even when they switch sides in some clips.

It’s not quite suggestive of narrative intent, but making their faces visible is certainly more compelling than the anonymity of fencing masks. Unlike the raw athleticism of Marey’s later photographs of mostly-nude runners and jumpers, there is an elegance to these shots that is representative of the sport. But I also see, in these brief thrusts, ripostes, and parries, the shadows of a thousand swashbuckling duelists who would one day thrill the audiences of future films.


~ by Jared on January 13, 2023.

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