The History of French Cinema – Part 1

French cinema might not be as well-known as that of America or Great Britain but in a way the pioneers of French cinema have shaped the film industry that we know today across the planet. The French can possibly claim to be the fathers of film, as a short fifty second French film called The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station was screened in 1895 and was the first to be publically shown.

This short and rather inconsequential snippet of film by the Lumiere Brothers started the creation of a whole new entertainment medium which we know today as cinema. This blog take a deserved look at the history behind French Cinema.

The Lumiere Brothers

A history of French cinema has to begin with the famous Lumiere Brothers, Auguste and Louis. They are recorded as two of the pioneers of film making and among the first in history. There is no doubt that their cinematograph was the first equipment that allowed several people to watch images at the same time. This differed greatly to the Edison’s kinetoscope which was a rudimentary device for a single person. Their interest in film came from their father who invented photographic plates and started a small business to manufacture them.

Georges Melies

Possibly the best known of all the French early cinematic pioneers was Georges Melies who not only made moving films, but they also had a storyline that the audience could follow via a descriptive narrative. An example of such a film is A Trip to the Moon, which is disputably the first science fiction film ever made. At the time of its production the short movie displayed many new cinematic effects that had never been displayed up to that time. This early world of French cinema was not only male dominated, Alice Guy-Blache became the first female filmmaker in the world.


1927 saw a landmark in French cinema as it was the date the epic six-hour film Napoleon was released. Produced by Abel Gance, it was an extraordinary film that dwarfed what had previously come before in cinematic terms. This large scale film extravaganza was the most lavish the world had ever seen and firmly put French film making on the world cinematic map. The original film seems lost forever but there has been a subsequent three hundred and thirty minute restored version that is still available to view. Film historian Kevin Brownlow has even included the final scenes in the three projector original format.

The War Years

The early 1900’s both pre-and post-WWI saw one of France’s most creative periods for film making. There was a surge of enthusiasm to create highly engaging short films with an avant-garde theme. Films such as A Propos de Nice, The Seashell and the Clergyman, Un Chien Andalou and Ballet Mecanique influenced a whole new generation of French film makers. We continue our journey to look back at the French film industry in part two of this blog when we look at the explosion of sound onto the French screens and how the talking movies captured the imagination of the French cinema viewers.