THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Maps and views blog

1 posts categorized "Sound and vision"

15 February 2017

How Maps Got Into the Movies

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This special guest blog post by the film historian Roland-François Lack looks at an entirely new cartographic genre which emerged during the 20th century - the cinema map or cine-map. 

'Maps first appeared in films as narrative props or background décor. Only rarely, in the early years, could any detail on the map be read, but in what I think is the earliest surviving film to show a map, Georges Méliès's 1898 La Lune à un mètre or The Astronomer's Dream, we can see the disproportionately large outline of France on the globe in the astronomer's study.

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La Lune à un mètre (Georges Méliès 1898)

The distortion foregrounds France as the source, and possibly setting, of Méliès's film. This is just the first of cinema's many cartographic manipulations to come, altering the pro-filmic reality for narrative effect.

The first map in a film I have seen on which a place name can be read is in Pathé's Le Fils du diable fait la noce à Paris, from 1906. A map is brought out in support of a recommendation that the Devil's sick son should travel to recover his spirits. London, Antwerp, Berlin, Berne and Rome are marked on the map, but it is to Paris, in the centre, that everyone points as the ideal destination:

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Le Fils du diable fait la noce à Paris (Pathé production 1906)

These maps are confections created for the films in which they figure. Where a map is merely part of the décor it is likely to be a found map, used to give realism to the setting, as in this 1908 Gaumont film showing a schoolroom:

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Les Chansons ont leur destin (Gaumont production 1908)

Cinema's interest in maps intensified when it discovered the close-up. Spectators could then read the map as they read the film, helped often by a finger pointing to the parts most relevant to the narrative, as here, in a 1910 Gaumont film about Christopher Columbus:

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Christophe Colomb (Gaumont production 1910)

This cartographic close-up is the earliest I have found, and also the first instance where the filmmakers have put effort into finding an historically appropriate prop. The map is based on a fifteenth-century Imago Mundi, or more exactly on the simplified versions of that map found in nineteenth-century accounts of medieval cartography.

Travel, including adventurous exploration,  is one of the four major narrative contexts in which films show maps. Of the others, I have already mentioned the schoolroom, where maps are generally background décor. Crime, whether in its preparation or investigation, also demands an attention to maps, but the narrative context that has most often put maps on screen is war. The cinematic representation of the 1914-1918 war brought with it an intensification of cartographic scrutiny. In war rooms and at the Front soldiers are shown studying maps:

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Une page de gloire (Léonce Perret 1915)

The need to explain military action to those at home initiated a different mode of cartographic representation, the animated map. Now a convention in narrative fictions, it has its origins in documentaries such as F. Percy Smith's Fight For the Dardanelles (1915):

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Fight For the Dardanelles (F. Percy Smith 1915)

Though manipulations of this kind have, in the twenty-first century, moved beyond the merely cinematic, the animated map remains the cinema's major contribution to cartography. The British Library's exhibition features two remarkable examples, McLaren and Biggar's Hell Unlimited (1936) and the opening sequence from Casablanca (1942), as testimony to that contribution.'

If you enjoyed this blog you'll enjoy the Maps & the 20th Century: Drawing the Line articles contained in our exhibition webspace. Roland-François Lack's Cine-tourist site is fantastic, and very easy to lose oneself in. I'd like to say a big thank you to Roland-Francois for all the advice he has provided on maps in film over the past 18 months.