Growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, epic snowball fights were pretty much a daily ritual in the winter. You have to do something with the 200+ inches of snow that fall each year and after using it to build giant forts, dangerous ski jumps and effigies of Heikki Lunta, the mythical Finnish snow god of the U.P., there was nothing left to do except throw it at each other.
In any winter warfare skirmish that typically involved 10-20 of us kids in the neighborhood, alliances were forged, risks were taken, and allegiances were broken in the cutthroat free-for-all battle of balled flakes whipped at each other. There were always lots of laughs, but sometimes tears, too, when someone panked a snowball a little too tightly and it “accidentally” hit someone in the face like a small missile.
I was instantly transported back to those cold, carefree days when I came across this splendid little film from 1896, Bataille de boules de neige (also called Snowballing and Snowball Fight), directed and produced by French engineer and industrialist Louis Lumière. Louis and his brother, Auguste, who were among the first filmmakers in the world, invented a cinematograph, which allowed an audience of more than one person to see a moving picture for the first time. The cinematograph was an immediate success and the brothers eventually went on tour with a series of ten short French films, each lasting about 50 seconds long, including Snowballing, which was filmed on the streets of Lyon, France.
It makes me smile, and it’s sure to bring a smile to your face, too, even if you’ve never had a snowball biffed at your head.
The original black-and-white film is herky-jerky because of the low frame rate and also silent; clips of it today usually have jaunty faux-vaudeville music accompanying the action, like this one (to get the full effect of the original, just mute the video):
Dmitriy Badin of Saint-Petersburg, Russia, recently upgraded the historic footage much further and colorized it, cleaned it up and adjusted the speed. The result is surprisingly modern. (Coincidentally, there actually was a modern snowball fight that broke out in New York last week.) In the original footage, facial features and clothing are somewhat distorted by the antiquated technology, but Badin’s video is so clear that you can see the smiling and laughing, and details on garments. Whether you agree with colorizing old films or not, Badin’s version really brings so much more life to it:
Lumière’s film shows 52 seconds of joyful carnage made by around 15 people, who may have been workers from a nearby factory taking a break. Men in suits and hats and women in long puffy sleeves, petticoats and bustles, their skirts protected by aprons, fiercely and cheerfully chuck compacted snow at one another. The combatants start on either side of the street, but soon they end up all scrambled together in what is like a gracefully choreographed ballet of annihilation. Fighters swivel and dodge and stoop down to reload; heads disappear behind explosions of snow; alliances form and disband; brave fighters suddenly slip and fall.
A man with an impressive black mustache fires a cheap shot - a wild fastball - at another man not paying attention; but the other man gets his revenge on mustache man by walloping a snowball on his thigh. The women are no slouches, either. It looks like one of them may have multiple snowballs stuffed into her apron so that she can fire an unrelenting barrage of cold missiles at her targets. A gentleman in a fancy hat and long coat looks like he may have just stepped out of a bank meeting, yet he jumps into the childish street warfare with glee.
As all of this is going on, there are those two gentlemen in the background who just stand there watching the melee, not tempted to join in and thinking who knows what.
Then there is the cyclist. Right from the start, you can see him coming and gliding smoothly toward the fray. Before he even reaches the crowd, he starts to take distant fire, yet he rides on with resolve. When he arrives, all the warring factions turn to unite against him, unleashing a snowy cyclone. The cyclist takes hard shots to his arm, face, neck and back. Still, he hunches his back and bravely pedals forward stoically, intent on gliding through the battle and determined to reach the safety of the other side. But he can’t. He absorbs one blow too many and folds to the ground - his legs flying up in the air, his hat whipping off his head.
Before he can even get up, the cyclist is ambushed again and someone even tries to steal his bike, but he stands and rips it away, then hops back on, retreating, pedaling off the way he came - leaving his hat behind.
This madcap gem from 125 years ago is proof that we are all connected throughout time and space, and forever captures a moment of youthful exuberance before world wars and disconnection. It shows us a world where adults took the time to play. To Louis Lumière and all of those big kids at heart, merci beaucoup.