Spanish-American War Films


Blanket Tossing a New Recruit
Blanket Tossing a New Recruit
Soldiers Washing Dishes
Soldiers Washing Dishes
Rough Riders Embark
9th Infantry Boys' Morning
Wreck of the Battleship
Wreck of the Battleship Maine
Wreck of the Vizcaya
Wreck of the Vizcaya
Burial of Maine Victims
Burial of "Maine"
The technology of the telephoto lens touted in an Indianapolis News article anticipating "photos of the conflict" reappears in Edward Amet's later deceptive description of a Spanish-American War miniature of a naval battle in the July 2 New York Clipper. "The new TELESCOPIC LENS," the advertisment claims, "is a triumph of modern technology [which makes it] possible to obtain pictures at a very long range" (quoted in Musser, Emergence 256). These films were, according to Musser, Amet's "most successful and elaborate productions" (256)--perhaps more attractive and popular than films of the realities of military camp life like Blanket Tossing a New Recruit and Soldiers at Play, or an acted outdoor studio film like A Romp in Camp. Not surprisingly, Edison's "War Extra Catalog" tried to make even the most banal actualities of everyday camp life such as Soldiers Washing Dishes or 9th Infantry Boys' Morning Wash seem novel, exciting, and even exotic. The description for the latter states:

Imagine forty or fifty soldier boys each with a pail of water on the ground before him, sousing and spattering and scrubbing away for dear life. Soap and towels too. Every man jack of them looks as if he were enjoying the wash immensely, and also the novelty of having his picture taken. The big fellow in the center of the picture is laughing heartily. All the figures are clearly outlined, and the whole group is true to life.
Actualities of the U.S. battleship Maine and the Spanish ship Viscaya--e.g., Burial of the "Maine" Victims, Wreck of the Battleship "Maine", "Vizcaya" Under Full Headway, Wreck of the "Vizcaya"--had especially strong consumer appeal and consequently the battle among film companies for exhibitors to purchase these films was especially fierce.

While Stephen Bottomore contends that the lack of actual battle footage resulted in "some disappointment in the war films when they were screened back home" (30), he also insists that

[W]hether they were the genuine article or fakes, war films drew huge audiences and were enormously emotive. The impact of such films was often increased by the use of music, patriotic commentary, sound effects of explosions and the like.(32)
The power of these films could also have been increased by the exhibitor's arrangement of the films on the vaudeville bill. For instance, an exhibitor might show "before and after" pictures of the Maine and Viscaya or juxtapose films of the two ships against each other and conclude with Raising Old Glory over Morro Castle. At the same time, films were likely to be one act in a vaudeville program that might include patriotic songs, magic lantern slides of Cuba, a skit with a soldier going off to war, and so forth. Consequently, Spanish-American films were often only one component in the vertiginous excess of representations of war.

To a large degree, then, the films themselves can be located squarely within the dominant genres, style, and mode of reception of 1890s cinema, which Charles Musser sums up in Emergence of Cinema as follows:

Early cinema enjoyed a distinctive 'mode of reception'," [in which]. . .spectators understood and appreciated motion pictures regularly took one of three basic forms, none of which was privileged or preferred": [1)]. . ."the film's subject or narrative was often already known by the spectators; [2)]. . .the spectator might rely on the exhibitor to clarify the film's narrative or meaning through a live narration and other sounds (music, effects, even dialogue added by actors from behind the screen)[; and 3)] spectators might easily find themselves in a position where they had to understand the film story without recourse to either special knowledge or the exhibitors' aid. (3)
Musser explores the consequences of this mode of production and reception when he notes that early cinema's "representational system could not present a complex, unfamiliar narrative capable of being readily understood irrespective of exhibition circumstances or spectator's specific cultural knowledge." In practice, he writes, "a significant number of films left their viewers somewhat mystified and confused" (2). One can see how the Spanish-American War, more than other subjects, would lend itself this mode of reception, given the unambiguous and ubiquitous intertextual presence of the images, stories, parades, speeches, songs, plays, and other extratextual raw materials concerned with the war circulating throughout U.S. popular culture.

At the same time, while Spanish-American War films fit nicely into our understanding of the existing modes of film production, exhibition, and reception at the turn-of-the century, I would like to emphasize the overall militarization of existing genres and conventions during the war. For example, the characteristic assault on the audience exemplified by trains rushing toward the camera is replaced with soldiers on horseback charging at the spectator (as in Biograph's Roosevelt's Rough Riders) or newspaper journalists running toward and past the camera in War Correspondents. Similarly, fiction or acted films like A Romp in Camp, in which a woman reveals her stockinged legs to soldiers, are also part of Spanish-American War imagery, representing a militarized version of a trope in early cinema's mise-en-scene described by Constance Balides as the "scenario of exposure" exemplified by the staged actuality What Happened on Twenty-third Street, New York City (see Balides, "Scenarios of Exposure").

Like other scenes of everyday activities of military camp life, the actuality film Soldiers at Play (also staged for the camera) represents the further occupation of these genres by a masculinized and militarized mise-en-scene. Even George Méliès, the pioneer of the non-actuality genre of "trick films," produced at least one film inspired by the topicality of the Spanish-American War when he made an underwater reenactment of the Maine explosion shot with a model ship and an "aquarium swarming with sea plants and animals (L'explosion du cuirassé "Maine" en rade de la Havane [Gheorghui-Cernat 58]). According to Musser and Nelson, the Méliès film served as "a highly emotional catalyst" in Lyman Howe's 1898 War-Graph exhibitions (88-89).

September 1897
(Musser and Nelson)
September 1898
(Musser and Nelson)

During the Spanish-American War the various cinematic apparatuses battling for economic dominance in the 1890s were literally transformed into signifying war machines, standardized around the themes of imperialism and war. "The movies became so identified with war news," notes Allen, "that Edison renamed his Projecting Kinetoscope the 'Wargraph' for the duration of the hostilities" ("Movies in Vaudeville" 74). Other exhibitors provided similar, generic names for their projecting war machines (e.g., Warscope) through the turn of the century (Hollyman 190; Musser, "American Vitagraph" 42; Emergence 252). The transformation of Howe's prewar Animotiscope and the ubiquituous image of a train in September of 1897, to the War-Graph and a new cinematic icon of the battleship a year later, is symptomatic of the hypermilitarization of United States media culture during the Spanish-American War.

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