A History of Steampunk – Part 3: Exploration
In Part 2, I wrote about Steampunk’s origins in the Historical Fictions of the 19th century and its great-granddaddies (Verne, Wells, et/al) in the world of literature. However, as we reach the end of the Victorian age, our perspective needs to shift from the written word, and into the wondrous new world of motion pictures.
Early filmmakers began finding inspiration in sci-fi literature almost as soon as silent film became reality. The Georges Méliès directed A Trip to the Moon was loosely based on the works of two Steampunk granddaddies – From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne, and The First men in the Moon by HG Wells. An early version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea hit theatres in 1916.
However, as time wore on, the speculative Victorian fictions of Verne and Co started to become passé. The predictions they had made either came to pass (submarines and trans-oceanic balloon travel) or were debunked. The Scientific Romances of the 19th century ceased being futuristic and started looking like all those John Hughes movies I loved in the cold light of 2011 – horribly, HORRIBLY dated.
The first sci-fi film with a historical setting and anachronistic technology, and thus, by our earlier definition, the first true Steampunk film, was 1929’s Mysterious Island – an alternative history where the British reached the moon 75 years before Armstrong. Unfortunately, the film performed only slightly better than Battlefield Earth at the box office, and it would be many years before gun-shy studio execs greenlit another SP project.
In 1938, Orson Wells (only 22 years old at the time) adapted HG Well’s War of the Worlds into a now infamous 60 minute radio play, which resulted in widespread panic amongst his pre-WW2 audience. Of the 6 million listeners, an estimated 1.7 million believed it to be true.
The years after WW2 were a golden age for sci-fi, as audiences living in perpetual fear of the Atom began to explore their anxieties through tales of alien invasion, abduction and warfare. Classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet, and The Thing from Another World graced screens worldwide. Filmmakers began digging through the vaults for inspiration again. Remakes of Scientific Romances (such as 1953’s War of the Worlds) were produced, but the stories were re-worked with contemporary settings. Strangely, it took the creator of Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney himself, to re-introduce period piece sci-fi to audiences.
1954 saw the release of Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a historical sci-fi masterpiece which went on to usher in a new age of period-piece sci-fi. Journey to the Centre of the Earth, the Mysterious Island (animated by the legendary Ray Harryhausen) the Time Machine and Around the World in 80 Days all hit cinemas in quick succession. The Czech filmmaker, Karel Zeman, gave us The Fabulous World of Jules Verne in 1958 – a masterpiece of animation and film techniques, pushing the boundaries of anything created in the west.
However, by the end of the 60’s the paranoia born in the Atomic Age began to wane. By 1969, science fiction had become science fact, and man had taken his first steps upon the surface of the moon. Society was embroiled in revolutions about equality, sex, politics, and morality, and the romance of the Victorian era, with all its wide-eyed optimism and romance had never seemed further away.
It wasn’t until the late 70’s that we saw a rebirth, and eventual naming of that which became Steampunk.
Next Week – A History of Steampunk Part 4: Codification