Receptions of War


An article in the June 6, 1898, Indianapolis News entitled "Photos of the Conflict" suggests yet another interesting connection between the film industry, the news media, and the military while also providing valuable insights about potential films and audiences reactions to them :

The "Yanko-Spanko" war, as they call it in England, is to have its photographic side. . . . In fact, the Government is going to organize immediately a floating photographic studio, which will make pictures of every possible incident in the great conflict that is now beginning. It will be equipped, regardless of expense, with all kinds of apparatus and appliances for work of this description. Thus the history of the war with Spain will be recorded for the benefit of future generations not only in writing, but also in a vivid pictorial shape that will appeal to the understanding of the smallest schoolboy.
The photographic apparatuses include, among other things, an X-ray machine for taking "shadowgraphs" of bullet wounds and "photo-micrographic appliances" for creating a "pictorial record. . .of the greatest value to medical science. . .that will save suffering to others in the future." According to the "special Spanish-American War correspondent," the War Department planned to convert a vessel from the Brooklyn Navy, rename it the Relief, and send it to Cuba under the aegis of the Red Cross. While the reporter claims that "the government photographer selected to take charge of this work is not permitted to be mentioned at the present," it almost surely refers to pioneer roentgenologist Dr. William Gray, who eventually did serve in Cuba onboard the Relief during the Spanish-American War.

The Relief Dr. Gray on the Relief
The Relief
U.S. Naval and Shipbuilding Museum
Dr. Gray onboard the Relief in Cuba
Radiology Centennial, Inc.

More important for my purposes, the article claims Dr. Gray's "acquaintance with electricity will be of particular use in the management of the biograph or vitascope apparatus, by means of which it is hoped to get moving photographs of various interesting incidents of warfare. . . . By the help of . . . a new-fangled contrivanc[e] . . . called a 'telephotographoscope' . . . the expert in charge hopes to obtain satisfactory views of one or more of the battles at sea or possibly of the storming of Havana." The correspondent concludes by speculating on audience reactions to these hypothetical war films:

What a marvel, indeed, would be a moving photograph of a duel between two warships, American and Spanish, terminating, of course, in the destruction of the enemy's vessel, exhibited on a stereopticon screen before wildly enthusiastic audiences from Boston to San Francisco. How the enthusiastic American audiences aforesaid would yell if they could see with their own eyes that monument to medievalism, Morro Castle, actually falling into a heap of its own debris before the fire-vomitting guns of Admiral Sampson's fleet. Then, like the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight in its vitascope reproduction, they would behold the glorious performance again and again until satisfied that the Maine had been remembered sufficiently.

Amet's War Show
Amet's "War Show"
(Detail from photograph in
Emergence of Cinema [Musser])
At one point in the "Photos of the Conflict" article, the correspondent claims that the "[The Spanish-American War] is the first really scientific conflict that has been waged in the history of warfare," thus bringing together the additional legitimizing nineteenth century discourses of medical and military science with a discussion of photographic apparatuses. The status of the cinematic apparatus as a scientific instrument can also be traced to its basis in photography, which, as early as 1839, Francois Arago had aligned with the latest scientific instruments, e.g., the telescope, microscope, hygrometer, barometer, and thermometer (Winston, "The Documentary Film" 37-40). More important for my purposes, however, this exposition of cinema as both a machine of communication and a scientific tool is accompanied by a giddy anticipation of the new medium's novel ability to project motion pictures of real battles for the viewing pleasure of American consumers across the country. This explicit elision of war actualities with sports contests and entertainment (i.e. The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight) was facilitated by the
overwhelming popularity of the war in many parts of the U.S.--especially in light of Admiral Dewey's decisive naval victories and the sensationalist war propaganda in many U.S. newspapers. Accounts of audience reactions to Spanish-American War films suggest that the Indianapolis News reporter's vision of ecstatic fans cheering on "our side" in the Spanish-American "War Show" (as Edward Amet would name his exhibitions and communally remembering the Maine became a reality in many vaudeville theaters across the United States.

This fascinating treatise on imaging technologies is informed by the nineteenth century belief in photographic objectivity and in the inherent realism of motion pictures. Film was especially privileged in this regard because it could render visible "living pictures" of reality in motion. In the particular scenario of reception envisioned by the war correspondent, the movies offer Americans for the first time unmediated access to real history in the making, and, unlike written history--which requires adult-like contemplation and intellectual introspection--filmed history can simply be intuited even "by the smallest school boy," offering a transparent window to the world.

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