Directed by: James Williamson
On the surface, this is a simple story of firemen extinguishing a fire – somebody raises the alarm, they arrive at the scene, rescue people and put out the fire. In the context of film history, it established a concept of chronology by editing together multiple shots (both exterior and interior) into a coherent narrative.
Let’s break it down:
Shot 1: Exterior of the burning house. A policeman notices smoke coming from the house and attempts to alert its occupants. Not getting a reaction, he runs to get the fire brigade. This shot establishes the imminent danger.
Shot 2: Exterior of Hove Fire Brigade. The policeman alerts the fire brigade, who spring into action. Note that in the previous shot, he exited the frame to the right and in this one entered from the left, thus adhering to the 180° rule (which had yet to be formally established). They begin to harness horses to fire engines, which, to the audience, can’t happen quick enough – based on the previous shot, we know that there is a fire raging and potential casualties. There is now some suspense.
Shot 3: Exterior of a street. The fire brigade race down the street in a dramatic angle reminiscent of the Lumière brothers’ L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat / Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896). The audience haven’t seen the building from the first shot for a while and might be wondering what state it will be in once they arrive. The suspense is maintained.
Shot 4: Interior of a bedroom. A man wakes up and discovers smoke everywhere. He panics and tries to leave but there is fire everywhere. Again, audiences know the fire brigade are on their way but the question is – will they be in time? In despair, the man collapses in bed as a fireman breaks through his window, puts out the immediate fire and carries him to safety.
Shot 5: Exterior of the burning building. The man is carried to safety but continues to be in distress and has to be held back from running into the building. We are made to understand somebody else is inside and a fireman breaks through the front door and heads in. Moments later, he returns with a little girl and the man takes her in his arms and walks towards us and off-screen with a smile of relief on his face. It’s a happy ending but before the film ends completely, we get to see more firefighting and the firefighters catching a man who jumps from the window.
What separates this from the likes of Georges Méliès’ Cendrillon / Cinderella (1899) is that the latter more so consisted of vignettes that conveyed a story already known to the majority. With Fire!, James Williamson used multiple shots to convey the story of one central event.
(Edwin S. Porter built upon this narrative model in The Life of an American Fireman (1903).)
Brooke, M. (n.d.) ‘Fire! (1901)’, BFI screenonline. Available at: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/520632/index.html [Accessed: 11 January 2022].
IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘Fire! (1901)’, IMDb. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0000355/ [Accessed: 11 January 2022].
JEC (2020). ‘Fire! (1901)’, A Cinema History. Available at: http://www.acinemahistory.com/2020/03/fire-1901_24.html?view=classic [Accessed: 11 January 2022].