Magic in the Mist: Niagara Falls on Film

The natural wonder has been captured on film in many different ways since the invention of the medium.

Marilyn Monroe Niagara Movie

The natural wonder has been captured on film in many different ways since the invention of the medium.

“It is also plain water, thus plunging, will foam, and roar, and send up a mist, continuously, in which last, during sunshine, there will be perpetual rainbows. The mere physical of Niagara Falls is only this. Yet this is really a very small part of that world’s wonder. Its power to excite reflection and emotion, is its great charm” — Abraham Lincoln

Niagara Falls is one of the most famous natural wonders in the world. It only makes sense that it has appeared onscreen many times throughout the years. Niagara Falls has been featured in many different types of films, including traditional narrative films, travelogues, and of course documentaries. Each of these different forms of filmmaking offers a unique perspective on Niagara, in terms of the landscape, its mythical qualities, the culture surrounding it, and how humans interact with such a huge force of nature.

It is interesting to consider the connection between cinema and nature — is cinema able to accurately depict large-scale natural wonders such as Niagara Falls? Filmmakers can attempt to capture the mystical beauty of nature, but there will always be the human-made barrier of the camera and the screen between people and the natural wonders they wish to represent. In Jean Epstein’s essay “The Cinema Seen From Etna,” he describes the intense affect that the volcano Mount Etna (in Sicily, Italy) has on him, and notes that cinema is the perfect medium for capturing the sublime. Epstein argues that cinema is the medium best able to accurately portray nature because it captures movement and changes in real-time. Nature is always moving, and film cameras are able to perfectly capture these movements as well as the big scale of natural wonders.

In her book Niagara Falls: Icon of the American Sublime Elizabeth McKinsey argues that Niagara Falls represents a perfect example of “the sublime,” a term typically used during the Romantic Movement to describe intense human reactions to large and powerful forces, typically forces of nature. Much like Epstein describes Etna, Niagara Falls is a “great actor” with “grand extravagances.” McKinsey writes that the sublime is that which invokes both awe and terror in humans, natural wonders which both draw us closer and stop us dead in our tracks with fear. The term usually refers to forces of nature such as waterfalls, storms, rock formations like volcanoes and glaciers, and crashing ocean waves.

Marilyn Monroe Niagara Movie

Niagara (1953)/20th Century Fox

McKinsey writes that early European explorers initially reacted to the Falls with shock, awe, and disorientation. The heightened emotional reactions the Falls inspired also lead to many artistic representations over the years: paintings, engravings, novels, poems, songs, sculptures, and then eventually photographs and films. McKinsey quotes explorer Joseph Hadfield’s 1785 travel diary in which he writes that “no language can convey an idea of the grandeur and sublimity in the scenes before me” in reference to Niagara Falls. Following Epstein’s argument, cinema is the best medium for capturing the sublimity of Niagara Falls. Where language fails, cinematic images speak. No previous artistic representations could portray Niagara’s movements in real-time, while also representing its huge scale and powerful roaring sound. Artistic representations are just that — representations, and while cinematic depictions are filtered through cameras, sound equipment, and the editing process, the film comes closest to capturing real life as it is happening. This is especially powerful when applied to a huge, beautiful waterfall like Niagara.

Dominique Bregent-Heald writes that the earliest films to portray Niagara Falls capture its “transcendent qualities.” Depictions of Niagara in cinema can be traced all the way back to September 1896, shortly after the introduction of large-screen motion picture projection in Niagara Falls and France. Niagara was immediately considered a prime location to shoot films, due to its captivating beauty and popular appeal. Chances are, if a place is attractive to tourists, it will be attractive to film audiences. Bregent-Heald argues that the popularity of the Falls as a tourist attraction in the 19th century was inspired by the Romantic Movement. Painters, writers, and photographers were drawn to the Falls to produce romanticized versions of its beauty.

Bregent-Heald writes that early films showed the “sublime landscape” of Niagara in the 19th century when it was largely untouched by big businesses. Early films portraying the Falls fall into the category of the “cinema of attractions,” a term coined by film scholar Tom Gunning to describe the narrative style adopted by early filmmakers. The cinema of attractions refers to films which do not have narratives, nd focus on showing rather than telling. Usually, these films break the fourth wall and directly address the camera or the audience, and the camera remains static for the entire running time. In the late 1890s, there were not many human-made buildings or constructions around the Falls. Consequently, cameras would only capture the movement of the water and any tourists gazing into the gorge. Bregent-Heald notes that the speed of cinema as a modern technology was matched by the speed of the rapids, whirlpools, and waterfalls of Niagara.

Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1897 film Les chutes is a 45-second long short featuring a static long-shot of a section of Niagara Falls. Water cascades over the gorge, and it appears that there is water directly underneath where the camera is placed. Another section of the waterfall is visible towards the left of the frame and to the center of the frame. Further away from the camera, there is a patch of land — perhaps Goat Island — with tourists and travelers viewing the natural wonder from behind a fence. The tourists lean over the fence and point into the distance towards the water. It appears that strong winds blow the trees on the island. The appeal of films such as Les chutes is that they seemed like magic at the time — audiences could see the powerful movements of Niagara Falls without having to travel anywhere except to the local cinema.

The static camera captures the powerful movement of the Falls as water rushes over the edge, and the camera distance makes the tourists look tiny. The tourists point to the Falls and lean over the fence, while still keeping their distance in fear of falling over the edge of the cliff. They stand in awe at this natural wonder, yet are fearful of its power — this film captures reactions to the sublime, in motion. Cinema can capture the sublimity of nature, as well as the intense emotional reactions that these landscapes can evoke in humans.

When Henry Hathaway directed Niagara in 1953, the landscape had significantly changed since 1896 — both the physical landscape of Niagara and that of the film industry. Where Les chutes represents the early cinema of attractions, Niagara represents the classical Hollywood filmmaking style. The standardized practice at this time featured longer running times, narratives with beginnings, middles, and ends, characters, and constantly changing camera angles and movements. Regardless of the new mode of filmmaking, this film still portrays the Falls as sublime. McKinsey describes the sublimity of the Falls thusly: they are “vast, powerful, magnificent, obscured by mist, with an infinite succession of water and a loud roar”, inciting terror and awe in anyone who comes close.

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Marilyn Monroe in Niagara/20th Century Fox

Epstein writes that cinema “inscribes a bit of the divine in everything”, and that it is a place where “life itself is revealed.” Epstein’s claim applies to Niagara, despite the fact that it is a fictional narrative. Its narrative and fictional characters do not negate the way it portrays the sublimity of nature in motion. This film is set apart from Les chutes because the characters explicitly talk about their feelings about the Falls and constantly interact, and even find themselves in danger because of, the Falls’ power. The film portrays Niagara Falls in massive-scale, with colorful shots inscribing the “divine” into this natural wonder which is already considered divine.

 The film deals with human reactions to the Falls but uses Technicolor CinemaScope cinematography to do so. The CinemaScope technology represents the Falls’ sublimity on a big scale, giving viewers a more true-to-life view of what it is like to be in the presence of the Falls. The Technicolor process gives viewers a dazzlingly colorful view of the landscape. Bregent-Heald quotes a 1953 New York Times review in her essay, in which the critic claims that not even Marilyn Monroe’s star power can compete with the grand shots of the Falls. He writes that “however admirably constructed Miss Monroe may be, she is hardly up to competing visually with one of the wonders of this continent, and the cataract keeps stealing scenes from her.” The film certainly does play out as though it is a battle between Monroe’s beauty and talent and the intensity of the waterfalls.

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Jean Peters and Max Showalter in Niagara/20th Century Fox

The opening shot portrays George Loomis (Joseph Cotten) in an extreme long-shot standing at the base of the Falls, and he looks tiny compared to the giant waterfall. Although he stands a few feet away from the bottom of the Falls, he is completely drenched by the mist. He comments on the voiceover narration that he feels incredibly small, and remarks that the Falls have gotten by just fine without human intervention for thousands of years. George holds the view that humans are powerless before nature, and that the Falls are too big and powerful to be altered or influenced by humans. Epstein writes that Etna’s lava flow cannot be stopped by anyone — not lawyers, scholars, geologists, or engineers, and describes the lava flow as “glorious,” as it destroys everything in its path, setting trees on fire. This is similar to the way George describes Niagara to Polly (Jean Peters) later in the film, as he notes that once something is caught in the rapids, nothing except maybe “the hand of God” can stop it from going over the waterfall. He warns Polly not to let her love for Raymond (Max Showalter) get out of hand “like those Falls;” he has a pessimistic view of the world and uses the Falls as a metaphor for how powerless he feels.

Bregent-Heald notes that the Falls “present a unique blend of romance, danger, and passion,” and serve as the perfect backdrop for dramatic stories such as Niagara. She writes that historically, tourism guidebooks have described Niagara Falls as a place of romance and love, but also a place of suicides, and dangerous barrel and tightrope stunts. Therefore it represents both romance and terror, making it the perfect setting for a film noir such as Niagara. The Falls serve as a large-scale backdrop for the dramatic events that take place during the film — for example, Rose Loomis (Marilyn Monroe) is caught kissing another man (Richard Allen) while standing in the mist at the base of the Falls. Rose plans to murder George so she can be with her secret love, and make it look like he committed suicide by jumping over the Falls. The Falls serve as a backdrop for adultery and murder, and even take on a big role in the drama as the suspected cause of George’s death. Towards the end of the film, Polly and George end up on a boat sailing down the Niagara River, and only a helicopter — the deux ex machina/hand of God — can save Polly from going over the edge. Polly and Raymond go to Niagara for the honeymoon, but end up seeing the violent and terrifying aspects of the Falls.

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Niagara Falls (2006)/PBS

The 2006 television documentary film Niagara Falls, directed by Diane Garey and Lawrence Holt, portrays an “objective” history of the Falls. It is comprised of interviews with “experts” who share their perspectives on the landscape, including scholars, artists, and local residents. The documentary form allows Niagara Falls and its panel of experts to make “objective” claims about the landscape and the interaction between humans and the Falls. All of the interviews are conducted with the subjects standing in front of the Falls, therefore grounding the film in its location. Elizabeth McKinsey herself appears in the film, and while she describes early explorers’ terrified and awe-stricken reactions to seeing the Falls for the first time, the engravings she describes in her book are shown onscreen, showing an almost unrecognizable Niagara landscape.

The film also recounts the history of “daredevils,” those who attempted to prove their strength and bravery by tightrope walking over the Falls, or else traveling over the waterfall in a barrel. While humans have historically felt terror in the face of the Falls, some have also been so drawn to its power that they will put their lives in danger just to see if they stand a chance. The narrator of the film notes that of course, many people did not survive their stunts, or else ended up severely mentally or physically damaged. While Les chutes portrays the cautious attraction tourists have towards the Falls, Niagara Falls provides a look at those who throw caution to the wind and literally put themselves in the water — a risky endeavor if there ever was one. The sublime evokes intense reactions in humans, including extremely dramatic ones like being drawn to the danger.

The invention of cinema allowed people from all over the world to see the Falls in motion, up close. Epstein enthusiastically declared that cinema is the perfect medium for portraying nature, due to its “animism,” and its ability to show movement and changes in real-time. Niagara has appeared in many films over the years, and all of the different filmmaking forms provide a different insight into how humans interact with the Falls. Over the years, Niagara Falls has changed immensely, with more and more buildings such as hotels and casinos being constructed, and cinematic depictions have shown these changes over time. Artistic representations provide a linear timeline of how the Niagara landscape looks, but cinema is the only medium that captures people interacting with the Falls in motion. The romance, danger, beauty, and terror of the Falls provide a perfect backdrop for all kinds of films, whether they be independent films, experimental nature films, educational documentaries, classical narrative films, or short travelogues.

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Actual film school graduate from Toronto. Always thinking and writing about queerness, feminism, camp, melodrama, and popular culture.