Film History Essentials: Lancement d’un Navire (1896)

(English: Launching of a Ship)

What it’s about:

As a crowd of people stand and watch on either side, a large ship is launched from dry dock. At first it slides slowly past, but soon begins to pick up more and more speed, filling the entire frame before passing on and into the water.

Why it’s essential:

Louis Lumière filmed this on March 21, 1896, in La Seyne-sur-Mer on the south coast of France, about 40 miles southeast of Marseille. The ship is the Persévérance, a four-masted steel sailing ship owned by the shipping company Armement Dominique Bordes & Fils. It set sail for the company’s headquarters in Dunkirk, joining a fleet of ships that sailed between France and Chile, mainly to import saltpeter (the primary component of gunpowder) to France. Persévérance was eventually sunk by a German submarine in 1917.

None of those details are important to appreciating the sight of its full 320-foot+ length gliding smoothly past the camera, dwarfing the watching crowds. It is genuinely an incredible sight to behold. That appreciation is heightened by how stunningly well-preserved this film is. That in itself is enough to make it noteworthy. Every detail is crisp, sharp, and clear.

Lumière made an interesting choice of location to set up his camera, though we don’t know what other options he had. Much of the ship lies totally outside the frame, but somehow that makes it seem even larger than if we could see it all at once. The true scale of what we are seeing is revealed slowly by the fact that it takes the ship nearly 30 seconds to go completely past the camera. The “tracking shot” did not exist yet, and there was no panning or zooming in films. However, if not for the crowd being stationary as well, the way this is framed would almost make it feel like the camera is in motion and it is the ship that is standing still.

Why you should see it:

Thanks to the incredible level of detail preserved, we can make out the line of men hauling away on the opposite side to get the ship moving, and we can also spot the skeleton of another ship under construction once the Persévérance has passed by. As is often the case, however, the focus of this “actuality” is as much on the people present as it is on what they are watching. There are certainly women present in the crowd, but the section that we can see best is mostly men and boys. Many of them move about throughout, jockeying for position or running back and forth to get the best possible view.

It may be particularly striking to a modern audience that this gargantuan juggernaut is flying past a group of spectators, loosing massive chains and ropes that break free with alarming jolts only a few feet from some of the people watching. Not only does there not seem to be any sort of safety railing (or even a rope) to keep anyone from toppling forward and being crushed like an ant, but some of the youngest members of the crowd are clambering up and down and around, shoving past each other on the very edge. Notice at about 0:20, when the first chain pops off and drops, that a large number of the crowd flinch, and several jump backward to a safer distance . . . but no one was standing by before that to advise anyone that maybe that wasn’t a great spot to stand. Still, watching this now, I can hardly blame them for wanting to get a good look. It is quite a sight.


~ by Jared on February 21, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: Lancement d’un Navire (1896)”

  1. […] is La Ciotat, a small community on the south coast of France, about halfway between Marseille and the shipyards at La Seyne-sur-Mer. The reason the Lumières were often there, filming a train arriving at this particular station a […]


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