Film Studies and the Spanish-American War


The commercial cinema was barely two years old when the United States declared war against Spain in April of 1898. Judging from the work of leading film historians, it would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the Spanish-American War to a fledgling American film industry in the wake of cinema's putative novelty year. In "Commercial Warfare and the Spanish-American War, 1897-1898," Charles Musser argues that "with the onset of the Spanish-American War the motion picture industry discovered a new role and exploited it, gaining in confidence as a result.... It was the ongoing production of a few firms [e.g., Biograph and Edison]," writes Musser, "that provided the commercial foundation for the American industry, and it was the war that gave this sector new life" (Emergence of Cinema 225).

Robert C. Allen has argued that the biograph became a "star attraction in vaudeville [during the Spanish-American War] as the American motion picture took on a new role: that of visual newspaper" (Vaudeville and Film 139):

The war film craze continued through the summer of 1898...[making the Spanish American War] probably the most propitious event in the early history of the American cinema.... Military subjects were featured at vaudeville houses in New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Providence, Toronto, Albany, Detroit, Milwaukee, Jackson (Michigan), and Paterson (New Jersey). (139)
In his history of movie presentation in the United States, Douglas Gomery (following Allen) also assigns Spanish-American War films a starring role in the pre-nickelodeon era:

The period commencing in 1897 and running into July 1899 saw films move into the forefront as acts in vaudeville theatres, boosted by the popularity of the Spanish-American War as variety entertainment. This era would prove to be the heyday of motion pictures in vaudeville theatres. At the time many thought movies would become a permanent part of the vaudeville show.... No genre of programming could be developed to match the consistent drawing power of the images of the Spanish-American War. (Shared Pleasures 16)
Finally, in her recent For the Love of Pleasure: Women, Movies, and Culture in Turn-of -the-Century Chicago, Lauren Rabinovitz argues that the "glut on the [motion picture] market might have led to movies' dismissal as only a passing fancy or fad had it not been for the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898" (107).

Although scholars of early cinema might disagree on matters of historiographic method or the validity of the "chaser theory," then, Spanish-American War films nonetheless constitute one area of "noncontradiction" among preeminent historians of the preclassical American cinema (see Allen "Contra the Chaser Theory," "Looking at 'Another Look' "; Musser "Another Look," "Musser's Reply to Allen"; Gomery "Historical Method and Data Acquisition").

Given the central importance of the Spanish-American War to the early film industry, it is surprising that the burgeoning field of early cinema studies has not yet examined the ideological implications of the cinema's role in the war's cultural production. Indeed, even explicitly political, ideological, and theoretical studies of early cinema--including those which draw from radical historiography, feminist theory, and poststructuralism--also fail to offer in-depth considerations of Spanish-American War films in their theoretical models of historical spectatorship. For instance, none of the contributors to the recent The Birth of Whiteness: Race and the Emergence of U.S. Cinema discuss the prenickelodeon period, although the editor does point out that "cinema's invention and early development coincided with the rise in power and prestige of biological determinism, with increased immigration and immigration restriction laws, and with the United States' imperialist practices in the Caribbean and Asia" (Bernardi, "Introduction" 7).

Similarly, the important works of Tom Gunning, Miriam Hansen, Lynne Kirby, Lauren Rabinovitz, and Robert Sklar mention the Spanish-American War only to support their more general arguments concerning the attraction, cultural appeal, ontological lure, etc. of early films. To offer just one example, Sklar's discussion of Spanish-American War films in Movie-Made America is limited to the following (slightly abridged) paragraph as part of his overview of the pre-nickelodeon period:

The War with Spain in 1898 gave regular film producers their first prime opportunity for spectacle. Patriotic fervor ran so high that it was easy to sense audience receptivity to films about the war, even if some were as obviously fabricated as a flag-raising before a painted backdrop, called by Edison Raising Old Glory Over Morro Castle (1899).... What was important was how filmmakers responded to the challenge of reproducing the war for the benefit of vaudeville audiences.... [T]he film medium showed itself capable of re-creating extreme moments of life and death for an audience safe in auditorium seats. (22)
While the aforementioned film scholarship is invaluable for increasing our understanding of the economic, technological, and aesthetic aspects of early American film production and exhibition, descriptions of Spanish-American War films--and their place in early cinema history--often present a nostalgic, romanticized, even quaint picture of a Spanish-American "[W]ar film craze" (Allen) that existed during cinema's early "heyday" (Gomery) when exhibitors exploited a "patriotic wave that tossed Biograph to new heights" (Musser, Emergence 241) and resolved class conflict and ideological differences. In their excellent study of traveling film exhibitor Lymon Howe, Charles Musser and Carol Nelson suggest that "[h]aving established a strong rapport with conservative Protestant groups[,]...[Howe] broadened his appeal and wooed those who preferred less righteous and ideologically constrained forms of diversion. The Spanish-American War gave him this opportunity." They go so far as to conclude that Lyman Howe's "War-graph" exhibitions "evoked a patriotic response that transcended conflicting attitudes manifested in the motion picture field during the previous year" (93).

Similar to earlier film studies scholarship concerned with The Birth of a Nation, then, new film historical treatments of the Spanish-American War have not yet explored in detail the cultural and ideological functions the film medium served during the war for Cuba. By leaving the messages and rhetoric of early war films largely unexplored, one could suggest, following Miriam Hansen, that accounts of Spanish-American War films "eliminate...the contingency of individual acts of reception [and] the hermeneutic constellation in which a historical spectator makes sense of what he or she perceives..." (Babel and Babylon 7). Only by bringing those concerns to the forefront of analysis can we begin to attempt to gauge the contribution of the cinema to the larger cultural production of the Spanish-American War in the United States.

The lack of sustained political and ideological commentary in many studies of Spanish-American War films is largely the result of practical decisions involved in setting one's methodological and critical priorities.

In order explore this problematic, the following general questions informed my research: 1) What types of Spanish-American War films were produced during the conflict? 2) Where and to whom were Spanish-American War films exhibited or not exhibited? 3) Is there evidence of salient regional differences among the contexts of reception of Spanish-American War films in the United States?

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